Leadership initiative empowers rural Catholics to help community, each other

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

The idea for a new program to train leaders in rural areas to understand and act on Catholic social teaching struck Kathy Langer while attending a retreat in the Twin Cities. The retreat provided an opportunity for Langer, director of social concerns at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, to reflect on her own life.

Growing up in rural Buckman and raising her family in the small town of Pierz, she recognized the importance of rural life in the diocese as well as the difficult issues that people in those regions face. And, she wanted to do something about it.

“Our diocese is a rural diocese and often we forget that fact,” Langer said. “We have regional centers that are growing like St. Cloud, Alexandria and areas near the Twin Cities, but we also have rural areas, some of which are struggling and declining. They are a part of us, with unique needs and unique cultures.”

Langer began developing the Rural Life Leadership Development Initiative, a three-pronged approach to engage people of faith in rural communities around the work of evangelization, charity and justice, and parish social ministry.

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Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

The plan involves breaking the diocese into three geographic sections — western, central and eastern — identifying potential leaders in those areas and providing them with training. Her hope is that this work will spread into their respective communities in the form of community development initiatives around poverty and other issues that cause marginalization.

In early 2013, she hired Doug Scott as the first rural life coordinator to begin working with the eastern region, the location of the first phase of the initiative. Scott also grew up in a small town in central Minnesota and spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm. He currently lives on a 120-acre hobby farm with his wife and three teenage children.

“Rural life is important to me because I believe everyone should have access to the same basic services regardless of where they live,” Scott said. “I also believe that meeting people’s needs should be done by the community as much as possible.”

Scott said the pillars of Catholic social teaching — especially solidarity, call to family, community and participation, and care for God’s creation — are all at play in healthy rural areas.

“The principle of subsidiarity promoted by the church — meeting needs at the most local level — drives much of what I do in my position,” he said. “Whether it’s promoting farm-to-fork food movements, addressing food insecurity in our schools through community outreach, or training people to identify issues and to draw on local resources when devising a plan, acting locally is key.”

Scott’s first task was to identify possible leaders in parishes by meeting with pastors and parish councils. After pinpointing a select group of people, they participated in a yearlong training on the church’s teachings around discernment, servant leadership, evangelization, Catholic social teaching and parish ministry.

Eleven parishes piloted the program in 2013 and a second group of seven parishes followed in 2014.

Crosier Father Jerry Schik, pastor of St. Therese in Vineland, Holy Cross in Onamia and Sacred Heart in Wahkon, was one of the first on board with the program because he saw the need for help in his communities.

“The people in our area have many needs which are specific and measurable,” he explained. “For example, our schools provide 71 percent of their students with free or reduced lunches. That percentage is considered to be a percentage of crisis proportions. The Rural Life Initiative has taught us to approach every situation with a spirit of hope in our hearts.”

The cluster now has a group in place that can help other local service organizations with events like job fairs, community dinners and the food shelf when they need assistance with a project, he said.

“Many parishioners are now involved in social minitry,” Father Schik said, “because the Rural Life Initiative provided the leadership training for our three-parish mission group, and this training showed the group how to create programs that make it easy for more parishioners to get involved in social ministry. We are directly and efficiently responding to Pope Francis’ call to serve the Lord by serving those in need.”

Challenging issues

Scott’s work doesn’t come without its share of challenges. Mental illness in rural communities creates difficult issues for families, he said. “Compounding this is the fact that services like professional counseling and support groups often aren’t located in rural areas where they also are needed.

“Food insecurity — or just plain hunger if you don’t want the technical term — is far too prevalent in our rural communities,” he added. “I had blinders on for years, thinking hunger wasn’t an issue in central Minnesota. But if you dig just a little bit beneath the surface, you see that several of the counties in Minnesota with the highest food insecurity rates are right here in central Minnesota.

And hunger issues disproportionately affect children and the elderly.”

Pope Francis and others have said that it is not a food shortage but a food distribution problem.

“Educating people about ‘rescued food’ is a key component to creating a new and more effective food distribution model,” Scott said.

“Whether it’s routing food nearing its shelf-life off of grocery store shelves and out to rural food distributions or moving unsold farmer’s market produce to rural outlets while it’s still edible, there are many ways to increase the percentage of food that is consumed.”

According to Scott, in the United Nations, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter shared his research that a full third of all the food on the planet intended for consumption actually goes to waste.

“That makes me mad,” Scott said. “I am personally committed to working with others to bring that number down. As long as there are hungry people in our communities and food being thrown away, there’s work to be done.”

These factors keep Scott and Langer motivated to keep confronting issues like poverty, hunger and mental illness. Langer is ready to begin phase two — to hire second rural life coordinator to begin implementing the initiative on the western side of the diocese.

“God leads all of us to amazing adventures and challenges in our lives,” Langer said. “That is what I see the Rural Life Leadership Development Initiative to be — a template to the challenge and adventure of building the kingdom of God in our rural communities.

“It begins,” she said, “as God’s leading usually does, with a deep love for our neighbors and a deep desire to learn from and help people who are on the margins and are often vulnerable, struggling and invisible. God is love. Our call as Catholic Christians is to try and figure out how best to spread that love.”