Pastors and congregations dealing with weather disasters may be inspired by the public prayer healing and listening work of churches in rural Appalachia to help people heal. This comes from Roman Catholic priest, John S. Rausch, in the latest issue of Liturgy which offers the full essay (including more examples of public prayer) at tandfonline.com with a subscription.
Let this serve as a window into what might be done in your neighborhood.
Public prayer is the salve for society’s wounds. After mass shootings, airplane crashes, and natural disasters, communities gather with lighted candles or tolling bells to comfort one another and probe the deeper significance of the tragedy. While Appalachia has its share of these human and natural disasters, certain structural patterns in the region, especially associated with its physical resources, set an additional context for prayer to hear the cries of the poor and respond to the silent screams of vulnerable creation. .
Flooding in Appalachia differs from floods of the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers that put thousands of acres of farmland under water. Typically, the steep mountains of central Appalachia collect the downpour from several inches of rain in a few hours, gush flash floods in the hollows, and swell creeks in the valleys. The aftermath of flooding everywhere, however, remains the same: possible loss of life and destruction of property. Spiritually, people experience grief, depression, and despair that beg a response.
In spring 2003, after a devastating flood in the tiny coal camp of McRoberts, Kentucky, a group of twenty-five church leaders and parishioners listened to people’s stories and planted flowers. We bought flats of begonias, petunias, and marigolds from a sheltered workshop to transplant throughout the town.
Rev. Steve Peake, pastor of the Corinth Baptist Church in the nearby town of Fleming-Neon and part of our public prayer leadership team, allowed his presence to lift spirits and remind residents to renew their hope in God’s providence. Standing by a row of framed houses on Highway 343, he said, “Every time I drive by, I think of people pushing brooms and shoveling mud out of their homes.”
Like pilgrims, we visited private dwellings, churches, and public buildings, and heard about the flood from traumatized residents. We said a prayer, then planted a flower to express compassion and to replace ugliness with beauty, death with resurrection. In the midst of a small garden by one house, a plaque read: “The earth laughs in flowers.” Standing by that sign, Sister Rosalyn said a prayer, and then Spencer, age seven, planted a begonia.
Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, encourages a deeper respect for “our common home,” and the conviction that everything in the world is connected (LS #138). Referring to St. Francis of Assisi, the pope stresses how relationally the saint dealt with all reality: “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (LS #10). The interdependence of all these aspects underlying the social order exemplifies the richness of public prayer because it calls forth authentic community, confronts the structures of social sin, and reminds participants they form part of the body of Christ.
John S. Rausch, a Catholic priest and member of the Glenmary Home Missioners of America, lives in Stanton, Kentucky. He has ministered in social justice for over forty years in Appalachia.