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NCRLC: if farmers cherish it, He will come.

DES MOINES, Iowa - One-third of U.S. Catholics live in small towns and rural areas. In that third, one in seven is a farmer.

Far smaller is the percentage of church resources invested in sustaining and strengthening this reservoir of values, where family life, community, wholesome living, frugality and neighborliness abide.

One organization, however, has contributed consistently for 70 years to enriching this milieu: the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

Headquartered in a visitor-friendly, barnred house in Des Moines, the NCRLC has only seven staff members. Yet from here emanate extensive services and information ranging from a prayer for a child driving a tractor for the first time to a detailed statement pointing out flaws in the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement.

NCRLC is independent yet a close partner of the U.S. Catholic Conference. "Their staff view the work we do and the people we work with as their rural conscience," said Joseph Fitzgerald, executive director. NCRLC's motto, "the voice of the church to rural America and the voice of rural America to the church," capsulizes its mission, he said.

The NCRLC was founded in the Midwest, where half the nation's farms lie in 14 states. The organization's strength and core support traditionally have come from this region, explained Sandra LaBlanc, communications director. But starting in the 1970s "and even more into the '90s, the issues we are talking about are national and international," she said. "They might have a farm base, but everybody eats and needs to be concerned about how their food is grown, how safe it is and issues concerning the environment."

NCRLC activities fall into three categories - education, advocacy and spirituality - and some overlap categories. The conference is unique among organizations that educate about issues affecting rural life. It integrates Catholic social teaching and scripture, weaving those foundations and principles into the facts and figures, said Sr. Peggy Boehm, a Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sister who is NCRLC's grassroots rural ministry director.

The NCRLC offers, for instance, Theology of Land conferences, developed in conjunction with St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn. Topics range "from the very practical to the very theoretical," said LaBlanc, "from theological discussion concerning the Creator and how we live on and with the land to discussion about how a farmer deals with his or her neighbors."

Participants similarly are an eclectic lot, "Catholics and Protestants, farmers, diocesan staff people, environmentalists, theologians, educators, cleargy," Fitzgerald noted.

Another educational venture, the Church Land Project (see related stories), helps churches and church-related groups promote sustainable agriculture using land they own. Before advocating particular attitudes and practices, we had to look at what our faith tradition tells us about how we use land," LaBlanc said.

Staff members educate themselves on many issues in assorted ways, not least by listening to rural constituents. Recently the NCRLC sent a survey to nural life directors and advocates throughout the nation, asking about issues they care about, the work they do, their needs, what they and NCRLC could offer each other.

This year LaBlanc and Boehm have concentrated on listening to rural people by holding two "focus" sessions in each of seven dioceses. At one session they listen to rural parishioners' concerns, at the other they hear church workers' views.

"We're finding with rural parishioners a sense of hopelessness, real despair. They're just trying to survive," said LaBlanc. Their children are not encouraged to remain in the rural community. but are recruited elsewhere, "because rural kids understand what it means to work hard and contribute to their community and go to church. They have values that society wants."

Moreover, rural parishioners express "a real feeling that the church isn't responding to their needs," said LaBlanc, adding that Midwestern floods may be coloring the rural folks' outlook.

Professional church people likewise express their "feeling of not being supported," she said. "They're overworked. They have distances to cover. They're dealing with issues beyond their experience."

LaBlanc and Boehm are finding hope as well as despair in some focus sessions. Because 50 percent of the people in many rural areas are elderly, the two ask how rural churches reach out to the rural elderly. "We've seen wonderful models of ministry," said LaBblanc. "For instance, one church in Minnesota built a nursing home across the street from the church," and there elderly visit elderly, young people hold meetings and "the extended family is very much incorporated in the life of the church."

For those close to despair, however, NCRLC is already responding in a spiritual way through the Rural Parish Service, a prayer and worship resource it revived in 1992 after a lapse of 20 years.

The service includes prayers for people whose lives are in tune with the seasons, for instance, prayers for Rogation days, the three days of celebrating before Ascension Thursday. There are prayers for when a child plants his or her first garden and for when the child leaves home. A wake service booklet, appropriate for the death of a farmer or rural person, will be added, said Boehm.

