Published March 1, 2007
At a dedication ceremony for the new Southeast Regional Office of Catholic Relief Services on Feb. 20, CRS president Ken Hackett invited Georgia Catholics to love their neighbors around the world by participating in CRS’s many educational, advocacy and support projects that benefit 99 countries.
He noted how over the past couple of decades “our world has become smaller” through technology, media and the ease of air travel, and how what happens in remote countries today affects the American economy and security profoundly.
“Likewise, how we live our lives as Catholics and as Americans has an immediate and profound effect on the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world, especially those whose dignity is threatened by poverty, disease and war.”
He asserted that in the 21st century “love thy neighbor” applies to those living in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, and compels Catholics to care about their wellbeing.
“The Holy Father hit the nail on the proverbial head in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, when he stated that ‘within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life … love for widows, orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential (to the church) as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel,’” he said. “Pope Benedict goes on to exhort us: ‘The church … cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice … she has to reawaken the spiritual energy, without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.’ In this spirit of sacrifice and solidarity, as Catholics and Americans we must increasingly ask ourselves, ‘How does my life, my consumption, my trade, my investment, my vote, my giving … and my prayers, affect the lives of my brothers and sisters around the world? Do I truly love my neighbor?’”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory blessed and dedicated the new Southeast Regional Office of Catholic Relief Services at the gathering, where he praised the organization for concretizing Gospel solidarity and compassion around the world and witnessing to American Catholic generosity. He also challenged Georgia churches and individuals to participate in this noble mission. The official relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church has extensive educational materials for children, youth and adults on topics ranging from a hunger awareness fasting program to a DVD on the crisis in Darfur and its response.
The gathering was hosted by the new office director Dorothy Grillo, and was attended by various CRS senior officials, including Joan Neal, executive vice president for U.S. operations, Mark Palmer, chief financial and administrative officer, and Michael Wiest, executive vice president of fund development and marketing. Others in attendance, who were interested in or already supporting CRS, included representatives from Catholic Charities of Atlanta and from Immaculate Heart of Mary School, which has held CRS Work of Human Hands sales of international crafts that guarantee the artisans a fair wage. The new office opened last summer and is one of six regional offices that have opened since 2001 to further engage dioceses in the work of CRS. With the church as its primary partner in countries, CRS provides services in the areas of emergency response as well as long-term development work in education, health care, agriculture, microfinance, and peace-building.
The office, located at 229 Peachtree St., NE, reflects CRS’s “one human family” theme with photographs of people in countries served from Africa to Asia, including one marking the 60th anniversary of working in India, and one poster stating, “dedicated to protecting the livelihood and security of people we serve,” which shows a woman with a baby in a pouch on her back and holding a metal bucket on her head.
The cheerful office has muted mustard seed yellow walls and beige carpet with teal tones, an Our Lady of Guadalupe image and wood crucifix. Grillo’s musician husband, Roy Stewart, played the keyboard for the service.
Archbishop Gregory recalled how, when he served as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he had traveled around the world where he often met with CRS staff, many of whom were natives of the countries being served. He then came to realize acutely how highly esteemed CRS is around the world and how beautifully it reflects the global mission of the church, which is refreshing in this time of anti-American sentiment abroad. Through CRS “I was acclimated to the culture and people and apprised of the people there and they enjoyed such tremendous respect in the places we are working.”
He said he was “absolutely delighted” regarding the new CRS presence in Atlanta to serve the archdiocese and the entire Southeast and affirmed the support of the church of North Georgia to help them realize their mission.
“You give the church in the United States perhaps one of its best faces as you work in many cultures. I’m delighted that you are here in Atlanta so you can make your work better known in Atlanta and the region,” he said. “It is a source of pride for the Archdiocese of Atlanta that CRS will be located here.”
Hackett, who became executive director of CRS in 1993 and president in 2003 after having served in various other positions in their headquarters, in Africa and in the Philippines, expressed deep optimism about how the church in the South can play a critical role in realizing its mission at home. He recalled a meeting he had with a U.S. bishops’ delegation in the Philippines while serving as country representative there, where they dialogued about a wide range of topics including American military bases and foreign aid.
