By Margaret Gabriel
The Catholic Committee of Appalachia held its Annual Gathering via teleconference Sept. 17-19. The event was originally planned to be held at the Foley Center in Martin, Ky., but with the summer surge of the pandemic, planners reluctantly decided to meet remotely. CCA coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope, welcoming participants on Friday night, reported that despite the limits that have been imposed because of the pandemic, CCA has been able to continue its mission since its 2020 Annual Gathering, also a virtual meeting.
Planning for the 2021 Annual Gathering was completed by the Kentucky chapter of CCA, a committee that was assembled by Glenmary Father John Rausch before his death in February 2020. Father Rausch, CCA director from 2005 to 2013, was an activist and economist; in his memory, the committee selected “Making a Transition to a Just Economy” as the focus for the gathering.
Professor Jeffrey Sachs delivered the keynote address for the gathering on Saturday morning. Professor Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, opened his remarks saying how much he values his work with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences because of the collaboration between scientists and theologians, particularly in matters of climate change.
“I cherish Pope Francis and his leadership” in the publication of Laudato Si’ in 2015 and its focus on the needs for interdependence. Laudato Si and its sister encyclical Fratelli Tutti (2020) “guide us in what we need to be doing,” he said.
Climate scientists, he said, debunk claims that discount the severity of climate change. “They tell me, ‘Jeff, it worse than we thought!’ We have to act together because if it’s left to the free market, it’s left a mess,” Sachs said.
He was encouraged by cooperation of 193 governments that adopted the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “I give technical advice on how the goals can be achieved,” Professor Sachs said. “I express in political terms what Pope Francis calls for in spiritual terms.”
The United States, he said, is trapped in political conflict rather than problem-solving, although “We have ways to make a much better world.”
Sachs said there are 2,700 billionaires in the world with a total wealth of $15 trillion dollars. “I have it on good authority, that you don’t need more than a billion dollars to live a good life,” he said to a screen filled with laughing faces and shaking heads.
“People with wealth should help people who are struggling,” Professor Sachs said. “That’s the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Despite the pandemic, the United States is experiencing a boom of wealth. Using that wealth with fairness can modernize infrastructure, schools and food distribution, focusing on the common good rather than personal wants and desires.
Sachs called himself a “big proponent of global cooperation,” bemoaning the amount of money that is spent on wars without any results. I want to solve the world’s problems with cooperation rather than confrontation. Pope Francis knows how to bring people together. We have to listen and discern,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper.”
“In Appalachia, we call that ‘porch sittin’,” said Benedictine Sister Kathleen Weigand who served as moderator for the keynote. “How can we work for economic justice locally?” she asked.
“Make a link between federal dollars and the local community,” he said, in order to get resources into the hands of the people. “Appalachia is in need of these programs and the call needs to come from community groups. Politicians should be looking out for you, not for million-dollar donors and we need those priorities to come from the community.”
A panel discussion followed featuring Shane Barton, the Promise Zone Downtown Revitalization Coordinator; Sister Kathy Curtis, a member of the executive committee of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth; and Gerry Roll, chief executive officer of Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.
Roll said that for many years, she worked for a group that addresses homelessness, child care and food security. “And those things are vital, but we have to stop treating symptoms. We need to first build community. That’s our best asset.”
Sister Curtis, who first came to Kentucky in 2005 said, “What’s not to love about Appalachia? It’s about people before anything else.”
Even during the months of the pandemic, she said, KFTC has been involved in “deep canvassing,” having conversations about climate change. “We asked people, ‘have you been affected by fire or flood?’ In eastern Kentucky lots of people are affected by floods! Our porch-sitting always involves clipboards, but now we also had masks and were socially distanced.”
Sister Curtis pointed out the importance of hearing people’s voices and concerns. “In Kentucky we must talk to local politicians and we have to be politically informed. The Church is running with politics, but politics needs to be running with the church. The people who can do that are us,” she said.
In the afternoon, the gathering featured breakout sessions that focused on a variety of methods of transition to a just economy, including agriculture, community organizing and preservation of land and wildlife.
At its Annual Gatherings, CCA recognizes the work of activists and organizers in Appalachia. In 2021, Benedictine Sister Judy Yunker, who first came to eastern Kentucky in a response to “This Land is Home to Me,” and Jerry Hardt, a long-time member and voice of Kentucky for the Commonwealth, were recognized with the Bishop Walter Sullivan Award. Bishop Sullivan, who died in 2012, was the longest serving bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, Va., and the longtime CCA bishop liaison.
Grow Appalachia received the 2021 FOCIS award, which recognizes grassroots economic efforts; the Chris Hale Environmental Award went to Chris Barton in recognition of Green Forest Works and its efforts to plant regenerative trees around the world.
Bishop John Stowe celebrated the closing liturgy on Sunday morning and asked the Lord “to take the work of our hands and transform the world. I pray that we can be faithful to God as God is faithful to us.”
The Catholic Committee of Appalachia is a member-based organization that, since 1970, has raised a prophetic voice to stand in solidarity on issues important to members. Among the issues that CCA has addressed in its 50-plus years are mountain-top removal, labor, sustainable lifestyles and clean water.
The committee has published and distributed three pastoral letters. The sub-title of the 1975 pastoral letter, “This Land is Home to Me,” is “a pastoral letter on powerlessness in Appalachia by the Catholic bishops of the region.”
The subsequent letters, “At Home in Web of Life,”  and “The Telling Takes Us Home”  build on the themes that were established in the 1975 letter and were referenced as part of the 2021 Annual Gathering.