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Suffering people put you in the presence of God

Posted By March 6, 2015 | 5:31 pm | Featured Article #4
Photo by Tanya Connor
President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services Carolyn Y. Woo told her audience at Assumption College that suffering is relevant to us because it happens to God’s people.
Photo by Tanya Connor President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services Carolyn Y. Woo told her audience at Assumption College that suffering is relevant to us because it happens to God’s people.

By Tanya Connor

WORCESTER – The president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services gave suggestions Wednesday for how people here can work with and for those in need around the world.
First, it’s important to “not turn our eyes away from the people who are suffering.”
Second, “know that suffering is relevant to us because God made it relevant” and because it happens to God’s people.
Third, “do at least one thing you can do.”
Carolyn Y. Woo, who heads the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made these points in an interview with The Catholic Free Press. She repeated them in her talk for the 2015 President’s Lecture Series at Assumption College.
CRS_Logo Expounding on these points using Scripture, she said Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” said the rich man in the Gospel never even saw the poor man Lazarus at his doorstep. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows that anyone who crosses your path is your neighbor. And Matthew 25 shows that “God located himself” in the poor, and the summation of our lives is how we treat them.
People tend to think about giving money, but they can also examine their consumption and government policies affecting anyone who suffers, sponsor speakers for their parish or fund a program for local children or the mentally ill, she said.
Asked for suggestions about helping Haiti, given the twinning between the Worcester and Les Cayes dioceses, she spoke about sustainable solutions and said it is important to encourage people here to try to build the capacity of people in Haiti.
When an interviewer from the Springfield Diocese asked what Ms. Woo would say is the most pressing problem in the world, she spoke of a lack of peace. There are ways to tackle poverty, but violence and oppression tears those things apart, she said.
CRS helped provide shelter for 10,000 people in Northern Iraq displaced by ISIS last fall and is helping them get food and places for children to be safe and to learn, she said.
Ms. Woo said when she visited Afghanistan, the leader of a successful bakery group trained by CRS breastfed her baby while talking to her. Noting the difference CRS made, Ms. Woo said the woman’s previous child had died of starvation.
Ms. Woo said it’s a privilege to help rebuild lives and hope and to have CRS resources to use for people without resources. CRS is there by God’s power and works in his name, she said.
CRS works in about 100 countries with 90-100 million people a year and a budget of $650-950 million, depending on emergencies and donations, she said. She said no more than 10 cents of a dollar pays for the agency’s costs and that one third of its work is for emergencies.
Last summer CRS started providing education in Liberia about spreading the Ebola virus, and was asked to help restart a local Catholic hospital, she said. Then CRS helped with orphans, clinics, agriculture and dignified burials which would prevent the spread of Ebola.
It’s hard to make God real by just talking; people make God real by making love real, Ms. Woo said.
After showing a CRS video with  smiling people, Ms. Woo said, “We’re not depressed. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed. The reason we’re not depressed … just think of all those smiles.” And, she said, this is God’s work, not theirs.
Ms. Woo also gave a hopeful perspective on desperate situations, when responding to a question later.
“You feel like God cannot leave these people behind,” she said. The dying are about to meet God with dignity, getting there ahead of you.
“That’s the feeling – you are in the presence of God,” she said of encountering people in deep suffering.
A listener asked how often CRS has to work around ISIS.
“We actually try to stay away from them,” Ms. Woo said, even though she was 12 miles from ISIS when in Northern Iraq in October.
“We don’t have bullet-proof vests. We don’t have police guards. … We are prudent, but we take risks.”

Photo by Tanya Connor Bishop Reilly, who once worked with CRS,  speaks to Ms. Woo, the head of CRS.

Photo by Tanya Connor
Bishop Reilly, who once worked with CRS, speaks to Ms. Woo, the head of CRS.

