Death of an Appalachian Justice Warrior

Of all the people I’ve met in Appalachia doing the Moundsville project, nobody came at you with a spirit like that of Michael J. Iafrate, a brilliant musician and Catholic social justice activist whose body was killed this week by cancer.

Michael — Mikey to his friends — was a Catholic in the tradition of Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Dan Berrigan, articulated by liberation theology. The Gospel of Love means all kinds of things to all kinds of people, but to this community of believers, it means that we all called to fight, passionately, for justice. “If your interpretation of the Gospel isn’t having you smash some structure,” Michael once told a friend, “it’s idolatrous bullshit.”

I’ve never met anybody who loved the church and its message of love, justice, and resurrection, and at the same time hated its flaws — clericalism, corruption, sexism — more than Michael. He seethed with righteous Christian punk anarchist indignation, and he felt called to evangelize in his own way, by playing music, punk and bluegrass (why not?), and fighting for justice in his native West Virginia and the place he was living when I met him, Wheeling, where he helped organized a screening of Moundsville. In Wheeling, he helped expose a thieving bishop, but his deeper calling was advocating for marginalized people all over West Virginia and Appalachia, those suffering from over a century of exploitation and deprivation.

As his friend Andy Edwards wrote in a Facebook tribute:

He was the best of us, and I mean that. I struggle to think of a Christian more faithful, more brave in his witness to an unpopular gospel, than Mike. He was a thorn in the side of bishops, diocesan officials, and anyone who neglected “the least of these,” yet he was also the kindest and gentlest person you could ever meet. I only played music with him once, at an “artists’ mass,” which ended up being one of the most beautiful and inspiring experiences of worship I’ve ever had. He was equally adept at expressing and proclaiming his faith through punk or old-time bluegrass—an odd combination, to be sure, but it made complete sense in him.

A doctoral student in theology, Michael oversaw the writing of the 2015 Peopleʼs Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, a stirring, eloquent 84-page plea for justice for Appalachians, and vision for healing and hope.

The stories we tell and pass along
help us to remember, to make sense of our lives,
and to create meaning within them.
But powerful elites tell false stories
about this world and about their communities
in the loudest of voices.
These stories reflect values
which are not in the best interest of everyday people,
especially those who are poor or vulnerable.
When powerful people in our communities,
our region, our nation, and even our church
abuse their power and tell false stories
that shape our lives and our values,
reality can be distorted and injustice grows

The document, which inspired a documentary film by Sebastian Gomes and Salt + Light Media, seized people’s imagination with its articulation of the need for justice, emphasis on the environment and food, clear theology, and lifting up the cause of people marginalized in society and the church, including women, people of color, and the LGBT community.

Rare for a text by a theologian, it was, also, a work of deep reporting, empathy and curiosity, involving wide travel and interviews:

Members of the Cherokee community
in North Carolina,
people of varying ages and backgrounds,
spoke of the transmission of generational grief
and trauma that comes from colonization
and the continued devaluing of
indigenous cultures, identities, and traditions
by the dominant culture.

And Michael was not just a social justice activist. He was a real Catholic, which meant that he believed in Jesus, in the the power of the spirit, and in resurrection. By naming problems, and pointing toward love, and embracing the reality of our brokenness, we could make something new, he said. As his pastoral put it:

The Spirit of empowerment and justice
continually urges us:
Forget the events of the past,
ignore the things of long ago!
Look, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth—can’t you see it?
I’m making a road in the desert
and setting rivers to fl ow in the wasteland.
(Isaiah 43:18-19)
Likewise, we in these mountains believe
that a new Appalachia is not only possible
but is already beginning to grow
in the shell of the old

This was also a man who loved his wife and children, and loved playing music with people he loved. But love is not a zero sum endeavor, and Michael touched the lives of many, even those of us who met him only handful of times. This week, Michael’s Facebook page was filled by tributes. “I only met him a few times,” wrote somebody, “but I could tell he was the real deal.”

Big spirits are like that.

John W. Miller

5 comments

  1. No offense, but I think you meant Dan Berrigan, who was a Jesuit priest known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and America’s nuclear weapons system.

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