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October will mark the beginning of Father Ralph W. Beiting's second half-century fighting against entrenched poverty and its often ugly symptoms in America's Appalachian Mountain region. While the personal, hands-on touch that has characterized each of his first 50 years here cannot conceivably continue another five decades, there is little doubt among his supporters that the fruits of Beiting's perseverance and faith will be evident long after the region celebrates the 100th anniversary of the day Beiting made Appalachia his home.
Father Beiting is founder of the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), one of the largest human services organizations in the eastern United States. CAP is a $65 million nonprofit, interdenominational organization with more than 70 programs designed to help the people of Appalachia find and implement solutions to the poverty that has gripped pockets of this 13-state region for the better part of the 1900s. CAP programs include adult education, job training, emergency relief and respite care, counseling and child development centers. In addition, CAP often partners with other organizations to accomplish more than either can achieve alone. CAP's Operation Sharing, which takes in and distributes goods donated by hundreds of caring corporations nationwide, distributed $38.8 million in building materials, books and other goods to 1,281 churches and community-based programs throughout the 13 Appalachian states in 1999.
CAP started out as a small day camp for children. When Beiting arrived in eastern Kentucky in 1950, he had been ordained less than a year and, although the eldest of 11 children in a poor family, came face to face with devastating poverty for the first time. "I was appalled to see so many people living in tiny shacks without heat or running water, without opportunity, education, or even company. I was determined to do something," Beiting says.
First, Beiting said, he had to figure out his own crises. His new home was crumbling and unsafe, there was no church in the entire parish, and only nine Catholics -- three of them children -- lived in the area. His next door neighbor already had circulated a petition to keep Beiting from building a church. Within months, Beiting had been shot at, hit by rotten tomatoes, and even arrested for preaching.
"I seriously considered quitting. I thought, 'If I can just last a year, then I can request a transfer. This is too much,'" he said.
Ultimately, Beiting couldn't quit. In part, because of the beauty of the land and its history as the exciting frontier explored by one of Beiting's favorite American heroes, Daniel Boone. Primarily, Beiting says, because underneath the despair of people who felt trapped in poverty, he found many still willing to dream and take chances. "I see God in the people of this magnificent land," he says. At age 76, despite suffering from diabetes, cataracts and various disabilities caused by several auto accidents, Beiting continues dreaming with Appalachian residents to this day.
He began that first October in 1950 by making weekly drives in a truck loaded with donated clothing, food and other supplies from his childhood home in northern Kentucky to his new home in the tiny town of Berea. After endless months of this round-trip trek, the realization came over him that he must help find longer-term solutions to the attitudes and economic conditions underlying the region's problems. "One day, driving home, I pulled over on the side of the road and during prayer, I heard God ask me, 'Are you going to be a truck driver for the rest of your life?'"
That's when Beiting decided to create Cliffview Lodge, the camp for children who otherwise would miss all the fun, mischief and bonding of this annual summer experience. Eventually, with Beiting's guidance and hard work, that camp blossomed into CAP.
CAP's focus today is varied to meet current needs. In the wake of Welfare reform in 1996, CAP workers devised "JobStart," a program to provide not only job training, but also to help participants identify their dreams and goals and then acquire the skills to reach them. In August 1999, the Commonwealth of Kentucky awarded CAP a grant to launch a program to accompany JobStart and is designed to smooth the transition from Welfare to work and boost job retention rates.
There have been times when CAP has refused to partner with government programs, however. In his 1993 book, Called to the Mountains, Beiting reflected on the Great Society: "Many of the programs started in the '60s quickly deteriorated into a vast effort to keep the money flowing. Whether the workers did a good job, or worked on anything important, was secondary. The first priority was for bureaucrats to keep their jobs, and that meant keeping the programs alive at any cost. ... There were certainly many good things that came out of the '60s. ... [But some of them], too, were flawed in their long-range outlook. They taught a lot of men to be welders, for example, without looking ahead to see whether such a skill was needed in this area. The men who went through this training, only to find they still couldn't get a job, just became more cynical and filled with despair. As a whole, the system was just bits and pieces here and there. ... After a decade or so, the federal bureaucracy lost interest in Appalachia; the money moved elsewhere, and most of the programs ended with little or nothing to show."
Beiting felt CAP had to be different and more respectful of the needs and desires of the people it was trying to help. For example, CAP had built an "Attic Store," which sells donated used clothing and household essentials for very low prices -- "Just enough to allow poor families to keep their pride," Beiting says -- in Magoffin County. Once the store was up and running, CAP suggested that a local couple who had volunteered in many CAP programs take over the store.
"At first, there wasn't any noticeable change in the way the store worked, but little by little, Frankie and Willard used their own creative leadership to fill the unique needs of their community. First they held a special Thanksgiving Dinner for isolated senior citizens. They got local businesses and members of the community involved, spreading the seeds of leadership even further. Then they decided that feeding the poor once a year wasn't enough. With CAP's help, they opened a Food Pantry. ... To aid people whose houses were falling down, they created a program that uses federal and state money to offer low-interest construction loans.
"CAP could have simply continued to manage the Attic Store and provide a valuable service, but by helping to form new leaders, we have done far more," Beiting explained.
Having formally founded CAP in 1964 and served as president until 1986, he was Chairman of the Board until 1999. He continues as Chairman emeritus and works daily in the field on various CAP projects he has started through the years. In addition to his work with CAP, Beiting currently is pastor at St. Jude Catholic Church in Louisa, Kentucky, and St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Hode, Kentucky. He received his Licentiate of Theology from Catholic University of America in 1949, and was given the Alumnus Lifetime Service Award from the Theological College located there in 1999. He also is a 1998 "Point of Light" recipient.
-- by Bonnie Hackbarth
E-mail comments to the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is © Copyright 2000 by Bonnie Hackbarth
Christian Appalachian Project
322 Crab Orchard Road
Lancaster, KY 40446