Sharing the good news

| April 24, 2012 | 0 Comments

Catholic Relief Services’ new president wants to partner with more U.S. Catholics as agency works to improve the lives of people in need overseas

Photo illustration by Dianne Towalski

Carolyn Woo, the new president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, knows something about the challenges facing refugees uprooted from their lives because of conflict, disaster or poverty.

She knows because she comes from a family of refugees herself. Her parents fled China during the communist revolution following World War II and started a new life in Hong Kong — albeit not without some challenges.

“We lived in a world in which everybody lost so much,” Woo recalled in an April 18 interview with The Catholic Spirit during a visit to Minnesota. “A lot of these Chinese immigrants didn’t even speak English in a colony [at the time] where English was the dominant language. So I grew up in an environment where everybody was reinventing a new life, having left a really difficult situation.”

Woo was born in Hong Kong and educated by Maryknoll sisters, whose “can-do” attitude left a lasting impression on the young girl. One time, she remembers, the sisters gave up riding public transportation to raise seed money that would help them build a clinic or another school.

“The whole idea of ‘can’t’ wasn’t really part of their vocabulary,” Woo said.

She brought that can-do spirit to her former position as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and now carries it, as of Jan. 1, to her job leading Catholic Relief Services — the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.

Each year CRS assists more than 130 million poor and otherwise disadvantaged people in nearly 100 countries around the world — work that ranges from helping to feed famine-stricken people in East Africa, to meeting the needs of Iraq war refugees, to aiding Haitians as they rebuild their country in the wake of a devastating earthquake that struck the island two years ago.

Woo, a married mother of two children, immigrated to the U.S. and knows from personal experience that the right kind of aid can make a difference in the day-to-day lives of people in need.

“I’ve seen it done for a whole population of people,” Woo said, recalling her childhood days. “I remember refugees living on the hillside of Hong Kong. They constructed shanties of cardboard and whatever else they could put together. I saw within two decades or so, all those were gone — the phoenix rising from the ashes. I’ve actually seen it, so it’s very real to me.”

Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, is pictured with a child in 2007 in Ethiopia. CNS photo / Jim Stipe, CRS

Sharing the story

Some Catholics know about CRS’ work through Operation Rice Bowl — a popular Lenten program in which participants connect with those in need through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Others are familiar with CRS’ work through collections taken up in parishes following some of the largest natural disasters in recent memory, including the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Still, Woo said, not enough people know about the good work the agency is doing every day around the world.

“Currently, only 8 percent of Catholics in this country know about CRS — that’s what our awareness studies show us,” she said. “We have to do a lot more than engaging 8 percent of our Catholics.”

CRS wants to increase its visibility not only so it can garner key financial support, but also so it can engage more U.S. Catholics in advocacy on behalf of the world’s poor and build support for bills in Congress that would boost crucial international aid.

“The other part of it is that we play a very important role in the ‘new evangelization,’” Woo added. “We need to confront Catholics with good news — the good news that comes from the good work that’s being done by the church in their name.”

Woo said “friend-making and sharing the good news of CRS” was an integral part of her visit to Minnesota. She met with Archbishop John Nienstedt and spoke at St. Catherine University on the topic of global realities and the agency’s work.

Seeing in a different way

Woo was tapped by the CRS board of directors last June to succeed Ken Hackett, who retired after leading the agency for 18 years. She came to the job already familiar with the organization’s mission and work, having served on the CRS board of directors from 2004 to 2010 as one of its first lay members.

While on the board, Woo traveled to Indonesia not long after the tsunami, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Kenya. Her board work and the trips changed her life.

One of the most difficult passages in the Bible with which to wrestle is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Woo said. The rich man wore fine linens and ate very well; Lazarus, however, was hungry and covered with sores.

When the men died, angels carried Lazarus away, but the rich man suffered torment in the netherworld.

“The rich man just never ‘saw’ [that he needed to help the poor man],” Woo said. “He was not mean to the poor man, he didn’t kick him, he didn’t harm him. He just moved around and operated in a world that was so comfortable and he never ‘saw.’”

Sometimes we, too, put on blinders as a way to cope with all the suffering around us, she said. But we must expand our vision in order to act as God wants us to act.

“I think the most important thing is that CRS forced me to ‘see,’” Woo said. “I saw not only suffering, but I saw solutions. And I saw the people who make the solutions possible.”

Rooted in faith

Woo is grounded in her own Catholic identity and works to ensure CRS’ work is likewise grounded in the faith.

The agency doesn’t proselytize those it serves; rather, it witnesses to the faith through its actions, rooting its work in the church’s rich body of Catholic social teaching.

“Catholic social teaching resonates across all cultures and all religions,” Woo said. “We operate in a lot of countries that are not primarily Catholic. But Catholic teachings about human dignity, the preferential option for the poor, standing with people in solidarity, subsidiarity or empowering people on the ground — those are the principles that our whole organization embraces. It is really the touchstone of everything we do.”

She said it’s a privilege to work alongside CRS staff members who are striving to bring hope to those in need of it most. She is also motivated by the opportunity to serve the church.

“I think the church is facing a lot of challenges,” she said. “I think our generation got the best of the church — the brothers, sisters and priests who gave us strong educational institutions, strong parishes, extraordinary faith examples [and] inspiration. I think it’s really important for lay people to step up, to make sure the next generation can avail themselves of what we had.”

Looking ahead

The nature and extent of CRS’ work has changed much since its founding in 1943 to help with the resettlement of war refugees in Europe. But it has adapted along the way — serving a growing list of countries, the changing needs of the poor around the world, and dealing with shifts in technology and funding sources.

One area in which CRS has expanded its work is peace-building in areas torn by war and other conflicts.

“You can’t really do development work or stabilization work if you can’t put people back in neighborhoods, back into regular living situations — whether that requires sharing water systems or pulling together in other ways,” Woo said.

“Communal life requires the coming together of people of many different interests, backgrounds and ethnic origins. So peace-building has become an inseparable piece of our work.”

Through it all, Woo said, CRS works to maintain its commitment to excellence and good stewardship of the funds it receives from donors and other sources. About 94 percent of funds go directly to programs helping people on the ground.

One of the places benefiting right now thanks to the generosity of U.S. donors is Haiti, where CRS is working with the local church and other partners to help the 1.5 million people who were affected by the earthquake two years ago.

In the first year after the quake, CRS helped to feed over a million people and helped many with emergency health care needs, Woo said. In the second year, the agency helped to build more than 10,000 shelters — each of which could accommodate a family of five. CRS worked to get children back to school, increase access to clean water, ensure proper sanitation and help people start or restart local businesses.

In the next few years, CRS will be working to further improve the education system, build a teaching hospital, and provide more assistance to local businesses.

Woo traveled last year to Haiti to see the progress and will be traveling to other CRS overseas worksites later this year.

Karen Rauenhorst, a member of Holy Name of Jesus in Medina who served on the CRS board at the same time as Woo, said she is impressed by the new CEO’s commitment.

“Carolyn has such a passion for the mission of CRS,” Rauenhorst said. “She has decided to use all her skills and talents to change the lives of those who are in need.”

Asked what she wanted Catholics to know about the ongoing work of the organization, Woo said this: “You have to remind U.S. Catholics that CRS is their CRS. It belongs to the U.S. Catholic Church. It does work in their name, and it is very good in doing that work. We want them to be confronted with this good news and also to help us.”

Want to know more?

Visit the at the CRS website, and the Catholics Confront Global Poverty website, a joint effort of CRS and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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