(OSV News) — When grim images of men and women overseas enduring poverty and devastation scroll across their television, computer, or mobile screens, U.S. Catholics may feel helpless to assist with crises that may seem too complex and so far away.
Since 1975, CRS Rice Bowl — a brightly colored, cardboard almsgiving box that is a familiar annual Lenten sight in parishes nationwide — has invited Catholics to pray, fast and give in solidarity with the world’s poor.
But Catholic Relief Services — the official international relief and development agency of the Catholic Church in the U.S., active in 116 countries and serving 193 million people — is going even further today, mobilizing the faithful to share even more directly in their mission, through a national network of CRS chapters and clubs.
“We had this idea,” Bill O’Keefe, CRS executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy, told OSV News, “about creating communities of supporters who could come together, based on faith, and take consequential actions that would really make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people around the world.”
Members — parishioners, diocesan groups, college students, and high schoolers — assist CRS campaigns to eliminate global poverty and injustice by engaging their own communities in advocacy and giving. CRS provides specialized training and support, as well as regular issue briefings, which they in turn can share with parishioners, small group members, or students.
With 1,705 global partners, CRS doesn’t lack projects ready to be championed by its more than 140 chapters and clubs.
“Catholics believe that we should be doing more. They maybe just don’t know how to channel that energy,” O’Keefe said. “And this is part of what we’re trying to do here — provide the structure to do that.”
CRS focuses its international programming activities on agriculture, capacity building, education, disaster relief, health, justice and peacebuilding, microfinance, and water and sanitation. Health and emergency aid are by far the largest efforts, with 117.8 million and 40.9 million program participants, respectively.
But the CRS chapters and clubs are not simply an activity — they are an intentional way of exercising “missionary discipleship,” the ordinary call of every Catholic to follow Jesus Christ rooted in their baptism. “What it means is, based on faith, we can all take actions that live out the Gospel to clothe the naked, feed the poor, care for the orphan,” explained O’Keefe. “And CRS is the mechanism for American Catholics to do that overseas. So we’re inviting Catholics to live it through our chapters.”
It also means persuading elected officials to support the Church’s efforts to advance justice and aid the vulnerable.
“As Catholics, we’re called to think about what it means to be a faithful citizen,” O’Keefe emphasized. “And part of that is to engage in the process for just policies that would help the most vulnerable.”
One particularly effective example of CRS chapter advocacy is the Global Child Thrive Act. Passed by the U.S. Congress in January 2021, it supports early childhood development programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, and other U.S government child-focused foreign assistance programs.
“Our chapters were critical in taking that bill from an idea, and then getting it passed,” said O’Keefe. “Our chapters met with the eventual co-sponsors of that bill.” O’Keefe said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., told him, following the passage of the Global Child Thrive Act, that “had our chapter not met with him, and encouraged him along the way, this just would have been a good idea.”
To O’Keefe, this outcome is successful proof of the CRS model: “Chapters met in person with different legislators, built relationships, shared on the basis of faith why this was important — and that helped to make this issue a priority, and brought a bipartisan group of supporters together.”
He said, “Committed groups of Catholics — working together as part of a movement of individuals organized through chapters — really can change things.”
Larry Blankemeyer, CRS chapter leader at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Richboro, Pennsylvania, told OSV News the first meeting he was ever involved in with CRS was a meeting in Fitzpatrick’s office. A constituent and CRS Chapter member in Blankemeyer’s delegation made an impassioned plea for what would eventually become the Global Child Thrive Act.
“On the spot, Rep. Fitzpatrick asked us to go back to CRS and to get the basic points to form the foundation of a piece of legislation, give it to him, and he would run with it.”
Blankemeyer’s chapter is currently focused on this year’s Lenten Rice Bowl campaign and September’s farm bill reauthorization, which adds an overseas market for surplus American crops.
Patricio Pulla, secretary of the CRS club at Fordham University in New York, said a winter break trip to the Philippines by four of its members became a practical lesson in overseas aid impact.
“We have majors that include humanitarian studies, international political economy majors, sociology majors — and all of these relate to service and development,” Pulla told OSV News. The journey “gave these students a good picture of what work in this area could be like, and gave them a better picture of what they can do with their careers.”
But according to Pulla, there was another experiential dimension as well: “Hearing their stories … makes us more compassionate, and motivated to be advocates at our campus.”
Evangely Aliangan Ward, who co-leads a diocesan Spanish language-preferred CRS chapter in the Diocese of San Diego, agreed.
“This is a way that I can connect with my brothers and sisters across the world,” she told OSV News. “In Spanish, we’re called ‘comunidad solidario’ — a solidarity community. I really like that word, community.”
In addition to fundraising for Turkey and Syria, Ukraine, and the CRS Rice Bowl, Aliangan Ward’s chapter also is concerned with the Farm Bill — especially given large numbers of Southern California seasonal migrant workers.
While directly reaching elected officials is challenging, Aliangan Ward persists, sharing that a staffer in one San Diego legislative office told her, “I totally get it — because I came here as a refugee.”
For more information visit: https://www.crs.org/get-involved/chapters-clubs.
Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.