There’s a plodding yet powerful institutional resistance afoot against the global and internal church agenda of Pope Francis, a resistance that began to intensify after the release of his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Some leaders in the Catholic Church marginalized Laudato Si’ by downplaying it as a mere call for Christians to “go green” by recycling and turning lights off after leaving rooms. And its message continues to be ignored in DC since the election of Donald Trump and the implementation of his administration’s agenda. Yet the encyclical, and the pope’s leadership on this issue, has helped galvanize grassroots movements for eco-justice and climate advocacy both within the Roman Catholic tradition and beyond.
This struggle between grassroots excitement and institutional resistance has taken many forms, but it’s perhaps most striking in ecologically damaged places. This is certainly the case in Appalachia where I live and work, a region deeply affected by decades of extractive industry—including increasingly radical forms of coal mining and hydraulic fracturing—and its associated poverty and poisoned ecosystems. Although some Catholic dioceses in Appalachia, such as in Atlanta and Lexington, have begun to develop resources and action guides for living out the encyclical locally, most Catholic dioceses and institutions have been slow to embrace its message. For example, Michael Bransfield, the bishop in my home state of West Virginia, minimized the significance of the encyclical for his state, dependent as it is—he argues—on coal industry jobs. Other church-related institutions in West Virginia, such as Catholic Charities and various institutions of higher education, have also struggled with the application of the pope’s directives because of perceived tensions between the environment and workers or because of a fairly comfortable relationship between the local churches and the fossil fuel industries. In 2015, however, I worked with a grassroots Catholic social justice group called the Catholic Committee of Appalachia to publish a “people’s” pastoral letter—as opposed to a bishop’s pastoral—on ecological and economic issues in the region. Although the letter had been in development well before the election of Francis, the publication of Laudato Si’ gave a new kind of legitimacy to our project. Other Christian churches, such as those represented at a recent State of Appalachia conference, are likewise energized by this pope’s words and actions.
Grassroots religious movements, it seems, are more open to receiving the pope’s message as a whole, and they situate Laudato Si’ within the broader themes of his papacy thus far. They have been attuned from the start to the way this Jesuit from Argentina signaled the focus of his papacy the day after his election when he stated to reporters, “Oh, how I wish for a church that is poor and for the poor!” In his statements, symbolic gestures, lifestyle choices, and changes to papal traditions themselves, Francis has followed Saint Francis by radically reminding the Roman Catholic Church of the poor and creation.
Unlike the last two popes who primarily emphasized internal church issues and teachings—circling the wagons in a world they viewed as becoming more secular and hostile to the church—Francis largely looks outward, seeing a world where “the powerful feed upon the powerless” and where most peoples are excluded from the goodness of “our common home.” For Francis, global capitalism is an idolatrous system that shapes us as a species to dominate creation, to place profit above people and human encounters, and to make our earth and its communities invisible behind our economic transactions and production. Like the gods of old, this economy demands sacrifice, victimizing human beings, communities, and even creation itself, as Francis notes, “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market.” Indeed, the earth “is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” Elsewhere, Francis states unambiguously, “Such an economy kills.”
Counter to this fragmentation, domination, and exclusion in the global economy, Francis presents a vision of the earth in which “everything is connected” and promotes an “integral ecology” in which human beings take their proper place in the web of life. The interconnectedness of all life necessarily entails that the crisis we face is interconnected too, as the pope explains, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” For Francis, solutions call for nothing less than a radical rethinking of everyday life in addition to the systems and economies through which we share this planet and the good gifts of creation.
This complex crisis requires radical action—radical in the sense of going to the roots. As Francis puts it, “A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture.” Yet the resistance to Francis’s radical message among many church leaders suggests that institutional frameworks prevent “rethinking processes in their entirety” and “question[ing] the logic” of today’s culture. If this is the case, then the church must find new perspectives and answers elsewhere. Grassroots movements in Appalachia and beyond are looking outside the official channels of our religious traditions, no matter how committed we might be to some version of them, for paths forward in discovering new ways of living life together.
