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Story Publication logo December 21, 2020

Catholic Relief Services Looks to Expand Its Base

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A volunteer disaster relief team with the Florida Baptist Convention removes a downed tree from a home in Silverhill, Ala., on Sept. 22, following Hurricane Sally. Image by Bob Smietana / Religion News Service. United States, 2020.
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After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, faith-based groups realized they were facing a double crisis...

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Christian, a Catholic Relief Services staff member, center, instructs aid beneficiaries in Kinshasa, Congo. Image by Justin Makangara/Catholic Relief Services. Democratic Republic of the Congo, undated.
Christian, a Catholic Relief Services staff member, center, instructs aid beneficiaries in Kinshasa, Congo. Image by Justin Makangara/Catholic Relief Services. Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Like many nonprofits, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the 77-year-old global humanitarian aid organization founded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saw donations tumble in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the downturn didn't last.

"People are most generous during a crisis," said Bill O'Keefe, the organization's executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy.

By summer, CRS's budget, which runs to nearly a billion dollars annually, was back on track, according to O'Keefe, as donors were eager to help those in need, despite their own struggles.

But despite their resilience in the short term, faith-based charities like CRS face a challenge that is affecting nearly all religious organizations: They increasingly rely on older members to both fund and support their work as volunteers.

Catholic Relief Services gets about a quarter of its funding from private sources, including about $20 million from special collections in Catholic dioceses or other parish-level programs.

Most of their donors are Catholics who go to Mass weekly and are likely to be active in other Catholic institutions, with an average age of 72.

Aware of its aging donor base and the changing demographics of Catholics, where the declining number of White Catholics is being offset by a growing number of Hispanic Catholics, CRS has sought to expand its base of support.

The nonprofit has expanded its outreach to Hispanic Catholics, many of whom, O'Keefe said, are more sympathetic to the concerns of the poor around the world, having experienced poverty and other challenges of their own. His organization has also reached out to younger Catholics who may be interested in its mission and Catholic social teaching even if they are skeptical of organized religion.

"The role of social justice as an evangelizing force for young people is something that has gotten more attention, certainly because of the way Pope Francis has talked about it," O'Keefe said.

Nalliber Ruiz Torres, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, helps lead a young adult chapter of CRS that got started in July.

Torres, 30, is studying public policy, with the hopes of working on projects that supply drinking water in Central America and the La Guajira region of her native country of Colombia. "That's my mission," she said.

A lifelong Catholic, she attends Mass weekly at the Caruso Catholic Center at USC, her alma mater. She is one of 20 Catholics from different parishes, ranging in age from 25 to 35, who gather to study Catholic social teaching and learn how to put their faith into action.

Her chapter and others like it in California have been writing letters and calling the Senate office of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to advocate for the Global Child Thrive Act. That led to a virtual meeting with Harris's staff that felt like an answered prayer.

"It was a light to see that, little by little, with constant prayer and discipline, God has opened up the path for more legislation to be presented and supported for the well-being of millions of families and children and their generations," Torres told other chapter leaders in a national call after the meeting.

She said that CRS has helped her better understand Catholic social teaching, which she says emphasizes the right to a healthy life, with access to food and water and other necessities as well as human dignity.

"It's more than giving just food and shelter," she said. "It's recognizing that you, as a human being, have the image of God. And that my call as a believer is to go and create those opportunities for those who don't have them."

The young adult groups are just one way CRS is breaking free of parishes as the only source of engagement with Catholics, young or old. The organization has been building direct support via a network of CRS chapters aimed specifically at poverty relief.

Deacon Tim Donohue, 71, and his wife have long been involved in their parish, Holy Name Church in West Roxbury, Mass., where they used to mentor Confirmation classes. Those classes went on several trips to Appalachia to help people in need, which eventually led Donohue to travel to Guatemala and Kenya to see CRS's work overseas firsthand. He has also visited the U.S.-Mexico border.

CRS, Donohue said, is a counter to the trend away from organized religion, especially those who grew up Catholic and later dropped out of church. Many of them, he says, believe the church's teaching about loving and serving their neighbors but are skeptical about institutions.

"They know in their heart they should help others," he said. "It takes them a while to understand the joy of the Gospel, and that comes from helping and serving others."

In all, CRS said that it has established 89 chapters, all since last year. Another 35 are in development, including 10 at high schools.

After focusing on covid-19 for nearly a year, international aid groups are bracing for what happens as the world comes out of lockdown and stay-at-home measures. After a slowdown in the early months of the outbreak, would-be refugees and asylum seekers in Africa are again taking on the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

The crisis has hit even developed countries hard. In Rome, officials from the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay organization dedicated to social services (it is named for the 7th-century Greek saint known in English as Giles the Hermit), have been helping families driven into poverty and homelessness by the economic stress of the pandemic.

"Before, out of every ten people in line, there'd be nine foreigners, mostly migrants from poor countries, and one Italian," said Augusto D'Angelo, the community's coordinator for homeless services. "Now there are probably three foreigners and seven Italians."

The pandemic has also limited housing options for existing homeless populations because of social distancing requirements and made food services more difficult to carry out.

"Winter is coming, and we cannot offer safe housing to as many people as in the past," D'Angelo said. "There are families that a year ago could find a way to make ends meet and now they come to us for food."

As organizations such as CRS look for help beyond the churchgoers who have sustained them for decades, O'Keefe said, they have found recruits among those who feel the need to stop doom-scrolling and make a difference. The fallout of covid-19 will be with us for months and years to come and may well spur others to sustain groups inspired by faith to help their neighbors.

"Pope Francis said, 'Nobody can save themselves alone,'" D'Angelo said. "That is why religious charitable aid groups will always have a role to play."

Eric Lyman contributed from Rome. This story is part of a series produced by the Religion News Service in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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