Today’s post is from guest blogger Jeannie Kirkhope, a Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. She also runs the Catholic Worker Farm of West Virginia
How did four queer and trans young adults end up running a retreat house and farm in the middle of Appalachia? The answer to this question can be found in an unusual story of how Catholics who live the church’s social justice tradition are helping to preserve natural resources while standing up for LGBTQ equality.
The Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has been educating, advocating and raising a prophetic voice for social, economic and environmental justice in the mountains since 1970. Yet, our organization had not focused any efforts on LGBTQ issues until 2013 when we began preparing to write a “people’s pastoral,” The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. Research for this groundbreaking document gave due credence to the “magisterium of the poor.” We conducted over 1,000 listening sessions with those on the margins. We wanted to include voices which had not been highlighted in the two previous Appalachian Bishops’ pastoral letters of 1975 and 1995. Besides economically vulnerable communities, miners and coalfield residents, we wanted specifically to hear from women, people of color, people imprisoned and experiencing homelessness, communities impacted by the oil and gas industry, the Earth herself, and those in the LGBTQ community.
Once promulgation of our pastoral letter had begun, the first messages we received were of thanks for having included LGBTQ voices, and that same gratitude continues from other individuals and organizations. Those initial correspondences coincided with a statement we published opposing West Virginia House Bill 4012, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave license to discriminate against LGBTQ people by claiming religious convictions. From there, CCA’s works with and on behalf of the LGBTQ community have expanded and include collaborating with New Ways Ministry and budding relationships with DignityUSA and Fortunate Families.
Over the years, we’ve faced some tough challenges. As the institutional church started paying out costs related to the sex abuse scandal, CCA’s primary funding from Appalachian bishops dropped significantly. We faced the prospect of having to close our doors. Our director at the time made visits to several bishops in the central part of the region. The newest bishops wanted to know if CCA supported women’s reproductive rights or gay rights. She responded we had more pressing concerns since the number of women having abortions in Appalachia was only 0.2% of the national average, and people who identified as gay or lesbian were leaving the region for friendlier cities. (Little did we know then that, by 2017, studies would reveal the many complex and sometimes surprising reasons why women in poverty carry to term, and, that the state with the highest number of transgendered teens would be our own, West Virginia.)
Nonetheless, the encounters with these bishops immediately spurred the only statement that year from a beleaguered yet certain board:
“Be it resolved that the integrity of CCA and the dignity of the human person, which extends to the rest of creation, must inform what we do and say; and we accept any consequences, which may result.”
It probably comes as no shock that we have been applying for many more grants since then.
Meanwhile, in an effort to walk our talk about the Care of Creation, CCA initiated the Alliance of People Protecting Appalachian Lands (APPAL), a safety net to secure rural land trusts in perpetuity from extractive (mining) industries. Last year, when we learned the board of one trust had difficulty finding conscientious caretakers for a 65-acre tract, CCA and APPAL stepped in. The mission of this particular trust is to provide “land for the landless” in the form of a free lifetime lease.
In a last ditch effort, we sent out an advertisement which went viral. Over a thousand inquiries flooded CCA’s inbox, and APPAL promptly started narrowing them down. Just before the midnight deadline for applications, one came in that was a perfect match. Four chronically unhoused trans young adults wanted to start an intentional community to offer retreat space for their peers, giving preference to trans and queer indigenous and people of color escaping and trying to heal from the violence they experience on the streets. The Trans & Queer Land Project, tucked deep in a West Virginia holler, was born!
This little community hopes the land will become a hub for many. Yet, their struggle for funding is real. Still, even without electric or running water in a dilapidated tin roof shack, their goals are slowly being realized. They are planning weekend workshops so they and visiting peers can teach each other skills for home repairs and construction, permaculture for food sovereignty, and community organizing. (See their work party video here: https://www.youcaring.com/65acresofqueerandtransland-941291) To earn money, they take turns leaving home base for odd jobs around the country. As their questionably reliable transportation allows, they go as far as picking blueberries in Maine.
As working for justice is a cornerstone of their mission, one trans woman cofounded the Pots & Pans Kitchen Collective which serves meals to protestors and offers street medic services at rallies like Black Lives Matter in Baltimore, the Women’s March in DC, #NODAPL at Standing Rock, the Antifa rally in Charlottesville, and anti-mountaintop removal actions here in central Appalachia.
Before the group moved in, we spent hours on front porches all around our area to get a sense of how the local community would react to its incoming neighbors. In a culture where interdependence is as important as independence, the results thus far have been promising. There is still serious risk of threat due to lack of exposure to this kind of diversity. But the young adults say they feel “safest at home, in the holler,” simply due to fewer people per square mile. They’ve been doing their part to cautiously build trust, too, sharing duck eggs and canned garden vegetables with their neighbors. Most importantly, they are letting it be known that they have on hand Narcan—a substance which will reverse an opioid overdose–no questions will be asked. In a region with such a fatal epidemic, those are critical neighbors and friendships worth nurturing.
CCA’s connection with these impressive, inspiring, radical, social and Earth justice-minded young adults has reinvigorated our organization and affirmed our commitment to LGBTQ issues. From their point of view, the LGBTQ social advocates say we give them the supportive, stable, spiritual community of elders for which they’ve been desperately thirsting. We’re currently seeking grants to assist with Land Project costs. To support their outreach by sending a donation, click here.
Perhaps it seems an odd combination–trans youth with Catholics in Appalachia–but so far, it’s exactly the kind of society we believe the Creator intended.
–Jeannie Kirkhope, Catholic Committee of Appalachia, November 4, 2017