Ecology and the Culture of Encounter
Grassroots communities in wounded places like Appalachia are taking their cue from Francis’s call to build a culture of encounter, a phrase he now uses regularly. But what precisely does he mean by this? A culture of encounter is rooted in Francis’s commitment to the principle that “realities are more important than ideas,” a code he describes in his previous work, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. He sees this principle lived out in Jesus of Nazareth in the way he engaged the people he encountered: “Faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.” In a fragmented global culture and economy of exclusion that deem entire peoples and the earth itself expendable, Francis insists that members of human communities encounter one another first as persons, before ideas, traditions, and ideologies, and that we strive to encounter the poor and excluded primarily and most deeply: “We need to build up this culture of encounter. We do not love concepts or ideas; no one loves a concept or an idea. We love people.”
It is no coincidence that Francis refers to this culture of encounter in most of his speeches to grassroots movements. In July 2015, not long after Laudato Si’ was released, Francis addressed the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia:
This rootedness in the barrio, the land, the office, the labor union, this ability to see yourselves in the faces of others, this daily proximity to their share of troubles and their little acts of heroism: this is what enables you to practice the commandment of love, not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine interpersonal encounter. . . . Along this path [of working for a just economy], popular movements play an essential role, not only by making demands and lodging protests, but even more basically by being creative. You are social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all for people left behind by the world market. . . . The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.
For Francis, radical global transformation must happen first locally in specific places, from below, in our relationships with one another, primarily among movements and communities of struggle.
To heal the global crises, the culture of encounter Francis describes must come from below and must include everyone. And a vision that includes everyone necessitates nurturing interfaith relationships between persons and communities. Francis argues that the world’s religious traditions share on some level a sensibility that the planet desperately needs: the sacredness of the earth. In the introduction to the interfaith collection Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee echoes Francis and writes that we need “to return to our own root and rootedness: our relationship to the sacred within creation. Only from the place of sacred wholeness and reverence can we begin the work of healing, of bringing the world back into balance.” From that shared admiration of the earth, humans can act together for the good of the entire earth community. Francis says,
The Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil. . . . The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! . . . we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good . . . do good: we will meet one another there.
The ecclesiastical distinction-making and circling of the wagons that tended to characterize the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are rarely to be found in the approach of Francis, who stresses encounter and cooperation across difference.
Institutional approaches often stand in the way of this kind of culture of encounter Francis describes because they enact what George Zachariah calls “a common-denominator approach, where dominant readings of the crisis of the earth, viewed from nowhere, are presented as meta-narratives, and panaceas are prescribed, claiming universal validity and applicability.” Rather, Francis suggests an approach that is at once much, much smaller in scale but also more expansive—smaller because it stresses local places, initiatives, and experiments on a personal level, but more expansive because it radically encourages encounters with any and all people and traditions, especially “those who have been excluded from consideration.” Today, as Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash argue, there is a “multiplicity of local escape routes being invented or created daily to move out of the disabling global framework.” Social movements, including varieties of intentional communities, are not necessarily coherent or uniform but “contain and encourage the multiple voices of the living political subjects in our times.” Precisely through encounters with diversity, such social movements and communities provide “sites of an alternative narrative and therefore they have the epistemological agency to construct liberating knowledge.”
The Back-to-the-Land Movement in Appalachia and West Virginia
Grassroots communities often embody the experimental “social poetry” that Francis talks about because they are practical incubators of alternative ecological narratives and new ways of living. Appalachia has a long legacy of such communities, both faith-based and not faith-based. West Virginia, in particular, has attracted an astonishing number of intentional communities founded for a variety of purposes, usually as experimental, communal, or countercultural living arrangements. Carter Taylor Seaton’s recent book Hippie Homesteaders documents the stories of several individuals, couples, and small communes in West Virginia that were connected to the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s, which was the rural face of the largely urban hippie movement. The back-to-the-landers, despite diverse motivations, all shared a commitment to a simple, self-sufficient life. They lived close to the land, making do with traditional crafts learned from the Appalachian people. Their motivations often had an element of countercultural politics, opposing not only the Vietnam War but also modern capitalist society with its accompanying pollution, waste, and ecological destruction. These communities grew out of a desire to withdraw from participation in global systems of human and ecological domination. Attracted to the remoteness and isolation of the state, its primitive characteristics, and its large amounts of cheap land advertised in publications like Mother Earth News, back-to-the-landers believed they could create alternative communities and institutions in West Virginia parallel to a world they believed was on the brink of disaster.
