Many of us who live in Baltimore, where Catholic Relief Services is headquartered, heard from far-flung family and friends in April wondering if we were okay. Some of these inquiries came from the other side of the world.
The concern was understandable, after violence erupted in connection with protests over the death of an African-American man in police custody. Some buildings near our headquarters were damaged or destroyed. Following police advice, CRS closed early one day and remained closed the next. But overwhelmingly, our response to the inquiries about our safety was, “Yes, we’re fine.” The experience made me think about the challenges CRS faces in our peacebuilding work in countries around the world.
In the United States, we rarely appreciate the structures we have to maintain peace. If we have a dispute—whether it is over a business deal gone bad or a traffic accident—we consult the authorities. In general, we trust their objectivity and fairness, that the rule of law will be applied. Our peaceful electoral process is a wonderful example of nonviolent transition of power in our democracy.
However, what we saw recently in Baltimore was the result of a widespread loss of trust—built up over the years—in our institutions. That is big news in the United States. But in too many places around the world, mistrust—not just of police, but also the courts, legislatures, government bureaucracies and other civil structures—is commonplace. The challenge in building trust is to ensure that those structures are worthy of it.
In our international humanitarian work, we build from the bottom up, getting people first to trust their neighbors, and then their neighboring communities. They learn to cross longstanding divides with a deep understanding that violence is not the way to solve problems—no matter how long that has been the chosen method, and no matter how ancient is the call for revenge. Our work builds the foundation for institutions that build and maintain peace. But this task is difficult in the midst of endemic poverty because scarcity of resources often breeds tension that can lead to violence. So economic development goes hand-in-hand with our peacebuilding work.
Another lesson I learned from the recent troubles in my city is how fragile the fabric of society can be, no matter how well woven it is. Consider that Baltimore is a city of more than 600,000 people within a metropolitan area that includes more than 2 million. How many were involved in the violence? It is hard to say, but it was probably fewer than a thousand or so, if that many. Even if it was several thousand, that is still a mere fraction of 1 percent. Yet their actions had a huge impact on the entire city.
Consider, in comparison, the countries and regions of the world where 10% of the population is involved in violence. In Baltimore, that would have been 60,000 people! No wonder many people think that countries with persistent conflict are hopelessly mired in violence. But I assure you, they are not. We just need to help the majority reach a small minority with the message of hope and trust.
I realize the people who contacted us to see how we were doing in Baltimore knew only what they were seeing on TV: the violence. They did not see that most people here—although we were certainly affected by the tension—were still conducting our daily business: going to work; raising children; feeding our families; attending church; talking, laughing, singing and playing.
So the next time you see violence—or its aftermath—in places like the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the neighborhoods in Central America that send so many children fleeing to the U.S. borders for safety, remember that in these countries too, the vast majority of people want to go about their daily business in peace. They do not want to fight. They want safety and security for themselves and their children, just like you do.
I ask you to join CRS as we work to bring the peace that God provides to everyone suffering from violence, wherever they live.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
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