Catholic Relief Services: Seminarian shares his experience working with CRS
By Greg Gerhart
When I received my letter of acceptance from the North American College in Rome, many thoughts raced through my mind. How exciting it would be to continue my priestly formation in Rome, the heart of the church! My anticipation grew as my departure date grew nearer. Little did I know that what would grab my attention more than the beautiful basilicas while walking along the streets of the Eternal City were the men and women in the streets begging for help.
I immediately found myself in a crisis of faith. What does it mean to be a Christian, a man studying to be a priest, when my brothers and sisters are going to bed with nothing to eat? I sought the Lord’s help, and by his grace I grew in love for the poor; I committed myself to them through volunteer work at a soup kitchen and through sharing my own resources that arose from living a simpler life. However, after a few months of providing short-term help for the men and women I had come to know, I felt overwhelmed and helpless. There was so little that I could do to genuinely help the poor out of poverty. I needed help.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) came to my seminary to give a presentation on what our call as Christians to love our neighbor means in our quickly globalizing world. I took the opportunity to join them on a Global Fellows Trip to Sierra Leone in West Africa in order to learn more about their work and how I could respond to the needs of the poor. I learned that more than half of the people in Sierra Leone live on less than $1 a day and that the cry of the poor that I had heard in the streets of Rome rings throughout the world. But, after spending a week on the ground with the CRS staff and witnessing the great work they do, I no longer felt helpless.
I was so impressed with the quality of CRS’ work and edified by their commitment to Catholic social teaching that I wish CRS had a presence in every city. I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. CRS provides humanitarian relief and development assistance in accordance with Catholic teaching to the poor and marginalized regardless of creed in more than 90 countries and territories around the world.
While in Sierra Leone, I met Adimone Morie, a woman displaced during the civil war that plagued Sierra Leone from 1991-2002. A widow at 60 years old, Adimone was living in a hut she made with palm branches; she told me she probably would not be alive if it weren’t for CRS’ help.
CRS, which is the official overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, came to Adimone’s village and listened to the community to assess their needs. After much dialogue, CRS agreed to provide materials and instruction to build 100 houses for the rehabilitation of families displaced by the war; Adimone’s village provided the labor, which gave them an immense sense of self-worth. Now, Adimone feels safe and healthy in her home that provides shelter for her large family, and CRS continues several other programs in her village, which thrive due to the trust established.
Though CRS is not involved in explicit proselytism, they are evangelizing by responding generously to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” And their evangelization through love for the least does bear the fruit of conversion. In the spring of 2012, after having drilled a well for a community in Ethiopia, the entire village decided to become Catholic – knowing nothing more about the faith other than their experience of being loved! If being Catholic means to love your neighbor, even across the world, they wanted to be Catholic.
What impressed me besides CRS’ commitment to Catholic social teaching was the quality of their work. First of all, CRS enters a country for the long haul; they have been in Sierra Leone for more than 50 years, but their goal is to work themselves out of a job.
Not content merely to provide handouts, CRS develops relationships with the communities they enter in order to involve that community in their own deliverance from poverty. For example, much like the houses in Adimone’s village, the decision to build the well in Ethiopia only came after getting to know the village, asking for their input in determining their needs, and employing their men and women to accomplish the task. The process that preceded the construction of that well demonstrates CRS’ commitment to respect the dignity of each human person, which is directly linked to the quality of their care.
As I close, I would like to make an appeal on behalf of our brothers and sisters, echoing the words of Pope Francis: “Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.” But we are not without hope. Pope Francis continues: “Where do I find hope? In the poor Jesus, Jesus who made himself poor for us... How can I become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus, who was the poor Teacher?”
That question is what led me to CRS. I find hope in CRS because they seek to be the loving hands of the poor Jesus; I can be confident that CRS uses the money I donate to build up the Kingdom of God, a society in which none of our brothers and sisters are left without food, shelter, education and most importantly, love. May Pope Francis’ question ring softly in our hearts; may the Holy Spirit inspire us to respond generously to the cry of the poor, and may CRS be a source of hope for all of us as we strive to love God in our neighbors.
A special collection for Catholic Relief Services will be taken up in all parishes in the Austin Diocese March 29-30. For more information about CRS, visit www.crs.org.