Seaton’s book largely ignores the religious or spiritual motivations of these individuals and communities. Although this inattention can be forgiven—the book primarily outlines the development of arts and crafts in West Virginia’s back-to-the-land movement, not the movement in general—it is important not to overlook those communities who linked their spiritual beliefs to the care for the earth during this time period. Indeed, according to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, the earliest forms of intentional community in Appalachia “coincided with waves of religious revivalism and the energy and creativity spurred by revolutionary thought around the turn of the nineteenth century.” This intermixture of religious fervor, ecological care, and economic experimentation played an important role in intentional back-to-the-land communities. Two particular communities in West Virginia stand out for the way their alternative religious, ecological, and economic praxis generated new ways of living close to the land.
The Catholic Worker movement, now well known in Catholic circles and beyond, has had an experimental, ecologically focused presence in West Virginia. The Catholic Worker movement was founded in New York City in the 1930s by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, two Catholic radicals who combined Catholic traditional theology and practice with anti-capitalist, anarchist, and emerging ecological thought. Although discussion of the movement has largely focused on the personality of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker newspaper, and the urban houses of hospitality which spread nationwide, Maurin captured the fullness of the Catholic Worker vision with his image of a “Green Revolution,” a term that not only referenced agrarianism, but also played on the Communist language of a “Red Revolution” and gave tribute to the Irish monasteries of the seventh century. Inspired by these monasteries, Maurin’s ideal combined both urban and rural dimensions and contained three parts: agricultural communes, urban houses of hospitality, and various methods for the “clarification of thought,” such as roundtable discussions, the Catholic Worker newspaper, and what he called agricultural universities.
Then in 1969 at West Hamlin, West Virginia, Chuck Smith and Sandy Adams founded Universal Gardens Catholic Worker, the first Catholic Worker farm in the state and a prime example of the convergence of religious community and back-to-the-land sensibility. Separate households were established on more than one hundred acres where community members grew their own food and raised chickens and goats. Organizers placed the land in a community land trust called “Trust in the Hills” before land trusts became popular. Smith and Adams were also politically active in the Appalachian social movements of the time, such as in their opposition to strip-mining. They published a local Catholic Worker paper that they initially called the Green Revolution, later changing the name to the Mountain Worker, which published pieces on farming, the Catholic Worker philosophy, and essays reflecting an agrarian, Appalachian Catholic theology. Day regularly held this community up as an example Maurin’s vision and referred to the farm in the national Catholic Worker paper. She enlisted Smith to contribute from his Appalachian context, and he reported on rural life, alternative economics, land trusts, and the ecologically destructive capacities of capitalism. The farm remained a strong rural participant in the Catholic Worker movement for two and a half decades until the community disintegrated in the mid to late 1980s, but not before it inspired other Catholic Worker farms and houses of hospitality in the region and beyond.
Another West Virginia back-to-the-land community rooted in religious belief, though from a very different tradition, was founded two years before the West Hamlin Catholic Worker farm, the New Vrindaban Hare Krishna community. The Hare Krishna movement, a Hindu sect within the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition that focuses on devotion to God in the form of Lord Krishna, was brought to the United States by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1965. Andy Fraenkel describes Prabhupada as a “downtown guru” with a mission to common people, as opposed to the “uptown gurus” who catered to the well-to-do. Among those he encountered were urban and rural participants in the hippie movement in New York City who proved to be crucial for the Hare Krishna movement. Krishna devotees with an interest in cultivating a spiritual version of the back-to-the-land movement responded to a West Virginia Buddhist landowner’s advertisement in a magazine and eventually purchased 130 acres of land and founded New Vrindaban. Prabhupada visited occasionally early on to give guidance, asking that devotees create a self-reliant place of pilgrimage that mirrored the agrarian lifestyle of India. The adherents led an austere lifestyle as they worked the land with teams of oxen and horses. In addition to their communal gardens and grain mill, everyone grew food on their own plot of land. Much like other back-to-the-landers in West Virginia, the Krishna devotees learned a variety of crafts, sometimes from older neighbors in the county, and started cottage industries to raise money. At one time, New Vrindaban made and sold incense, candles, stained glass, and carpentry. Community members used their craft skills to build New Vrindaban’s Palace of Gold. Originally intended as a residence for Prabhupada when he visited New Vrindaban, the palace was not completed before the leader passed away in 1977. The palace officially opened in 1979 as a monument to Prabhupada, and the community, up to hundreds of devotees by this time, began to attract thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike.
