Meet people whose lives Catholic Relief Services transformed
BY JOHN BURGER
Celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich grew up in northeastern Italy, in an area that became part of Yugoslavia after World War II. Her family was desperate to escape life under communism.
“We had no one. They found a home for us. They found a job for my father. And ultimately we settled,” she told ABC News in 2008.
“They” were Catholic Relief Services, an agency that the Catholic bishops of the United States founded during the war, which helped Bastianich’s family start a new life in New York City.
“And I am the perfect example that if you give somebody a chance, especially here in the United States, one can find the way,” she said.
Less high profile is the story of Julek Plowy, whose family was one of thousands expelled from Poland by Soviet troops and sent to labor camps in Siberia. Plowy’s mother was seven months pregnant with him when they arrived in the gulag, and he was born there. After a couple of years, the family escaped to Iran and later crossed the Pacific to California. Finally they arrived in a dusty refugee settlement in Mexico run by Catholic Relief Services. Plowy, now 77, lives in California.
Those are two stories that Catholic Relief Services likes to look back on as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Though CRS is very much an organization that assists people overseas, it can nevertheless point to scores of examples of how its work has helped people or impacted lives here in the United States.
GLOBAL FELLOWS INFORM OTHERS
Sometimes that impact is direct, as in these two cases, while in other cases, it takes time. Take CRS’s Global Fellows program. Global Fellows are priests, deacons, and seminarians who travel with CRS and share their experiences and observations with their parish or other groups.
For example, Fr. Neil P. Kookoothe, a pastor in North Olmsted, Ohio, shares his story of Rwanda with anyone who will listen. He made the trip to the East African country in 2008, 14 years after a genocide there resulted in about 800,000 deaths, mostly those of the Tutsi people.
“I thought, Why am I going to Rwanda? The genocide is over,” he recalled. “Trust me, genocide was all over that country. Everywhere you went, the scars of genocide were on the land.
”There were mass graves that the people kept open “as more body parts were being discovered all over the country,” Fr. Kookoothe said. “In one area, the bodies of slaughtered Tutsis were still lying out.”
His hosts led him into a mass grave, 10 to 15 feet underground, and he recalled being surrounded by bones and skeletons.
He recounted his visit to a school on a mountainside, where frightened villagers had fled, thinking they would be safe.
“But they didn’t realize that high upon the mountain they were trapped, and over 50,000 Tutsis were murdered up in that school complex,” said the priest. “They left the corpses out and covered them with lime, so if you’re visiting there, you go from classroom to classroom looking at these corpses.”
Fr. Kookoothe encountered a young man who didn’t speak English but grabbed his arm and proceeded to show him around.
“He wanted me to see certain corpses,” Fr. Kookoothe said. “He wanted me to see a mother skeleton holding her infant skeleton. He wanted me to see the hash marks from the machetes on the bones. He wanted me to see a decapitation. He wanted me to see the horrors of the genocide. And then he pulled up his pant leg to show me machete marks on his own leg.”
CRS was providing materially in a number of ways to help Rwanda recover. But one way was not material at all, yet just as important. The agency was heavily involved in making sure that traditional “gacaca courts” were orderly and run in such a way that they were “community building.”
“So many people were involved in the genocide that the justice system was overwhelmed,” Fr. Kookoothe explained.
“The gacaca court would meet under a tree in the town square. The townspeople would hear the case and be the judges and mete out whatever justice was necessary. If you were a collaborator, whatever sentence they gave you would not be as severe as if you were a perpetrator. If you were a planner of the genocide, it would even more severe. The whole purpose was to mete out justice in such a way that it would be restorative rather than punitive.”
Deacon Steve Swope, another Global Fellow, said he, too, had a moving experience when he traveled with CRS. He visited Greece and Serbia in 2016 to see the work being done on behalf of refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
“We saw refugees on our TV screens, but until you stand there at the Port of Athens and see 4,000 refugees get off a ferry, it’s hard to grasp the suffering of humanity and the people who are fleeing war and persecution,” he said.
He was impressed by how CRS and dozens of other humanitarian agencies were cooperating “in a really harmonious fashion to alleviate the plight of these poor refugees, who were traveling with basically nothing.”
Deacon Swope, who lives in Newnan, Georgia, said that as a business traveler in the past, he has walked the streets of Mumbai, India, and has seen people in desperate poverty, but nothing like “the flood, the vast quantity of refugees who 10 years before were living a life just like mine, and now they’re not.”
Both Fr. Kookoothe and Deacon Swope testify to the impact the experiences had not only on them but on their parishioners.
“I think it’s really important for Americans, who lead the greatest and most wealthy and affluent lifestyle in the world, to understand that there are people who are really impoverished, and really just by virtue of the place where they were born have little advantage and little opportunity in life, and to reach out to them, as we are commanded to do, and provide them with aid and comfort and try to raise them up while respecting their human dignity,” Deacon Swope said.
Said Fr. Kookoothe, “You can see how the parish is shaped and emboldened by your preaching and teaching and your experiences. It’s not just my experiences; it’s the lives of the people overseas that are being brought to bear on the lives of people here.”
WORK CLOSER TO HOME
There are also times when Baltimore-based CRS can apply what’s happening globally to a problem right in its own backyard.
Aaron Chassy, director of equity, inclusion, and peacebuilding for CRS, was attending the annual Alliance for Peacebuilding conference in Washington in 2015, while parts of Baltimore were erupting in protest over the killing of Freddie Gray, a young African-American man who died shortly after being in police custody.
“It just seemed bizarre for us to be hobnobbing around fruit platters and cheese plates and talking about peace and justice when everything was blowing up just 50 miles north in Baltimore, ”Chassy recalled.
He began talks with an organization called Baltimore United in Leadership, or BUILD.
“You don’t build peace at a national level, really. You do it at the community level,” Chassy said. “We realized we couldn’t even work at the Baltimore city level; we had to work one neighborhood at a time.”
They chose a neighborhood called Darley Park on Baltimore’s East side that had elevated levels of violent crime. “At the time, all of the resources following the uprising were going on the opposite [side], the West side of the city,” he said.
Chassy and organizers from BUILD had two workshops with community leaders to train them in how to analyze the neighborhood’s problems and design the response to the area’s challenges.
“We went ahead and came up with, I would say, a holistic approach that involved elements of conflict resolution, youth development, trauma healing, and income-generating activities — because that’s what the community identified as the major needs in order to address the major drivers of violent conflict that they had identified earlier,” Chassy said.
Chassy and his team developed a pilot program that they are presenting to city officials, to see if they can implement it elsewhere as well, and have been seeking funding.
“When we went into Darley Park, we were working with community leaders, which is to say a handful of mostly elderly women — the grandmas — who pretty much run the place over there,” Chassy said. “So it will be pretty grass-rootsy.”
And, hopefully, it will be an example of how CRS’ international work will have an impact on people’s live right here in the United States.