Carolyn visits with children fleeing ISIS in northern Iraq in 2014. Photo by Rawsht Twana/Metrography for CRS
It was 5 years ago that we began this conversation, and now, this marks my last letter to you as president of Catholic Relief Services. Thank you for joining CRS to rebuild livelihoods, restore hope and make God’s promises real for many who have lost much. You have given me energy and inspiration to be worthy of our mandate, of the people God entrusts to us for our care. Thank you for making us part of your faith journey.
I have learned so much about myself in my time at CRS. As I have told you, like so many of those we serve, I was an immigrant. I came to this country from Hong Kong to attend college.
While I was raised in relative comfort, there was always uncertainty. My father battled a gambling problem, and as early as the age of 13, I knew we lived on a precarious financial foundation. It was clear I would need to provide for my parents someday. Plus, Hong Kong was going to be turned over to the Chinese by the British. We did not know what the future would bring. My siblings and nanny helped me scrape together enough money to come to the United States for 1 year of college. I did not know then that scholarships and fellowships would take care of the rest, all the way to my Ph.D.
In Roche a Bateau, Haiti, where few homes remain standing after Hurricane Matthew, a woman receives food, cooking supplies and a hygiene kit from CRS. Photo by Marie Arago for CRS
As I write this month, thinking about how we will gather as families across our bountiful land to give thanks for all that we have received, my desk and inbox are filled with reports about the hundreds of thousands suffering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew.
When this powerful storm ripped through Haiti’s southwest corner, it devastated a peninsula of fertile land, and many homes could not withstand the winds and storm surge. It was after a similarly destructive storm in 1954, Hurricane Hazel, that Catholic Relief Services first went into Haiti. We have been there ever since, working with the poor through our Church.
And we are there now, in your name, in solidarity with the Haitian people, just as we were in 2010 after an earthquake devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince. The recovery from Hurricane Matthew is just beginning.
I recently came across a fascinating article in Harvard Magazine. Its title, “The Science of Scarcity,” sums up an emerging topic among behavioral economists, the people who study why we make the economic decisions that we do.
What they find is that when any of us are poor—indeed when we face scarcity of any kind—we tend to make bad decisions. Poverty actually lowers our IQ by limiting what these economists call our “bandwidth.” When we are consumed with the problems of poverty—like where our next meal is coming from—we have less of our brain left over to think clearly in a long term fashion.
Ibrahim Nadashi, 66 years old, participates in a reading and writing class in Ruwawuri, Nigeria. The class is helping people learn these skills so they can earn a living with dignity. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
Did you know that in this country high school students’ SAT scores correlate consistently with only one measurement: household income? The higher the income, the higher the score, and vice versa. Some say this shows that the wealthy can afford test prep tutors. Others say it proves that our capitalist meritocracy works, that the smart are rewarded.
But it’s clear to me that students living in poverty do not score lower because they are inherently less intelligent. They score lower because the stress of poverty robs them of their intelligence. As the article states, people aren’t poor because they sometimes make bad decisions; people sometimes make bad decisions because they are poor.
Syria refugees, from left, Evine, Ola and Zainab attend a science class at the Good Shepherd Sisters Center in Lebanon. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS
There are many things we take for granted—water from our taps, food from the supermarket, a roof over our heads, a doctor to vaccinate our children. Yet these are often out of reach for the people served by Catholic Relief Services.
And there is another precious commodity I want to talk about this month—school.
Every September, as sure as water flows from the faucet, our children and grandchildren gripe as their vacation comes to an end and they must march into the hallways of education once again. But imagine if their school wasn’t there. Imagine if September came and went, and the school doors remained closed to our children.
The refugee crisis gripping our world makes that scenario a reality for so many children today. Millions are fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Some have left their countries. Some have sought refuge within them. I learned so much about their plight this summer—visiting refugees in Lebanon, Greece and Serbia.
Monsignor Andrew Landi, who served with CRS for over 35 years, is greeted by Mother Teresa and the children of one of her welfare centers in Calcutta. Photo by CRS Staff
In the 1950s, Monsignor Alfred Schneider, who was director of Catholic Relief Services’ work in India, kept hearing about a nun working in the slums of Calcutta. Father Al, as he was known, was curious about this woman, who was also helping the poor.
One day, while visiting makeshift schools CRS supported there, he noticed children gathered around a nun, chatting cheerfully.
“I went over to find out who she was, and when she looked at me I knew. This had to be Mother Teresa,” Father Al wrote in his memoir My Brother’s Keeper. “Christ was in her face—in her shining eyes, in the lines of patience and laughter around her mouth, in the ineffable glow of love which surrounded her.”