Eco-Spiritual Intentional Communities in Appalachia Today
Much commentary on the back-to-the-land movement highlights the households, farms, communes, and other initiatives that died out over time, either because participants found the lifestyle too difficult or their ideals shifted over time. But some intentional communities in West Virginia, and Appalachia in general, have persisted. Indeed, some of the oldest communities in the region have spiritual roots and often descend from the communities described earlier, finding new relevance in a context of increasing ecological consciousness and activism, especially since the election of Pope Francis.
The Catholic Worker movement thrives today, perhaps due to increasing interest in Day as the Vatican considers her sainthood. Today the movement numbers about 180 communities strong across the country, including nearly two dozen farms. Catholic Worker farms are now less idealistic than they tended to be in the past. Later in her life, Dorothy Day noted this shift, saying “We aimed high, too high. But at least we were able, as Peter said, ‘to arouse the conscience.’” Today, Catholic Worker farms do not aspire to be heaven on earth but to live among and assist the poor in rural areas.
At least three communities in this tradition are still active today in West Virginia. The Appalachian Catholic Worker Farm in Roane County, West Virginia, was founded by Toledo, Ohio, native Jeannie Kirkhope and her partner Bill Reichenbach. Roane County was home to a very large number of back-to-the-landers in the 1960s and ’70s due to the wide availability of cheap land. Continuing this tradition, Kirkhope and Reichenbach are committed to simple living, growing food, and raising animals. Kirkhope also leads educational tours and retreats for high school and college groups and maintains involvement in local environmental issues, all while maintaining relationship with her neighbors and engaging in the traditional Catholic Worker works of mercy as she is able. House of Hagar Catholic Worker House in Wheeling, West Virginia, serves the neighborhood of East Wheeling as a house of hospitality and community. House of Hagar partners with another East Wheeling-based neighborhood project, Grow Ohio Valley, a gardening and local food nonprofit which runs community gardens and urban greenhouses, educational projects, a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, and a mobile food market. Together, the House of Hagar and Grow Ohio Valley are transforming how their community thinks about, grows, and distributes food. Finally, though not officially a Catholic Worker farm, Bethlehem Farm in Summers County, West Virginia, occupies the former property of Michael Kirwan’s Catholic Worker farm in Talcott (near Alderson) and certainly could be considered a descendant of the Catholic Worker movement. Founded in 2004, this Catholic community is committed to “service with the local community and the teaching of sustainable practices.” Full-time staff live in community and host hundreds of volunteers a year who learn about Catholic social teaching, sustainability, and organic farming while participating in the farm’s low-income home repair ministry and other local initiatives.
The New Vrindaban community has undergone various changes in its fifty-year history. As the community transformed from a commune into a place of pilgrimage and tourism, it lost its original commitment to land-based self-sufficiency. Later the community found itself mired in various financial and abuse scandals which, for a time, separated the community from its umbrella organization, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. After a period of recovery, the community has entered a period of rebirth and a return to its founding principles. As original community members have aged and new members have become more diverse, New Vrindaban functions now as the center of a more loose-knit religious community. Although some devotees live the same communal lifestyle of the early days, most community members have their own homes, either near the temple or in the greater Wheeling area. The community is slowly making efforts to return to the original vision of a self-sufficient community that cares for the land where they find themselves, integrating this vision with the outreach of their tourism and pilgrimage efforts. The community has increased their gardens and dairy facilities which are used to feed the community, pilgrims, and customers at a new vegetarian restaurant on site.
The New Vrindaban community’s renewed commitment to self-sufficiency and ecological consciousness resonates with today’s religious and secular ecological movements, yet it also brings the gifts of its unique spiritual perspective to the table. Fraenkel cites the leadership of Pope Francis as an inspiration, even beyond the Catholic community, in bringing a new spiritual consciousness to our suffering planet. Like other grassroots movements for ecological justice and earth healing in the Appalachian region, New Vrindaban is demonstrating new ways of caring for particular places and the people and other creatures who inhabit them.
Building Interfaith Cultures of Encounter in a New Appalachia
Each of these communities continues traditions of care for the earth and alternative ways of life that have long been present in the region yet are grounded in their own unique spiritual heritages. As Pope Francis suggests, communities like these have much to learn from one another as they experiment with new ways of living in their own localities. To date, there have been interesting, but only limited, explicit efforts in building an interfaith culture of encounter from below in Appalachia. Yet Francis’s openness to the world’s religious traditions, and these traditions’ openness to the message of Francis, suggests that there exists deep potential in this region for new efforts toward an interfaith spiritual ecology.