“That was an event that crystallized for me the importance of a deeper engagement of the U.S. Catholic constituency in the issues of the Philippines and the wider world. The U.S. bishops’ delegation had the ability and responsibility to carry the concerns of the church in the Philippines back to the church in the U.S. They were given insight into the situations of poverty, injustice and inequality, and if Catholics in the United States knew, they too would act. But the fact is that U.S. Catholics, while deeply concerned and compassionate about things of which they are aware, are not aware of many things.”
He said in conclusion that the new office is commissioned to help those who live in the Southeast to express their love for God, who is love, by being in solidarity with their brothers and sisters around the world, especially the suffering.
“It will fulfill its mission by supporting parishes, dioceses, colleges and universities, and other institutions of the church to fulfill their mission of love. May those who work here be encouraged by knowing that they are doing God’s work, in the truest sense of the expression. Work hard, remain humble and steadfast, and remember that ‘the love of Christ urges us on.’”
Joan Neal expressed hope that as those gathered educate themselves they can educate others in their communities.
“We hope to provide opportunities to Catholics to get engaged in a very positive way to bring solutions to or express solidarity with the people who are suffering, through Operation Rice Bowl, Fair Trade Coffee, advocacy programs, that bring these issues to the halls of power in D.C. and around the country,” she said. “If we can motivate, encourage and inspire just a quarter of the 63 million (American) Catholics to act on behalf of those who are suffering we can indeed transform the world.”
Attendee Lilian Sesay, an immigrant from Sierra Leone who is a member of Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia, is a CRS enthusiast who is eager to become more involved with the Catholic nonprofit now that it has a local office. She used to teach at a Catholic school in her homeland and recalled how CRS would often distribute oil and rice to families.
“Because of the unique way they do things, I admire that. I’m going to join and be a volunteer,” she said. “They are out spreading the Gospel to people” through their service to people in need regardless of race, ethnicity or creed.
Dianne Blanchard said that she has been awakened through her daughter-in-law, CRS program officer Simone Blanchard, to all of the organization’s programs to address the world’s injustices, such as how over 850 million people are chronically hungry right now and 15 million children die of hunger every year. She also participates in Operation Rice Bowl as a Lenten spiritual exercise and believes it’s especially valuable for children to save a little money each week. She hopes that her parish, St. John Vianney, will become more involved with CRS Fair Trade coffee and chocolate sales and other programs. She came to the dedication to support the new office.
“Because of (Simone’s) passion she’s made us involved in it. It’s spread to our family. You hunger for it and want to learn more.”
Father Eric Hill, breaking from a chat with CRS Global Fellow Father Victor Galier of St. Matthew’s Church in Tyrone, said that his parish, St. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur, is looking for a new international service project and is interested in CRS programs serving Africa and the Caribbean. He believes that it is important for churches to serve those abroad as well as in their communities. Members already participate in its Operation Rice Bowl, a Lenten program where people fast, pray, donate money to CRS and reflect on its work in various countries, which they find is positive in not only raising money but focusing also on education on international issues.
“(CRS) is a good opportunity for us to have further education on what services are being offered and to get the word out on CRS, what it does,” Father Hill said. “A lot of people don’t know that we do a lot beyond the parish level. We have to figure out with our participation what will be a good fit for the parish.”
In an interview, Hackett said one example of critical CRS work is HIV prevention, therapy and care for orphans. “We’ve made a tremendous impact, I’d like to say miraculous impact, in keeping people alive with the HIV/AIDS virus. We now have 60,000 people on therapy who walked into a hospital one to two years ago who would be dead without this therapy. It’s giving new hope and life to families.”
He said that the regional offices are the realization of “a dream that is rather long standing” and noted that the Southeast and Southwest appear to be the most vibrant regions of the American church, which makes them ideal settings for CRS outreach.
“It’s not the biggest, but it’s vibrant and growing and dynamic and dealing with new realities.”
And with Atlanta becoming more international “we want to provide opportunities for Catholics and others to see the diversity out there and to see what the church is doing around the world,” he said. It is “to understand the world better and to engage them in a real sense of solidarity—so that’s the challenge of Dorothy and her team in the Southeast.”