The Dignity of Choice
Sometimes the best way to heed the call of Pope Francis to “Share the Journey” of migrants and refugees is to see that it never begins. Millions have been driven from their homes by violence, oppression, drought, and despair. They did not want to leave home. They thought they had no other choice but to go in search of safety and dignity. So much of the work at Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church, is aimed at giving them another choice. A good example of that is CRS Rice Bowl.
Founded in 1975 in response to growing famine in East Africa, CRS Rice Bowl annually asks faithful Catholics to sacrifice for their brethren overseas. That money not only delivers food, it delivers seeds, tools, techniques and training that helps families stay together. Because they can grow enough food to eat and to sell, a father no longer migrates to the city for work. A son doesn’t get on a leaky boat hoping to make it to Europe and a paycheck that can be sent back home. A daughter avoids human traffickers.
CRS works in countries around the world, sharing the journey of many of these displaced people. We know that they were driven from their homes by factors out of their control. So Through programs like CRS Rice Bowl, CRS puts those factors in people’s control – building peace, drilling wells, distributing seeds, organizing savings groups, restoring topsoil, helping the refugee never become one.
That’s the power of this Lenten program and the reason why so many adults who have discovered it are passionate about sharing it with their kids, students and neighbors.
The Louisville Way
When Mark Bouchard first came up his idea for a luncheon to kick off CRS Rice Bowl at the beginning of the Lenten season in Louisville, Kentucky, he knew he had a tough sell on his hands.
After all, he was asking one of his city’s Catholic schools to hand over its gym to a few hundred students–from elementary to high school age–as well as other invited guests, who would all arrive and depart in the middle of a school day. What could be disruptive about that?
“I got a high school to agree to host that first one, Mercy Academy here in Louisville,” says Bouchard who works for Catholic Charities. “We had people from about 28 or 29 schools, four or five from each, plus resettled refugees from the area, teachers, people from Catholic Charities and the archdiocese.”
The idea was, as Bouchard puts it, “To connect the dots, making folks aware of the local-global connection.”
Each table had a group of students and a refugee. “The students shared a pizza and had a conversation with their refugee brothers and sisters,” Bouchard says. Simple, but profound.
That was five years ago. Long before Pope Francis asked us to “Share the Journey” with migrants and refugees, before he made the word “encounter” fundamental to his papacy, that was exactly what was happening at these luncheons.
Now Bouchard is having no problem getting Catholic schools in Louisville to host the event. There’s practically a waiting list.
“I’m booked out for the next two years,” he says. “Now it’s first-come, first-serve. That’s been really crazy to watch.”
Encountering Refugees and Connecting the Dots
As they “share the journey” with the refugee at their table, the students have a genuine encounter with both Lent and migration. By “connecting the dots,” the luncheon, as Bouchard puts it, is “like a poster on ‘solidarity with those in need’ come alive.”
Louisville’s Archbishop Kurtz agrees.
“This luncheon is a theologically sound way for young people, and their leaders and teachers, to become part of a wonderful ministry that also deepens the understanding of Church teaching,” he says. “It helps each of us to become, as Pope Francis has said, a ‘missionary disciple.’”
Though the luncheon has grown and there are more events connected with it–such as a simulated refugee camp–the core idea has remained unchanged same: to link students with refugees who live in Louisville, refugees who have been helped in their resettlement by Catholic Charities.
Bouchard says CRS and Catholic Charities are sister agencies doing their best work to serve people overseas and at home. Those were the two big dots that needed to be connected.
“For the last number of years, my internal mantra has been: whenever I find a silo, I try to break it down. When you do that, some deeper messages of our faith can actually gain traction,” he says. “I just couldn’t see us moving anywhere without cross pollinating our local and global concepts of solidarity. I knew we’d be missing the boat if we can’t and don’t do that. We claim to be a global Church. This was a way to set out and prove that.”
Another dot was connected at the luncheon. CRS President Sean Callahan was the guest speaker and, while he was in town, Archbishop Kurtz arranged a meeting with Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House. They talked about the need to continue aid programs that help these refugees and others targeted by food programs supported by CRS Rice Bowl.
Bouchard says that, though it was not the goal, since the luncheon began donations have significantly increased.
“They’ve gone up for refugee work locally and they’ve gone up for Rice Bowl,” he says. “So it’s a win-win, with no separation of the local-global concept.”
Archbishop Kurtz agrees.
“This is very much a part of renewing vitality in the parishes,” he says. “It integrates the work of Catholic Charities and CRS, work that puts a face on the call that Jesus gives us to serve people.”
The Power of Encounter
Mary Waskevich can testify to the power of the encounters that take place at the luncheon. A 7th and 8th grade teacher of English and religion at St. Stephen Martyr School in Louisville, she has seen the impact that sharing the refugees’ journeys has had on her students.
“It has had a wonderful effect,” she says. “You know, you really have to teach empathy. And when they hear the stories from these refugees, they really get a sense of what is going on. When they first sit down for lunch, my students might be reluctant to talk, but then they start and open up, and they come back to class with all sorts of stories.”
Waskevich has used the event as the launching pad for a number of activities. For instance, her students have researched and made presentations on the CRS Rice Bowl countries at the luncheon. Her students are guides in the simulated refugee camp. They make recipes from the CRS Rice Bowl countries. They have interviewed refugees and written up their stories. They have collected school supplies for refugee schoolchildren. The list goes on.
“At the lunch, they put a cardboard Rice Bowl on each table, really just as a display, but my students noticed that the only people who put money in it were the refugees,” she says. “That really made an impression on them.
“We always say to look for the face of Christ in others,” Waskevich says of teaching the lessons learned from the luncheon. “I tell my students that I want to see the face of Christ in their faces.”