In Latin America, she said, “We are in the same places where gangs are recruiting people.” CRS can’t serve the people if it’s not there with them; in this case, it gives youth job-training, so they won’t join gangs.
This helps corporations by giving them trained workers. The former dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Ms. Woo spoke of the importance of engaging corporations to hire people CRS has trained.
She also spoke of asking Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company about how they buy items such as cocoa, coffee, sugar and bananas. “Can you buy differently?” Large companies find it easier to buy from large farms than from many poor, illiterate farmers, she said. But that leaves those small farmers having to sell to large farms, going out of business and moving to cities, where they become urban poor, she explained. There their children are more susceptible to joining gangs, and illegally entering other countries.
Moral energy is needed to use businesses and markets in the right way to engage the poor, she said.
CRS’ bedrock is Catholic social teaching, which is inspired by the Catholic Church but universally applicable, Ms. Woo said.
She said CRS’ mission is to go where people suffer most in other countries.
In the United States, which has Catholic Charities to help this country’s poor, CRS evangelizes by showing that the Church is sincere about its commitment to the poor of the world. It also evangelizes by giving Americans the opportunity to serve the poor, through financial contributions, advocacy, education and changing their consumption practices.
She told about CRS’ student ambassador program, which trains college students in Christian leadership, taking them to lobby representatives and encouraging them to raise awareness through prayer services and other campus activities. CRS provides resources for faculty and works with university administrations to examine their practices, such as buying Fair Trade products and advocating for justice, she said.
Assumption President Francesco Cesareo said the college is proud to partner with this program, which helps students educate peers about global issues and volunteer with the needy in the community.


Global Fellows spread word about CRS programs

By William T. Clew

Helping to spread the message of the two popes in the United States are the Global Fellows, priests, deacons and seminarians who work with Catholics “so they can live their faith in solidarity with the poor around the world. That is the mission of Catholic Relief Services (CRS).”
So says Father Manuel A. Clavijo, pastor of St. Mary  of the Hills Parish in Boylston and one of the nearly 100 Global Fellows in the United States.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the poor don’t want to be poor,” he said.
Multiple factors such as natural disasters, economic policies and civil unrest contribute to their living in poverty, he said. The poor have as much capacity to work as we do, he said. CRS applies Catholic social teaching to bring people out of their situation.
One of the ways it does so is through its CRS Fair Trade program, which puts a human face on the products we buy, Father Clavijo said.
He said growers on small coffee farms often contract with big buyers to sell their harvest at a pre-arranged wholesale price. The buyer can store the coffee until a better price is available and make a bigger profit. That benefits the buyer but does not help the farmer. The farmers, who harvest and sell their coffee once a year, must stretch their resources.
Fair Trade program partners buy at a fair price which allows farmers to pay for production, support their families and educate their children. They can diversify farm production by using land not used for coffee growing to grow vegetables, which they can sell. They are able to get loans facilitated by CRS, he said.
According to CRS, Fair Trade “builds right-relationships between buyers and sellers that are rooted in the principles of human dignity and solidarity.”
Fair Trade “respects human dignity, promotes the common good, advances economic justice, empowers disadvantaged people, connects us with the people who create the things we buy and cultivates global solidarity,” according to CRS. It offers four Fair Trade programs – handicrafts, coffee, chocolate and the Fair Trade Fund.
“I cannot survive without two or three cups of coffee in the morning. That is the reality of most of Worcester and the world,” Father Clavijo said.
For those people who depend on those cups of coffee every day, the farmer is no longer invisible.
“I will do what I can to continue his work. I will buy his coffee. He becomes the center of my prayer or present in my prayer  if I depend on him for my coffee,” Father Clavijo said.
Parishes can contribute by changing consumer habits and by being educated, he said. Parishes can contact to find out more about the Fair Trade program. The parish can invite a Global Fellow to speak about the different ways parishioners can engage in the work of social justice. Father Clavijo said those interested in arranging for a speaker may go online at  or contact him at  508-869-6771.