A more intentional effort at nurturing an ecological culture of encounter in Appalachia can build on an already existing openness to ecumenical and interfaith encounters within and among these communities. For example, the Appalachian Catholic Worker, as one of the few Roman Catholic communities in Roane County, has always felt that is was necessary to cultivate such relationships. The Hickory Ridge Land Trust, of which they are a member, has included people from diverse spiritual traditions since its founding in the 1970s. Members socialize; share chickens, seeds, recipes, and meals; participate in local activism; and celebrate spring and winter solstices. Deeper, more explicit interfaith connections have come in the form of Kirkhope’s and Reichenbach’s participation in a monthly Buddhist meditation group founded by back-to-the-landers in the early 1980s. Kirkhope describes the group as an alternative meeting place for isolated, spiritually inclined people who do not fit into traditional religious communities. The group welcomes all faiths, though Buddhist principles serve as a focal point and common ground, and they are active in local and regional political and ecological issues. The culture of encounter already present within this community is evident not only in its longevity but in the extent to which members share in each other’s lives by mourning the loss of friends at home funerals.
Since its founding, members of Bethlehem Farm have developed a relationship with intentional communities in the Bruderhof movement, an Anabaptist tradition founded in Germany. Bruderhof communities exist in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, among other places. The farm regularly hosts students and other volunteers from a variety of traditions and nurtures ecological values by helping participants establish a relationship with creation, in part through hikes, contemplative silence in nature, farming and gardening, and the building of friendships through service. Instead of bickering over religious differences, Bethlehem Farm helps participants engage the concrete reality of creation, a common ground by which individuals of diverse backgrounds find unity.
New Vrindaban devotees also regularly engage in interfaith encounter, as the community draws not only Hindu pilgrims from around the world but also a regular stream of tourists, spiritual seekers, students, and other curious visitors. Since recovering from past scandals, members have engaged in community outreach to encourage personal encounter. Devotees and Wheeling townspeople often work together at the various community gardens in Wheeling, and city soup kitchens regularly receive produce from the gardens at New Vrindaban.
These more recent iterations of faith-based intentional communities stand within the long tradition of the back-to-the-land movement in the region. In caring for small, specific parts of creation that they call home, they exercise an epistemological and political humility that characterized the best of this movement from years past, a starting point at odds with dominating and destructive global systems. At the same time, these communities live these values in a moment when ecological crises have reached a breaking point and threaten the web of life on regional and global scales. Knowing that facing up to these crises will take contributions from everybody, they have already begun the hard work of creating cultures of encounter across difference as they cooperate in growing and distributing food and engage local political, economic, and ecological issues. Yet as Francis suggests, now is the time for communities and movements like these to encounter one another with deeper intentionality as our traditions work to re-create the world from below. These encounters will embrace the spiritual and the practical, as communities learn from one another’s traditions and share practical knowledge and skills. But more than that, these encounters and alliances will proclaim what Esteva and Prakash call a “shared ‘no’” to the common enemies of global thinking, an exploitive economy, and ecological destruction, bearing witness to another way of viewing reality, its problems, and possible solutions in which our communities can more humbly “take their place” in the sacred web of creation. By focusing on the real rather than ideas—specifically the rejuvenation of human encounter and our relationship with the earth—intentional communities within a broader interfaith ecological culture of encounter have deep potential to generate a spirituality that “emerge[s] out of their struggles of resistance and re-creating alternatives that transcend religious categories.”
The Catholic Committee of Appalachia states in its recent pastoral letter, “Appalachian people have long known that we cannot change our world’s destructive course without a deep transformation in the very basis of the way we live life together. We must shift away from the consumer-driven market economy to a sustenance economy in which our desire for ‘more’ is replaced by satisfaction with ‘enough,’ living in kinship with the Earth community and respectful of the limits of nature.” The legacy of faith-based intentional communities continues to witness to the social poetry and experimentation necessary for such transformations. They are, in Pope Francis’s words, each doing their own part by meeting one another doing good. They are slowly building a culture of encounter that may yet help us find our way in the dark toward a new heaven and a new earth.