By Susan Olp
Dan Dutton knows about getting involved in rural issues at a grass-roots level.
Dutton, a rancher who lives south of Belfry, didn't hesitate when an out-of-state group wanted to build a 2,000-megawatt power plant in the area.
"We did petitions and held meetings in town and really held their feet to the fire," Dutton said.
That effort spurred Dutton to stay involved. He is a member of the Montana Coal Board and the Citizens Advisory Council for Region 5 of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He also ran for the Montana Legislature twice and "came in a close second," he said.
So three years ago when Bishop Anthony Milone of the Great Falls-Billings Catholic Diocese proposed formation of a grass-roots organization to champion the cause of rural Montanans, Dutton jumped on board. Milone's concern had to do with "the plight of the farmers and ranchers of Eastern Montana," Dutton said.
Out of that came the creation of the Diocesan Catholic Rural Life Conference, of which Dutton is chair. The group plans to provide "a faith-based leadership platform for the people of rural Eastern Montana to speak out in unity on spiritual, moral, ethical, economic, social, health, governmental and land stewardship issues," Dutton said.
The organization will meet for the first time this Saturday in Lewistown, and Dutton hopes a lot of people will come and join. While the faith-based organization has the support of the Catholic Church, Dutton said, it is open to "any and all" people.
"And issues addressed won't just be church-related," he said.
Some of the issues may be faith-based, Dutton said, such as the inability of some small parishes to hold Mass more than once a month. But other issues common to many small communities - such as how to maintain a sustainable economy in Eastern Montana - could also take the group's attention.
At the meeting, Milone will give an opening prayer and make a few comments. Helen Walker, a wheat farmer from Circle, will speak.
Then the group will spend time filling leadership positions and identifying problems and proposing possible solutions. While the group is open to everyone willing to pay a $15 annual membership fee, the biggest requirement is a willingness to get involved.
"It's a grass-roots organization," Dutton said. "You just can't pay your dues and let someone else solve the problem."
This isn't the first time such a group has assembled in the state. In the 1920s, a group of Catholics joined together to speak out on issues that touched the lives of the rural residents of Eastern Montana.
The group eventually dissolved, but the problems didn't go away. The most recent incarnation of the organization came after Milone brought his concerns to the Diocesan Pastoral Council.
"He asked us to think about restarting a conference for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings," Dutton said.
Brother David Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, came to Montana to meet with Milone and the council. From there, a core group got to work, drawing up bylaws and handling other preliminary matters.
Now the founding members of the Diocesan Catholic Rural Life Conference hope to get others excited about coming together to make a difference. Positive change is more likely when a unified voice is speaking, Dutton said.
A group of people from throughout the eastern part of the state can develop a network that can grow and function between the times members meet together, he said.
"I'm still a person who believes one voice can make a difference," Dutton said.
The first general membership meeting of the newly formed Great Falls-Billings Diocesan Catholic Rural Life Conference will be Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at St. Leo's Catholic Church in Lewistown. Lunch will be provided. A $15 membership fee is asked of people who plan to attend and join the conference, but no one will be turned away for lack of money, said Dan Dutton, chairman of the conference. For information, contact Dutton at (406) 664-3000 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Center for Rural Affairs
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