While I was deciding all of that, my request for a year of discernment brought me to Kentucky and the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) where I mentored young volunteers from all over the States. The job entailed living with the legendary activist priest Monsignor Ralph Beiting. It exposed me not only to his direct influence, but to Appalachia, one of the poorest areas in the U.S. There my education about my own country continued.
After a year with CAP, my exit-decision was made. I resigned from the priesthood and took a job as a cutter in a Dayton, Ohio factory that made protective clothing for fire fighters. Meanwhile I sent out resumes in search of a job in post-secondary teaching, which I felt was my real vocation.
Several months later I landed a job teaching at Berea College in Kentucky. And there (to tell the truth) my own education took a quantum leap. Berea College, it turned out, was a school with a radical history. It had been founded by abolitionists before the Civil War. It was Christian but non-denominational. Berea was committed to racial equality and social justice. I became one of its first Catholic professors.
My first year at Berea found me teaching a required freshman course called “Issues and Values.” I scrambled to learn our curriculum: black history, women’s liberation, Appalachian culture (so resistant to the mainstream), world religions, and the dawning environmental crisis. There in the 1970s we were reading and teaching the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, and books like E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Food First. Those books were extremely prescient. They accurately predicted the climate chaos and resulting social unrest we are experiencing today. I find those books even more relevant to the contemporary world than they were then.
More importantly for my development, I took on at Berea another required course. This one was for sophomores – “Religious and Historical Perspectives,” a two-semester offering in the history of ideas. It was a Great Books course dealing almost exclusively in primary sources. It took students from biblical times through the Greeks and Romans, the medieval period, renaissance, reformation, scientific revolution, enlightenment, industrial revolution, and ended up with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. Students (and I!) were reading directly authors like Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Luther, Galileo, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Faculty development had our interdisciplinary team of professors doing summer seminars over several years. Together we took month-long courses from specialists in the scientific revolution, Dante, Darwin, Marx and apocalyptic literature. At that point in my life it all seemed like a capstone course in my own process. Much more however was to come.
More importantly still, at Berea I met my beautiful bride. Ten years younger than me, Peggy also arrived at Berea in 1974. Two years later we were married. I was 36 then.
The two of us were strongly influenced by the environmental movement. We imagined ourselves as real “back to nature” couple. For $8000, we bought an unfinished house in an Appalachian holler, finished it with our own hands and started raising a family. Eventually we had three children, Maggie (’79), Brendan (’82), and Patrick (‘86). As citified outsiders, we lived in that holler learning lots from our Appalachian neighbors (all of them kin to one another). Our neighbor next-door taught me about things that had to that point escaped my education: roofing, car repair, plumbing, and about soldering pipes periodically ruptured by freezing winter temperatures. I watched him and his wife build a home next to ours. They made it completely from lumber salvaged from another house they had helped tear down in Berea. For all their problems, Jimmy Lee and Letty were smarter than many of us over-educated college professors.