“Both beauty and destruction call us to prayer.”— Father John Rausch

Pine Mountain, a ridge that runs for more than 100 miles and includes some of the highest elevations in Kentucky, is revered for its relatively undisturbed terrain and beauty—an embodiment of the Appalachian Mountain ecosystem. Pine Mountain contains almost no coal but yields startling views of neighboring mountains in the eastern Kentucky coalfields that are being devastated by a particularly predatory form of coal mining. On a September day in 2010, more than 75 people from across Appalachia gathered at a site on Pine Mountain for an ecumenical prayer service, “The Cross in the Mountains,” to protest the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. The service was organized by Father John Rausch, a Catholic priest in Appalachian Kentucky who directs the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA). Father Rausch views his fight against this environmentally destructive mining practice as “Holy Spirit work.”

Mountaintop removal (MTR) is a radical form of surface coal mining that has expanded rapidly during the last twenty years. MTR blasts off the tops of mountains, often as much as a thousand feet deep, to reach multiple coal seams that either are too thin to be extracted by conventional means or  can be mined more cheaply by this method. As massive machinery and blasting replace underground labor, coal production is nearing all-time heights in the region but with only a small fraction of the former coal mining workforce. Kentucky is the third largest coal-producing state in the United States, yet today Appalachian Kentucky has less than 15,000 miners employed in the industry. Touted by the coal industry as a boon to economic development, MTR actually eliminates jobs and has devastating effects on the local environment. More than 500 mountains and one million acres have been affected and nearly 2,000 miles of streams have been harmed or buried as the overlying soil and rock formations have been pushed off the sides of mountains into “valley fills.” These fills cover the headwaters of Appalachian streams and rivers, killing micro-organisms that biologists claim are essential to food chains and the health of down-steam waters. The loss of trees and top soil has been shown to cause increased annual flooding and hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage. In some Appalachian counties MTR has ravaged between one-fourth and one-fifth of the surface.

Citizens living in communities near MTR operations report cracked house foundations, dried-up wells, impure and highly toxic drinking water, dust and noise pollution, mudslides, and the loss of wildlife habitat, property values, jobs, and lives. They have also documented severe and life-threatening health problems including: asthma; cancer; heart, lung, and kidney disease; and birth defects that have been substantiated in more than 20 recent scientific studies.  

In the wake of such fundamental, man-made alteration to the earth, people in the region have responded with a creative mix of faith and political activism. “The Cross in the Mountains” protest was sponsored by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia with help from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. It was a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross within sight of an active MTR operation. Protestants, Catholics, and non-believers alike carried small, handmade wooden crosses bearing slogans about MTR’s destructiveness to symbolize Jesus’ long, arduous walk to his crucifixion. In following the traditional form of the Catholic ritual, participants stopped at make-shift stations to commemorate the steps leading to the crucifixion. The traditional theological meanings associated with each station were recast to illustrate the suffering caused by the practice and consequences of MTR. Examples included: “Jesus Takes Up His Cross: Corporate greed abuses the people and the land;” “Jesus Falls for the First Time: Water pollutes the streams and rivers;”Jesus Meets His Sorrowful Mother: Earth mourns her destruction;” “Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross: Religious leaders and friends of creation speak out;” “Jesus Dies on the Cross: Death stalks our land in many forms;” and,The Resurrection of Jesus: Hope springs from sustainable jobs and lifestyles.” At the end of the service a huge cross, with a heart-shaped lump of coal affixed to its center with barbed wire, was erected in view of the MTR operation and flowers were laid at its base.

In an article he wrote for the volume Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate, Father Rausch reflected on this interfaith effort. “In the end, The Cross in the Mountains crystallized nearly a decade of public prayer by using a traditional devotion,” he wrote. “It combined elements of a demonstration, a celebration, and a time of prayer that meant conversion for some and a deeper commitment for others. The way to the heart seldom seems paved with facts and figures. That path appears filled with spiritual moments that, with the help of public prayer and symbol, deepen the presence of God among us.”

John Rausch entered seminary in 1963 when he was 18 years old. He joined the Glenmary Home Missioners, which had a project to convert people who lived in U.S. counties lacking a Catholic presence. As he cooked supper for us in his sunny yellow kitchen last year, Father Rausch smiled, recalling the Glenmary motto that drew him in: “Pioneering No Priestland, USA.” But then Vatican II intervened in this apostolic impulse. It reoriented the Catholic Church, as he said, “to bring about the salvation of the social order.” Vatican II sent Father Rausch, like so many other Catholics, in search of social justice. He described his own transformation with characteristic self-deprecating humor: “When I joined Glenmary I was very holy. I spent five hours on a Sunday in chapel. We were required to do three.”

A veteran of more than 35 years of social justice organizing in Appalachia, Father Rausch spends fewer hours in chapel these days but more time in venues that are more unusual for a Catholic priest: testifying at Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) hearings, debating coal executives, leading tours of mountaintop removal sites, and collaborating with evangelical Protestants who share a Christian perspective on environmentalism. In these varied settings he “enjoys his spiritual struggles with God.” What guides him in his deliberations is the Holy Spirit whose voice, he says, resides in the “cries of the poor” and “the people who are hurting” and is manifested in responses of compassion and solidarity. “Sometimes human law, human actions, human institutions can maul people.” But he believes the Holy Spirit will ultimately prevail in the MTR conflict. This belief propels him forward.

