Everyday Heroes: Fighting for the poor, protecting the land is life’s work for priest

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By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist
 

This story is taken from Steve Flairty’s 2008 book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes. Since the story was written, Father John Rausch has continued to work on issues of social justice, including the mining practice of mountaintop removal, and shared messages aimed at uplifting the people and land of Eastern Kentucky. He will retire in September as director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, which he led for eight years.
 

Father John Rausch (Photo provided)

Father John Rausch (Photo provided)

“Everyone should have enough … to be more.”
 

At first, you might scratch your head at that statement. Odd, simplistic, possibly cryptic in nature. But for Father John Rausch, who spoke the words, his elaboration began to bring a little clarity to the reporter on a cold, January day while he served soup and sandwich.
 

“Think about it,” said the Catholic priest. “If you were sitting there thinking about your hunger pangs and where you were going to eat later, you and I wouldn’t have a very good exchange here, would we?” Rausch extended the thought.  
 

“Having enough frees people to achieve more, to be more. The market system always rewards the strongest, the smartest. What happens when someone is not smart, they’re aged, they’re not so good looking? Because people are created in the image of God, they all deserve to have enough. Enough food, adequate housing and good healthcare, so they don‘t have to worry about those things. Then they can be more.”
 

Dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt sans religious collar, the Stanton priest spoke in an even, deliberate voice. He moved on to the subject of protecting “God’s beauty of creation”—the land. He talked of Eastern Kentucky’s disappearing mountaintops (as coal is extracted after basically removing the summits from selected mountains) and the residual, negative effects on its Appalachian people.
 

“At McRoberts, in Letcher County, there had only been one major flood since 1957. Because of mountaintop removal, since the year 2000 there have been five major floods,” stated Rausch.
 

As the conversation continued over a fine meal (Rausch is a gourmet cook), the reporter developed the sense that the priest’s love of the common folk, the appreciation for the landscape, and a perception of Eastern Kentucky’s needs are paramount in his thought process.
 

Rausch also exudes hope, an apparently undying belief that people can “come together” and make the world better.
 

Using his forum as the coordinator of the Office of Peace and Justice for the Diocese of Lexington and the director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, plus being a card-carrying priest in the Glenmary society, Rausch challenges his Catholic brethren, plus others who would listen, to look out for the needs of those who are shut out from resources taken for granted by many in America.
 

He promotes discussions, educates, and cajoles his audiences about the need to take better care of our earth. He does so by adapting a dignified respect for the ones who disagree with him, by looking for commonality in goals, and using a variety of ways to deliver the message. Rausch has been called by journalist Jean Sammon “a prophet in Appalachia.” Sammon, writing for a Catholic social justice organization, NETWORK, said “Though he lives, works and thinks in Kentucky, his thoughts reach a global audience through his writings and workshops.”
 

A Philadelphia native, Rausch was transplanted via the Catholic Church into the Appalachian area of Kentucky more than 30 years ago. He has stayed, growing more passionate about the people, the culture and the geography—despite the chronic obstacles the region faces: poverty, lack of good job opportunities, low school achievement and environmental concerns.
 

He has used his master’s degree in economics as a credible background to teach his passion. In his writings as a columnist, or talking to groups or individuals, Rausch offers his dreams for the area’s future. “We can improve our economy and help our people have more choices. I would like to see more communal type places. Places where people live closer and help each other out. I hope to see a cleaner environment. Appalachia could become a place of spiritual rebirth, where there is a renewal of common sense and a decent way to live,” he said.
 

Rausch gives regular tours of Eastern Kentucky, often as many as five per year. Typically, about 15 individuals travel with Rausch as they make visits to such diverse sites as Eula Hall’s Mud Creek Clinic, which accepts medical patients regardless of their ability to pay, or the David School, a school where young people with limited financial resources and a need for alternative educational practices can succeed.
 

The Rausch convoy might be spotted near a mountain scarred by questionable mining practices or where frequent flooding has occurred. He may lead a group to a small herb farm, or to a craft shop, or maybe even at a small, Catholic church along the road.
 

Rausch’s aim is to provide authentic awareness of modern mountain life in Kentucky, and that includes both the good and the bad. “At the end of the day, I ask my guests questions like ‘What did you see?’ ‘How does this fit what you expected to see?’ Many come from other parts of the country, and they take back home some ideas they can use. I view many economic problems of Appalachia as a microcosm of the whole country.”
 

Rausch talked about one tangible result of the leadership effort. “A strong Republican, a real conservative, went along on one of our tours. When I asked for an evaluation, he asked to think about it and get back with me later. When he did, he told me he was changing his platform in regard to solving some specific problems here. He felt now like there was a way for the government to be of help.”
 

Rausch’s writings frequently confront issues of worldwide debate: the bloodletting in Darfur, global warming and the easy accessibility of guns as a strong factor in violence in America. Economic justice appears on the agenda continually, especially as it affects people’s behavior and sense of pride. In a recent column, he noted that “the widening income gap leaves those left behind feeling like losers.” Rausch is straightforward, but dignified and respectful, in railing against corporate exploitation and the waste of the world’s resources.
 

Wherever Rausch speaks, he stresses the essentiality of relationships, or true community. He frequently sends verbal zingers to his audience, typically designed to make people think harder and to examine entrenched notions, such as the adage “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” Rausch answers by stating, “There is no such thing as a self-made man. All profit is social profit. One must have the help of others to succeed economically.”
 

In a recent column, the priest decried the use of bottled water worldwide, where the empties have become an environmental concern. Noting both the healthiness of drinking water and the profit involved, he remarked that he would be “pilloried from both the left and right.”
 

He has been regularly criticized by coal company executives who aren’t happy with Rausch’s stand against mountaintop removal. After one Pike official made it clear he didn’t think Rausch knew what he was talking about, the priest suggested a meeting to talk about the issues involved.
 

“The first time we met, things didn’t go well between our two groups,” said Rausch, “so when we met again, I hired a mediator to moderate the meeting. it went better, and, in the end, we agreed to disagree. Now, every time I go down to Pikeville to speak, I’m received well even though not everyone agrees on issues. We can get things done when there is good feeling toward each other. That’s the power of human relationships.”
 

As a Glenmary priest, of which members number about 60, Rausch’s objective is to show, and help offer, the Catholic faith in small towns around Eastern Kentucky where there has not previously been a large presence. Through his work for the Office of Peace and Justice, he speaks “about 35 times per year in the Lexington Diocese, where I can say things that the church’s regular priest might find uncomfortable to say.” He is highly sought after as a speaker. He was named the 2007 Pax Christi USA “Teacher of the Year Award,” and his insights on social and environmental issues are often quoted in Catholic and secular publications.
 

Father John Rausch’s message to uplift the people and land of Eastern Kentucky and beyond marches on, despite angering many with opposing political viewpoints. He passionately preaches his message from the barren mountaintops—and the flooded valleys. Carefully, patiently, articulately—and continually—the good priest paints insightful word pictures and acts as an individual model of a world he sees where all will be treated with wholly dignified respect, and the land they trod is deliberately and lovingly tended.
 

flairty

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author, including his most recent, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. He will soon be a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. Contact Steve at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)
 

For more from Steve Flairty, click here.

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