Catholic Relief Services and its partners host a day for religious leaders to visit and pray with internally displaced persons in Bangui, the Central African Republic. Photo by Catianne Tijerina for CRS
This month we mark the 240th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s stirring words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That passage from the Declaration of Independence shares a mutual foundation with Catholic social teaching—the dignity of mankind. Consider Pope Francis’ words on this year’s World Day of Peace: “As creatures endowed with inalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human.” (more…)
CRS President and CEO Carolyn Y. Woo speaks one year ago during a news conference to present Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ to the world. Also pictured are Orthodox Metropolitan John of Pergamon and Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Photo courtesy of Paul Harring/CNS
It was on this week one year ago that Pope Francis launched Laudato Si’—his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment. At least, that’s the shorthand commonly used to describe the document. In fact, Laudato Si’ is so much more. It is really about making fundamental changes in our relationships with the gifts God gives us—especially his gift of the natural world, but also of our brethren in the family of mankind.
So much has happened since the Holy Father issued his encyclical, including the historic December meeting in Paris. Together, the United States, China and scores of other nations agreed to work to stem rising global temperatures, with richer nations pledging to help people in poorer countries suffering the consequences of environmental neglect.
We can’t say if that would that have happened without Pope Francis’ guiding hand on both our intellects and our consciences. But we can say that Laudato Si’ was a game changer.
Business, which is my background, receives much-deserved criticism in the encyclical for its role in the degradation of the environment. And I think you have seen a shift in the last year. From increasing investments in clean energy sources, to pledges to reduce energy use, many more business leaders are showing that they understand a healthy planet will also mean a healthy business. They realize that short-term thinking will lead to long-term disaster. That’s the kind of relationship change the pope calls for.
At Catholic Relief Services, our I Am Climate Change campaign has energized students on college campuses across the country, inspiring them to look at their own behaviors and speak out for others, especially by advocating with government leaders.
Aster Sisay will benefit from the REAAP project, or Resilience through Enhanced Adaptation, Action-Learning and Partnership. The CRS project is helping nearly half a million people adapt new practices and technologies to better withstand climate change. Photo by Petterik Wiggers for CRS
Around the world, we support programs that engage with the message of Laudato Si’. In a group of villages in eastern Ethiopia, we are taking a comprehensive approach to help people deal with a changing environment. As a result, these communities can better forecast changes in rain patterns. They are on the way to preserving precious topsoil and water resources so they can provide their families with proper nutrition, whatever the weather.
For people whose lives depend on what comes out of the ground, it is critical that they can manage their resources properly as they face challenges related to climate change, exacerbated this year in Ethiopia by droughts caused by El Niño.
There are some measures that can bring immediate relief, like raised-bed keyhole gardens, which can produce nutritious vegetables with very little water. But, for the most part, we know that the changes needed are not going to happen quickly. This will require commitment and perseverance. It took decades to get into this situation, and it will take decades to get out.
Across Africa, we are at work on a program called Climate Smart Agriculture that will lead to millions of farmers adapting to the new climate realities by planting better types of crops, using improved tilling techniques and taking measures to preserve water and soil.
Such work goes on in so many places in our world, whether in Central America, where rising temperatures are affecting which crops farmers can grow, or in Bangladesh, where rising sea levels threaten low-lying communities.
Pope Francis has shown us the foundation needed to build our better world. Its cornerstone is this simple thought: What kind of world do we want to leave our children? What kind of world do we want to leave the children growing up in those villages in Ethiopia?
God is so generous and bountiful. He has given us a precious gift—our natural world—that will more than take care of our needs. But we must be the stewards of this gift, cherishing and nurturing it, not exploiting it selfishly.
That is the changed relationship that Pope Francis asks of us. It will be a long road to get there, but in the last year we have been greatly encouraged along this wondrous journey.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
Dr. Omeonga Senga, an Ebola survivor and general surgeon at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital, consultants a young patient and his father prior to surgery. CRS’ support has helped St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital reopen, keep health care workers safe and communities healthy. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
“At least we have our health.”
So many times you hear those words on TV spoken by someone after a natural disaster—a flood, a hurricane, a tornado—often as the person stands next to the ruins of a home. As upset as they are over the loss of their material possessions, they are letting you know that they realize what’s important.
Physical health is one of the cornerstones on which we build our lives, on which we build our societies, our economies. Striving for every one of us to be as healthy as possible—in every country of the world, no matter how poor—is striving for the dignity and hope that God intended for each of us. It is an expression of the respect that we have for life itself.
When we think of health, often we think of doctors and medicine, of treating disease. And that is an important part of what we do at Catholic Relief Services. During the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, we worked with the Church and local governments both to stem the spread of the infection and to treat those suffering from the disease.
As the epidemic abated, we helped reopen St. Joseph’s Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, which had closed when Ebola tragically decimated its staff. It is now functioning at a higher level than ever. We did the same in Haiti after the earthquake there, helping the important Catholic teaching hospital St. François de Sales to rebuild and provide even better medical care and training.
It is this kind of work at CRS that leads us to realize what those people standing next to their destroyed homes understand: health is so much more than caring for the sick, as important as that is. In fact, health is so fundamental that almost everything that we do for the poor around the world addresses it.
In this briefing, you can read about a CRS microfinance program that allows people in Benin villages to pay for health insurance. This is not the kind of health work you might see from some humanitarian organizations—rushing in, treating the sick, then leaving. That certainly helps people, but this is thinking about health in a different way, putting in place a sustainable system that will be foundational to good health in these communities for generations.