The primary vehicle for this work, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), is funded by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but Rausch attributes his ability to carry out his mission to his status as a “gadfly” and his allegiance to the Glenmary commitment to “social ministry.” Untethered to a particular parish, Rausch offers his services as, what he jokingly calls, a “rent-a-priest,” and travels throughout eastern Kentucky preaching to Catholic congregations in Wolfe, Powell, Morgan, Magoffin, Floyd, Owsley, and Lee counties where he finds sympathy for his anti-MTR position. In addition, Father Rausch has sought a larger audience by publishing numerous essays that outline a theological response to environmental justice and MTR and by helping to produce a video, “Climate Change: Our Faith Response.” However, he has best galvanized the religious response to MTR in Kentucky by leading ecumenical religious services to celebrate God’s creation of the mountains and to condemn their destruction.

Father Rausch believes in the power of public prayer. But, as he quips in Sacred Acts, “In order for God to hear our prayer more clearly, we [will invite] the Associated Press .” He readily calls upon a variety of political organizing tools in his anti-MTR work. For example, Father Rausch led a groundbreaking interfaith tour of MTR for clergy and laypeople in 2007. It was co-sponsored by CCA and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the state’s largest grassroots citizens’ organization. Included among its participants were the leaders of three national evangelical environmental organizations (A Rocha/USA, Restoring Eden, and the Creation Care Study Program) as well as Allen Johnson, a founder of Christians for the Mountains (CFTM), an evangelical activist network in West Virginia . The two-day tour in Appalachian Kentucky included airplane flyovers to view the extent of MTR, a formal public hearing to air diverse perspectives on its effects, and an informal meeting at a small Pentecostal church to solicit additional comments from local residents. On the last day of the tour, participants devoted a number of hours in conversation to plan a prayer vigil overlooking an MTR operation and to write an “Interfaith Statement on Mountaintop Removal.” As the group looked out at what were once ridge tops but by then had been reduced to a winding trail of decapitated mountains, Father Rausch offered the interfaith statement, his voice at times nearly drowned out by the sound of nearby blasting: “As people of faith from varied religious traditions, we assembled in the Central Appalachian coalfields to hear the pleas from local people. Many of our brothers and sisters, living in the midst of natural beauty and extensive mineral wealth, do not share the abundance of the land, but instead experience their lives endangered and their area threatened by mountaintop removal.” He concluded: “We return to our homes enriched by the beauty of the mountains and their inhabitants, determined to live more fully with care of creation. As we travel through these mountains, these words sing in our hearts: ‘May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord be glad in these works!’”

Religious activists are far from alone. The Appalachian anti-MTR movement is one of the most vigorous and effectively coordinated, place-based environmental justice movements in the United States. As recently as 2006, the journalism watchdog Project Censored ranked MTR in the top ten national underreported news stories. But activists have done much since then to bring media attention to the issue by coordinating efforts across states lines. They have staged demonstrations in state capitols and in Washington, D.C., testified before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, and developed an Internet campaign, ilovemountains.org, which deploys interactive satellite maps, videos, and personal testimony to convey the impacts of MTR on local communities and the environment .

Partly in response to pressure from Appalachian activists, the EPA has begun to enforce the mandates of the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts more vigorously than was the case during the George W. Bush administration, including the agency’s obligation to regulate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Along with cheap natural gas prices, the EPA’s new emission standards for mercury and other toxins are leading to the retirement of old, dirty coal-burning power plants. And, the EPA has begun to slow down the MTR permitting process to allow more thorough review of the pollution impacts of mining.

The coal industry, however, has declared these environmental efforts a “War on Coal.” Its multi-million dollar campaign of public relations, litigation, lobbying, and political contributions has helped to shore up coal’s support among prominent coalfield politicians and played an important role in the 2012 election. In Kentucky, the loss of U.S. Representative Ben Chandler’s congressional seat has been widely attributed to coal industry advertising, even though Chandler’s district includes no coal mining. In West Virginia, a coal industry sign along the interstate highway proclaimed the area to be “Obama’s No Jobs Zone.” In a stock email, dated June 18, 2012, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul responded to voters who had queried his position on the coal industry by writing that the “Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are purposefully and aggressively destroying the coal industry in the United States.” He promised his constituents: “Rest assured that I will continue my fight to rein in the overzealous agenda of the Obama Administration and the EPA as they continue in their reckless war on coal.” As recently as last summer, Kentucky’s senior U.S. Senator, Mitch McConnell, backed a congressional resolution to halt the EPA’s new air enforcement measures and its “war on coal.”

Paul and McConnell are both Republicans,  but coal’s support extends across the political aisle. The Democratic governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, in his 2011 State of the Commonwealth speech, told the EPA to “get off our backs” and directed the state to join the Kentucky Coal Association in a law suit to block the agency’s enforcement powers.  The Democratic judge-executive of Kentucky’s largest coal-producing county has called upon all citizens “across central Appalachia” to “stand up against this war on coal.”  During the 2012 campaign, West Virginia’s Democratic governor and one of its Democratic senators indicated publicly that they were not sure they could support President Obama’s reelection because of his attacks on the coal industry.

All this conflict between Appalachian environmentalists and the coal industry means that Father Rausch’s ministry operates in an intensely polarized setting. “Fox News Catholics,” as he jokingly refers to them, routinely criticize Rausch’s liberal views in his column, which is syndicated in Catholic newspapers across the country. He responds by declaring that the Catholic Church does not endorse “big government” or “small government;” it should endorse “appropriate government” aimed at “stemming the suffering of the people.” Do people of faith share Rausch’s commitment to “appropriate government”? Do people share his belief that the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit can be found in the voices of the dispossessed? If so, why are not all faithful citizens outraged by the environmentally destructive practice of MTR? As Father Rausch put it: “Most people come to church to go to heaven. They forget that the reign of God is at hand.”

Dwight Billings (Sociology and Appalachian Studies), Kate Black (Libraries and Appalachian Studies), and Kathi Kern (History) are on the faculty at the University of Kentucky.