The Rural Parish Service "integrates family life with parish life," Fitzgerald said. But "sadly, one of the new inclusions is a prayer on the closing of a parish, because it's happening so often in rural areas," too often without consultation with the people affected, too often overlooking "the centrality of the rural parish in the life of rural communities. It's far more central than in many urban and suburban areas."

NCRLC's intimacy with local, rural communities and its national expertise combine to make the organization a formidable advocate on major social issues.

Often its work in education and spirituality contributes to advocacy. For instance, the NCRLC this fall is hosting a regional meeting at which staff and people from various dioceses can share information and strategies about influencing legislatures. At such gatherings, LaBlanc said, participants "would actually write bills," saying "this is how we did it for our state, you might want to do the same in yours."

Fitzgerald sketched one example of the kind of threat to family farms and the environment that can spur rural people to advocacy. In southern Minnesota, outside investors have pooled their money to build huge hog farming operations - a 600-sow facility on 40 acres, for instance. Manure lagoons the size of four football fields and probably 10 feet deep pollute the land and air and leak into water systems. The mammoth operations also disrupt the normal economy, in which modest-sized hog farms produce healthy competition that helps keep reasonable the cost of veterinary services, feed and other supplies.

"It!s interesting to watch citizen action up there, the pitched battle about what kind of a society we want," Fitzgerald said. County boards, which grant permits, become the arena of conflict: whether to retain quality of life or to add jobs by allowing corporate hog farms.

Boebm's work in grassroots raral ministry also helps local people with advocacy. The NCRLC has asked every diocese to name a NCRLC liaison person, and 141 have done so. Often that link is a rural life director or a priest living in a rural community.

Boehm travels around the country, mostly the Midwest, establishing diocesan contacts and helping local people organize "dioceses and rural parishes around environmental, farm and rural issues. ... They look to us for resources, assistance, skills training. We look to them for working with people, our audience, the rural Catholics."

At a different level the NCRW works with other church and farm citizen organizations, such as the Kansas Rural Center, on legislation and public policy issues. NCRLC staff rarely testify, but they provide information that is funneled to law-makers when bishops testify at the national level or when Catholic conference, parish and diocesan representatives lobby their state and local official& NCRLC is the only faith group that belongs to the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, a coalition of 30 to 40 organizations that includes "some of the smartest people I know of working on rural issues," Fitzgerald said.

This year the SAWG issued detailed recommendations to the Clinton administration for promoting sustainable agriculture. This year too, the NCRLC issued its NAFTA statement, the product of cooperation between staff and the NCRLC's 17-member, nationally representative board of directors as well as outside reviewers.

In the hopper also for this year are statements on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. The NCRLC also is working on a rural health care statement, with its timing to be influenced by the national health care debate. Typically such statements offer recommendations for individual action or public policy. "Our faith calls us to speak out publicly on issues that are of concern to the general public," said LaBlanc.

NCRLC is supported by a combination of foundation grants, diocesan support from an annual, nationwide appeal, sales of materials it produces and donations and dues from about 1,000 members. The members include rural families, religious communities and other organizations that belong to SAWG.

NCRLC services are multiplying, including translating materials into Spanish and providing outreach into the Hispanic community. The organization's vision is expanding, too, with the NAFTA statement a sample of its involvement in the international dimensions of rural issues.

Similarly, NCRLC's constituency is becoming urban and suburban as well as rural. Boehm met recently with people from Detroit whose interest in rural issues stemmed "from the perspective of how environmental issues and safety issues impact city people," she said.

But NCRLC's heart remains in that rural America where one-third of U.S. Catholics live. Typical of its commitment is a prayer NCRLC distributes. Addressed to Sts. Isidore and Matia, the patrons of rural people, it says:

"We bless God, whose greatness is proclaimed by your lives, whose love is revealed by your love. As life partners, you lived simply on the land, formed by the rhythms of nature and church.

"With you, we thank God for our rural lives, formed still by the rhythms of nature and church. Help us to rejoice in the relationships with God and each other.

"Isidore and Maria, pray for us. Amen."
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Title Annotation:National Catholic Rural Life Conference
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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