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.
I worked and worked and worked. I worked as if the devil was chasing me. What I came to realize is that so much of my drive was to find the security that eluded me as a child. And I achieved that. As an academic, when you get tenure, you get security. Other promotions and awards reinforced that. It felt good. It felt solid. I had grabbed my brass rings and I kept a tight grip on them.
When I faced the prospect of coming to CRS from Notre Dame, it meant I had to give up tenure, give up my standing in the academic world, give up the security that had been my goal. I can tell you now that I was scared. I can also tell you that it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It challenged my family to define what was “enough.” It invited me to trust God. It opened the world to me, and it connected me to a strength that I did not know I have. Most precious, it allowed me to become a part of the works of mercy of the Church.
The last 5 years have made me realize the meaning of the phrase “let go and let God.” All over the world, I have met people who taught me this lesson.
Among them was a group of women in Afghanistan who, through a CRS program, started a bakery business. They specialize in butter cookies. CRS provided the oven and enough butter, flour and other ingredients for their first 3 months.
I tasted their cookies. They were to die for! That 3-month inventory sold out in 1 week! One reason: their CRS business training led them to find a market for their product. In this case, that was the local police, who loved their cookies too.
The leader of the project was nursing a baby. I asked her how many children she had. This was her only one. “I had another one,” she told me, “but he died of malnutrition because I didn’t have enough milk.”
Such moments made me realize that the security I always sought was an illusion. That woman did not have much security. But because of the bakery, she had a better life.
None of us ever knows what tomorrow will bring. That is in God’s hands. We can only work to try to make tomorrow better than today—for ourselves, for our loved ones, for everyone in God’s family, wherever they live.
That is what we try to do at CRS. We cannot wave a magic wand and reconstruct Haiti after its earthquake, after Hurricane Matthew. We cannot make fields in Ethiopia suddenly fertile in the midst of years of drought. But we can become the hands of God, at work to make their tomorrow better than today.
My time at CRS has made me change my daily prayer. I used to say, “Oh God, please help me in my work.” Then one day I realized, “Well, this is not really my work. God, this is your work, and I’m just given the privilege to be a part of it.” Since then, my prayer has been, “God, please lead us, guide us and sustain us for your purpose.”
It is a time of great uncertainty for many of us. Yet, I am certain about the presence of God in this world, even in dark hours and places, and particularly amidst people in profound suffering. He walks among us telling us not to be afraid, inviting us to venture beyond our little boxes, helping us laugh, prying open our hearts, and giving us the gift of one other, as partners in his work.
I am excited about the future leadership of my successor Sean Callahan and of everyone at CRS putting the people they serve before themselves. And for the CRS boards and all of you—our supporters—you have been the family to whom I have turned for help and engagement, the family with whom I am on this journey as the people of God back to God.
As for my future, I look forward to spending more time with my husband and loved ones. Most of all, for a person whose academic discipline, profession and modus operandi focus on planning, I am now eager to make God the plan.
You will be in my prayers, and I hope you will keep me in yours.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
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