June 1, 2020

Four lessons from the life of Father John Rausch

Four lessons from the life of Father John Rausch

Advocate for environmental justice left legacy of creativity and community

By Margaret Gabriel

Glenmary Father John Rausch lived his priesthood advocating for justice in Appalachia. His sudden death at age 75 on Sunday, Feb. 9 left the Church and the communities he served with the challenge of carrying on his work, especially in care for creation, where his advocacy included leadership of the diocesan Laudato Si’ Commission, from its establishment in 2018 until his death.

In 2007, Pax Christi USA named Father Rausch a “Teacher of Peace,” adding him to a list that includes Dorothy Day and Sister Helen Prejean. Chairwoman Judy Coode said, “What brings peace is tied directly to ecological issues.” Father Rausch lived every day as a Teacher of Peace. He taught the following lessons with creativity, passion and his simple lifestyle.

In 2007, Pax Christi USA named Father Rausch a “Teacher of Peace,” adding him to a list that includes Dorothy Day and Sister Helen Prejean. Chairwoman Judy Coode said, “What brings peace is tied directly to ecological issues.” Father Rausch lived every day as a Teacher of Peace. He taught the following lessons with creativity, passion and his simple lifestyle.

1. Think (and live) outside the box. Fellow Glenmarian Father Neil Pezzulo said perseverance set Father Rausch firmly outside the box and is the quality he most appreciated about his friend. “He went to Appalachia and stayed,” Father Pezzulo said. “Preachers and politicians and government programs came and went, but John came and stayed. He walked with the people and prayed for the people, but mostly he prayed with the people.”

Todd DePriest, mayor of Jenkins, Ky., a town in Letcher County created by the Consolidation Coal Company, met Father Rausch when the two conducted a listening session concerning the need for repairs on Elkhorn Dam. “You could tell he really had a heart for Eastern Kentucky,” DePriest said.
“He could hear the heart of Christ in the people he advocated for,” said Benedictine Sister Kathleen Weigand. “He championed people with black lung, people who have been affected by mountaintop removal.”

2. Everybody has something to contribute. Franciscan Sister Robbie Pentecost said it was not unusual to see someone walk out on one of Father Rausch’s homilies. But sometimes people would stay after Mass to tell him they didn’t agree with one — or more — of his points. He delighted in finding common ground, Sister Pentecost said. “He saw that people had to change their hearts, not their heads.”
Father Rausch believed everyone could make a contribution and surrounded himself with people with a variety of backgrounds and insight. Sometimes that was on a team or a committee, but more often around his dinner table. The meals he prepared were simple but legendary. Father Pezzulo described the unusual mix of people one might find gathered at 5 p.m. in Father Rausch’s small Powell County home: “It might be a Ph.D. or a farmer with a second-grade education. Or both.” Everyone worked together to prepare the meal.

Former Kentucky State Rep. Jim Wayne first met Father Rausch when both attended Maryknoll College. “He built community around that table,” Wayne said. “It was a masterful skill.”

3. You can live without a cell phone. A phone call was answered with “Hello, this is John,” or a recording: “This is John Rausch in Stanton, Kentucky.” His upbeat voice told where he was, when he expected to be home, closing with, “Let’s keep working for peace.” This was his landline. Although a friend gave him a cell phone, it was rarely charged. When he did use it, it was to make calls. He didn’t text, check email, take pictures or use Google, at least not on his phone. Father Rausch communicated with email in addition to his landline, but he preferred to connect in person, often around his dinner table.

4. Community is key. His gift for hospitality grew out of Father Rausch’s reverence for community. “John loved preaching and saying Mass,” said Sister Pentecost. “But his real ministry was connecting people in community.” Father Rausch died several weeks before the coronavirus quarantine. Sister Pentecost said social distancing “would have driven John crazy!” but added that he would have valued the opportunity to slow down, pause and renew. “He would like giving people the opportunity to look at things in a new way,” Sister Pentecost said. “But he would really hate that no one was coming to dinner.”