By Patrick Mott Editor, Orange County Catholic     10/29/2014

On a recent visit to a Kurdish area of Iraq where many Yazidi people had settled temporarily after having been driven from their homes by ISIS raiders, Carolyn Woo tried in vain to comfort a Yazidi woman who cried almost constantly. ISIS militants had taken her four children in order to sell them. “There’s no way to really absorb that,” says Woo. “Sometimes all you can do is cry with the people.”

Elsewhere, another Yazidi woman displaced by Islamic State gunmen regarded Woo and the other Catholic Relief Services workers with her and exclaimed, “I don’t even know what Catholic is, but it must mean ‘helper.’”

“That’s who we are,” says Woo, the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. “We are helpers.”

Helpers certainly, but hardly mere hand-holders. Catholic Relief Services is one of the largest and most wide-ranging international charitable agencies in the world. Founded in 1943, CRS is the official international relief and development agency of the Catholic community in the United States—5,000 people working in 93 countries and helping nearly 100 million of the world’s poorest people every year.

From African regions suffering ebola virus outbreaks to areas torn by insurrection, war and genocide to scenes of typhoons, earthquakes, droughts, famine, official oppression and grinding poverty, CRS is on the ground with aid both physical and spiritual, striving to carry out its three-word mandate: faith, action and results.

Woo, who has traveled to some of the world’s most unstable and desperate locations representing CRS, paid a recent visit to Orange County and the Christ Cathedral campus to talk about the agency’s unique work—a combination of direct aid, diplomacy, advocacy and evangelization by example.

Currently, for example, CRS is active in Liberia, providing personal protective equipment, helping with contact tracing and food security, setting up community health centers and promoting health education in an effort to help stem the spread of the ebola virus. It is one of the latest efforts that Woo says she hopes will end up in CRS’ success column.

Storm relief efforts in the Philippines is one such example. Nearly one year after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the islands and other parts of Southeast Asia, CRS programs have been instrumental in recovery efforts.

“We’ve done relief work to make sure people have transitional shelters and we’re now working on development to make sure they have livelihood options,” says Woo. Coconut groves, for which much of the population riled on for its agricultural livelihood, were decimated by the winds. CNS volunteers are continuing a program to “engage people now to have livelihood options beyond the coconut trees,” says Woo.

In Haiti, five years after a massive earthquake leveled much of the habitable space in the island nation, “CRS will be inaugurating the hospital called St. Francois de Sales, the very first public structure to go up in Port-au-Prince in the last five years,” says Woo. The medical facility, built in collaboration with the Catholic Health Association of the United States, “will be a teaching hospital, and it will also have a wing for rich people so that we can generate the revenue to support the wing for poor people. It changes the model a little bit.

“We have also done system-wide work with the Catholic education system in Haiti, and we’ve dealt with what we call ‘from mountain to market,’ which is changing agricultural practices in Haiti.”

Such direct aid is not the only type of help CRS provides. When necessary, unique diplomatic efforts can smooth an otherwise bumpy road.

“One of the biggest areas is peace, as always,” says Woo. “We do a lot of interfaith work. Sometimes you can point to short-term success. In central Africa, for example, this spring there were the types of conflict that could morph into religious conflict. We made sure we brought together the bishops, the imams and the pastoral leaders to work together so the conflict was not allowed to become a religious conflict.

“We work through people, so we always have to be very sensitive that the way we do our work does not create more conflict and that it allows the local communities to feel that it is their work. After all, we are guests. We’re not there to direct what the future of that country is, but to facilitate the good that can come out of that country.”

Such wide-ranging work requires a healthy budget and the funding to cover it; CRS has both. Woo estimates that the agency’s annual budget ranges from about $650 million to $950 million and that about 60 to 65 percent of it is covered by funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Another 15 to 20 percent comes from funds allocated by the United Nations and sometimes from the European Union or the British government. Another 15 percent comes from donations to appeals such as the annual CRS Rice Bowl collection and from annual givers and large benefactors.

Beyond funding, however, Woo points to the “C” in CRS as a distinct plus.

“Is our Catholic identity an advantage? I would say, absolutely, yes. Do we run into difficulty sometimes? Yes. But overall, that is our identity and that is how people receive us. Some people cannot even pronounce our name, but they will say ‘Those are the Catholics and they’re from the United States.’ The reason we work in some of these countries…is because they trust us. They have done this over the decades, I think, because we have truly demonstrated that we are there to improve the situation for people, that we don’t have another agenda.

“We believe that the way we evangelize—and we are evangelizers—is by our actions. We evangelize by the way we treat other people. Our evangelizing is not necessarily to preach or to convert but to let them know that we are people of God. And to the extent that we are people of God, this is how we try to behave.”

The work can be wrenching. But, says Woo, “we’re never without hope. We may not understand the world and in the end we only encounter a small part of it in time and place. But this is God’s world. And so whatever we do, we have to remember that this is God’s work and we’re just given a piece of it. Mother Teresa said she was not there to get rid of poverty; she was there to give service, to love and to provide dignity to those she met. We use the same model. The other part of it is that suffering absolutely makes no sense. There is nothing good that can come out of that woman losing her four children. But Christ on the cross is in our suffering. And he’s also on the other side of that suffering in the resurrection.”

Meanwhile, CRS’ efforts in the Middle East continue. Winter is on the way, with its freezing temperatures and snow in some regions, says Woo, so CRS is busy building shelters in places such as Iraq and Gaza for displaced people. There is always work that needs doing.

“I would say that the work that we do is a privilege and we are glad to be doing it in the name of Americans with Americans,” says Woo. “Why is it a privilege? Because I think the poor are entrusted to us by God. He sends them to us. And they are our path to salvation.”