Local Catholics join archbishop for CRS trip to Laos, Cambodia

| August 2, 2019 | 0 Comments
Vatvisa Keosalivong

Vatvisa Keosalivong, right, of Catholic Relief Services talks during a visit to a school in Laos after CRS gave the students school supplies. COURTESY LIAM MORAN

When Michael Wenger of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul served lunches to hungry elementary school students in Laos, he knew exactly why he had accepted an invitation to join his father, Brian, Archbishop Bernard Hebda and three other local Catholics on a trip to Laos and Cambodia sponsored by Catholic Relief Services.

The two Wengers and the rest of the group from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis learned that the food CRS provides is critical to keeping the students in school and fed during the school day.

Wenger said he was glad to see firsthand the difference CRS, which carries out the U.S. bishops’ commitment to serve the poor and vulnerable overseas, is making in impoverished countries.

“I thought that was beautiful, just being able to be with (the students),” said Wenger, 24, who came away from the June 22-30 trip pondering the possibility of someday working for a relief agency such as CRS. “I was kind of entranced in the moment” while serving lunches of rice and vegetables.

Later in the trip, the group visited the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre in Laos. There, they observed women learning and using skills to help earn money to support themselves and their families. At least some of the dozens of women there had been maimed by explosive devices and landmines that date to the military conflicts of the 1970s.

Among its projects, CRS provides monetary support and, in some cases, staffing to organizations like the center. The relief agency started shortly after World War II, when it began serving refugees displaced by that conflict. In 2018, it celebrated its 75th anniversary and now serves in more than 100 countries around the world.

Another person on the trip, Liam Moran of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, said he wanted to learn more about Catholic Relief Services, and he “jumped at” the chance to go to southeast Asia.

Moran, 34, was invited by his father-in-law, Steve Sefton, who also made the trip. He said his exposure to CRS had been limited to the agency’s RiceBowl campaigns during his childhood in Anchorage, Alaska. The other local person on the trip was Tony Pohlen, who works for CRS and is a member of St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis. Also joining the group was Sean Callahan, president and CEO of CRS.

Brian Wenger said he was motivated to go on the trip after joining the CRS board in January. He also is friends with Archbishop Hebda, whom he met while serving on the Archdiocesan Finance Council, which led to further advisory roles and regular dinners.

“I wanted to better understand what CRS is doing around the world,” said Wenger, 57, also a member of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul. “I’ve never been to Asia, and thought it would be a good place to better learn what CRS is doing.”

Archbishop Hebda also serves on the board, and is one of four Minnesotans among its 25 members. Another local board member, Mark Rauenhorst, helped organize the trip with his wife, Karen, a former board member, but they were unable to go. The fourth local board member is Chris Policinski of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

Wenger was so excited about the trip he invited his five oldest children to join him, and was thrilled that Michael accepted his invitation.

“I think it’s good for family members to experience the charitable work of the Church around the world,” Brian said. “The vast majority of people in Cambodia and the vast majority of people in Laos are not Catholic, and yet we’re called to help all of our neighbors. And, that’s what Catholic Relief Services does.”

Wenger noted that CRS often goes to war-torn regions, which sometimes puts staff members at risk. Fortunately, he said, peaceful conditions exist in Laos and Cambodia, though there are residual effects from military conflicts in both countries. There also are water-quality issues and diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

“The joy and competency of the CRS staffs are very impressive,” Wenger said. “The significant improvement that they helped facilitate for the people of Cambodia and Laos is visible and critical to those people.”

Moran was similarly impressed, and he has spent time thinking about how he can continue to help.

His work in the banking industry has helped him see the financial side of life, and he sees that as an area in which he can make a difference, such as fundraising, he said.

“Being on the CRS trip and seeing the work they do really opened my eyes,” said Moran, who plans to continue donating to CRS and hopes to go on a future trip to countries where it serves. “It’s not as if I didn’t understand there were problems that existed in these parts of the world. I certainly was aware of that. You just have a different sense of it when you go and encounter them face-to-face.”

For more information, visit crs.org.

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