National director: Rural Catholics face challenges

As the executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Jim Ennis sees more clearly than most the issues that challenge rural Catholic communities.

There are 52 million people living in rural areas – about 17 percent of the U.S. population – and Ennis says they have higher rates of poverty and fewer resources to provide a safety net than do people who live in cities.

On a recent visit to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Ennis said rural poverty often is hidden because it exists outside the spotlight of major urban centers.

“In rural areas there is a real pride and sense of independence, so when one is in poverty, it’s hidden and not talked about and often isolated,” said Ennis. “You’re dealing with folks who recognize poverty but have lived most of their lives proud, and they’re not going to apply for food stamps even though they are in a really difficult spot. A city might be much more organized providing resources. In rural communities, those resources aren’t as plentiful and available.”

$100 billion farm bill

Ennis regularly offers testimony before Congress on issues affecting farm and rural life, particularly the 10-year, $100 billion farm bill that establishes the amounts that will be made available for supplemental food programs, both urban and rural, as well as farm subsidies, crop insurance and rural development.

“As a national organization, we advocate for some of these funds to go toward rural assistance and research around sustainable agriculture, and conservation programs to protect natural resources,” Ennis said.

One of the emerging topics of concern for the conference is “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), which have been in existence for about 20 years and have impacted seed options, especially for small farmers, Ennis said. The purpose was to genetically alter seeds to produce hardier soybeans, corn and other vegetables that would be more resistant to disease and drought, potentially reducing the amount of pesticides that have to be applied.

But as these seeds produce stronger plants, Ennis said, farmers are less leery of applying herbicides directly on the plant to control weeds.

More herbicides used

“Farmers can spread it any time it’s convenient, so you’re actually not reducing the amount of herbicides used,” Ennis said. “That’s a big factor for large farmers. They’re still using a lot of pesticides and herbicides, and those are going into the soil and water and often kill everything else. Then, you have to use more fertilizers. The fertilizer industry loves it. You’ve got soil that’s almost dead, and you’ve got to put all these inputs into it. You’re creating an unsustainable system.

“There is also a concern about the loss of diversity of seeds over time as this continues to proliferate in the agriculture industry. The Catholic response is cautionary – how do we hold back and study this long term? We are not anti-technology but want to see how this has an impact on life, soil and water.”

On his visit to the archdiocese, Ennis met with Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, who told him the oyster beds in Plaquemines Parish still have not recovered from the BP oil spill in 2010. Many oyster beds have been re-seeded, but no spats have been taken. It takes three years for an oyster to move from spat stage to marketable size.

“Those oyster fishermen are economically struggling,” Ennis said. “He wants to see how they can organize an economic development project to support these fishermen in the interim until their beds are restored.”

Faced with difficult choices

In a documentary on the aftermath of the BP spill, “Vanishing Pearls,” Encalade said: “I was born on these bayous, and I will die on these bayous. We have no other choice. This is our life. We have no other place to go.”

Ennis also traveled to St. John the Baptist Church in Paradis, where parishioners are working with former inmates to prepare a one-acre community garden next to the church’s rosary walk that will yield crops to feed low-income families. The church already is a monthly food distribution site for Second Harvest Food Bank, serving about 130 families on the third Wednesday of the month.

“The idea for the garden actually got started with the archbishop (Gregory Aymond) when he came down here about two years ago,” said Donnie White, a member of the St. John the Baptist pastoral council. “He said he wanted to have a Catholic presence in our community.”

The plan is to plant okra, squash, cucumbers, mirliton and tomatoes, and the group already has planted 25 pecan trees around the perimeter of the garden. Parishioners with knowledge of farming and members of Catholic Charities’ Cornerstone Builders program – recently released inmates – have been working side by side. A hothouse is being planned to produce seedlings, and farmers in the area have pledged animal waste to be used as fertilizer.

Community involvement

“I learned a long time ago that if you can get the whole village involved, it doesn’t fall on just one person,” White said. “We really want to invite and bring people back to church. This brings people back together. We want that Catholic presence in the community. I’m like a kid with a new toy. I’m used to going 90 miles an hour. Now I have to slow down and wait.”

Ennis said Father Joseph Duc Dzien sees the garden “as another way to be a witness to the community to what the Catholic church is doing.”

Ennis’ conference also has prepared a “Life in Christ” pilot spirituality program for rural Catholic parishes, which includes the study of Scripture and church encyclicals.

“We see this as a way that the National Catholic Rural Life Conference can revitalize the laity,” Ennis said. “We see gifts in the laity that are untapped. Pastors are stretched, covering three to four churches, and they are welcoming any assistance we can give them in terms of lay leadership development.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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