Appalachia stands out as a section of the eastern United States long regarded as a symbol of poverty and exploitation. But as several visitors from Wheeling Jesuit University observed during a visit to America House, it also represents a proud people with a strong tradition and culture. The visitors, two Jesuits and a lay faculty member, were in Manhattan to seek foundation funding for the university’s recently established Clifford M. Lewis, S.J., Institute, and they also were eager to share with us their enthusiasm for this new project. The institute is a center of research and action whose priorities include attention to community development, education and ecological concerns—pressing issues in an area where unemployment is high and positive opportunities few for Appalachian residents.
Ecological concerns are of special significance because of the mining industry’s negative impact on the region of West Virginia where the university is located. One of the visitors to my office was the institute’s first executive director, Joseph Hacala, S.J. He described how mining methods have ravaged whole sections of central Appalachia. The newer methods include strip mining and so-called mountaintop removal, which have resulted in flooding and the pollution of rivers and streams. Similarly, the impoundments—waste ponds for rinsing coal after its removal from the mines—created by older extraction methods continue to burst, destroying homes as their waters rush down the hillsides and adding still further to the water pollution.
Father Hacala went on to note that much of the land surface and most of the mineral and other natural wealth of central Appalachia is owned not by the people who live there, but by outside commercial interests. One might call it the absentee-landlord syndrome. “The profits are large,” he said, “but the owners haven’t paid back to the local communities an amount commensurate in value to what they have taken out.” As a result, tax bases are so low that little has been available to residents in the way of health care, education and jobs. Although some owners claim to be providing employment, such jobs are relatively few, because newer mining methods make more use of heavy machinery than of human labor.
But the institute’s focus, Father Hacala emphasized, is not to attempt to solve individual problems, ecological or other, but rather to promote the kind of community organizing that will empower the people to build their own futures by addressing the major issues they face. Toward this end, in collaboration with the local Hopeful City project, several task forces have been established. One concerns economic development and focuses on creating not more minimum-wage jobs, but jobs that pay a living wage. Another deals with housing. Much of what exists is deteriorated rental housing for which landlords show little accountability. Still another task force revolves around youth services. But all of them aim at empowering the people themselves.
But who, I asked, was Clifford M. Lewis, S.J.? Father Hacala explained that at the invitation of one of the West Virginia bishops, Father Lewis—an area native, like Father Hacala—had come to help found Wheeling College in the early 1950’s. The new institute named after him has its roots in a pastoral letter signed in 1975 by all the Appalachian bishops on the campus itself. Its title is This Land Is Home to Me, but its subtitle, “A Pastoral Letter on Powerlessness in Appalachia,” points to the heart of the longstanding problem. In addressing this powerlessness, the institute is involving both faculty and students in research and action.
Many of the students are low-income local people. “There are no B.M.W.’s in our parking lot,” Father Hacala said. Their fathers are often employed in the mines: “One month they might work and then be laid off the next month.” Greater empowerment would give them and all Appalachians a stronger voice in shaping the destinies of their own communities. Empowerment would also be in keeping with the vision of the bishop’s statement: “a dream of simplicity and justice.”