The same is true of many of our agriculture programs. We know hunger is not just a matter of having enough to eat. It is having the right kinds of foods to eat—not just calories, but proper nutrients.
So in Africa right now we encourage the planting of staple crops like maize, as well as legumes and other vegetables. These add important variety to diets, and help protect and replenish depleted soil, so plots can continue to provide sustenance for years to come.
Other CRS programs seek to determine the nutrients needed in the first years of life. Good nutrition helps babies and children avoid stunting—a failure to grow and develop properly that will affect their health for the rest of their lives.
And more than just food, many medical historians say that the single most important health advancement in history was the provision of clean water, so many lives were spared by stopping the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera. Look no further than Flint, Michigan, to see how much we rely on functioning water systems in our country.
At CRS, we work around the world to provide people with reliable sources of clean, safe water. In Ethiopia, local water committees ensure that deadly minerals are removed from water pulled from deep wells. In Madagascar, we assisted in the development of a public-private partnership to see that clean water is delivered consistently to poor neighborhoods.
And, of course, the health of thousands is guarded from the scourge of violence by our peacebuilding work going on right now in places like the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
So let us toast, “To your health!” And to the health that God intended for every one of us, wherever we live.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
Maabisi Phooko, a 71-year-old widow in Lesotho, tends to her keyhole garden, a resilient CRS innovation which she uses to help care for her three orphaned grandchildren. Photo by Kim Pozniak/CRS
I want to tell you about a small country in southern Africa that you may have never heard of. It’s Lesotho (that’s pronounced li-SOO-too). Encircled entirely by South Africa, Lesotho was isolated during the decades of apartheid.
Its poverty is extreme. More than 40% of its 2 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. It also has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world at more than 23%. Many of its men left home to work in the mines of South Africa. Gone for months at a time, they often brought the virus back with their paychecks.
And now, on top of these problems, Lesotho faces a devastating drought brought on by El Nino. As CRS Country Representative Rita Billingsley told CBS News a few weeks ago, this is not like the drought in California, where a lack of rainfall might mean you can’t wash your car or water your lawn. This drought means you cannot feed your children.
Lesotho is not alone. Countries throughout southern and East Africa are dealing with the effects of this strong El Nino. The rain it brings can be capricious—coming down hard enough to turn the landscape green, but not with enough consistency to grow nutritious crops.
Just to the north of Lesotho, in Zimbabwe, the situation is similar. “I harvested nothing last year,” says Fortunate Maangla, a mother of four living in the rural countryside of Zimbabwe. “We’ll be dead if somebody doesn’t help us.”
At this point, even if the rains returned, small farmers like Fortunate have no seeds to plant and no money to buy seeds.
During this Lenten season, the stories of people like Fortunate make me realize the privileges we enjoy. We can choose to sacrifice, to be reminded of the suffering that our Lord endured. So many people in so many places around the world do not have that privilege.
We can learn so much from people like these. Despite their hardships, they get up day after day after day, hoping that whatever small meal they can put together will help their families through, and that tomorrow will be better.
This is what Lent reminds us of: that tomorrow will be better. It leads us to the Passion narrative, the darkest moments for our Lord and his followers, ending on the magnificent Easter Sunday when the cry “He is risen!” resounded in Jerusalem. As we know, those words eventually resounded around the entire world, giving us all a message of sacrifice, of redemption and of hope.
Hope is so powerful. In the United States, we can feel it in this season when the earth itself trumpets forth that message, awakening from its winter slumber. It is a triumphant proclamation of hope for the most important, most precious and, indeed, the most miraculous gift from God—the gift of life itself. It is this gift that unites us all, whether we are rich or poor, whether we speak English or Spanish or Urdu, whether our skin is black or white or red or brown or tan or whatever color God makes it. It is the gift that makes us all brethren in the family of God.
CRS RiceBowl is a program of Lenten solidarity and Easter joy for Catholics all across the United States.
So much of what we do during Lent is an affirmation of hope. For all of you who participate in CRS Rice Bowl, every penny put in that bowl, every inexpensive meal you serve, every faith lesson you contemplate, expresses that hope in the redemption Easter will bring.
With your support, we at Catholic Relief Services deliver hope all around the world. Today we are working with the people of Lesotho, Zimbabwe and many other countries affected by El Nino—countries already suffering from climate change—to bring them food, water and better agriculture.
The miracle of redemption happens because we are the hands of the risen Jesus, digging the soil, planting the seeds, giving them water and reaping their bounty. Join with us and harvest the hope of this season.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo visits with Iraqi children whose families have been displaced by ISIS. Photo by Rawsht Twana/Metrography for Catholic Relief Services
What is the opposite of love?
Most would probably answer “hate.” And certainly that is true in many ways. But I want to propose a different answer—fear.
The scripture tells us this in the fourth chapter of 1 John, verse 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.”
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, when we contemplate the basic tenets of our faith, we must consider love and think about what Jesus asks of us when he tells us to love our neighbor as ourself and to love our enemy.
Fundamental to following the path of love is obeying 1 John and acting without fear. As I write this, I see so much fear in the world, fear that all too often drives out love.