A Lifetime of Service
He really should charge admission. To spend a few fleeting, but enlightening moments with Michael Wiest over lunch is a pleasure and a privilege. Stories from his 37-year career at Catholic Relief Services come tumbling out with ease and pride.
At Michael’s encouragement, former CRS staff gather a couple times a year at a restaurant in Baltimore. A unique bond of experience and a love of the agency attracts alumni to come from around the country. The most recent meeting was the 29th such gathering and brought all sorts together—currently active, retired, those who have transitioned to different work, family and friends.
Contrary to what you might expect, and perhaps because those who have worked for CRS understand each other’s experiences so well, they don’t often discuss their past. “We really don’t exchange war stories very much, or for that matter, discuss too much of our histories. Rather, we ask about each other’s kids and spouses, what we are doing in retirement, any recent travel, etc.,” Michael says. “We also discuss, from time to time, our recently departed colleagues. That said, under the surface there is always the awareness that we have shared a profound and memorable life experience. And it is that unspoken awareness, I think, which brings us together. We all know that we were part of something special.”
Some former staff devote their entire careers to CRS while others just a handful of years, but the consensus is that their time spent with CRS was the most meaningful time in their professional lives. And the reason is because those who serve at CRS appreciate the fact that they have been able make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people when they were suffering the most. Whether they spent their entire adult life with CRS or a half-dozen years in partnership with other charities, they know that CRS is the gold standard of humanitarian relief agencies around the world.
Michael Wiest is a champion of the CRS history that he revels in. With 20 years overseas, and another 17 at CRS headquarters, Michael has accumulated a treasure chest of lore.
For instance, there was the time that a prominent official in Burkina Faso helped himself to a million dollars of funding meant for CRS, taking a big bite out of the programs that were doing good work throughout the country. Mustering his finest diplomatic prowess, Michael approached the head of the country and requested the money be returned.
The country’s leader asked the parliament to reinstate the missing funds but, in a country where political divisions and corruption were a fact of life, there was little sympathy—until the leader asked the assembly, “Who among you received an education and enjoyed a school lunch because of CRS?” Everyone in the distinguished body raised their hands and the money was returned.
No doubt, everyone who has CRS on their resume can share wonderful behind-the-scenes stories of their own. Take some time to learn more about CRS’ 75 years of now.
Faith, Perseverance and Lasting Change
By Sean Callahan, CRS President and CEO
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family near Boston, we three Callahan boys—Sean, Colin and Kevin—could always be counted on to be the altar boys at the 7 a.m. Mass. We played church league basketball, went to the pancake breakfasts and youth retreats—all the usual activities. Being a Catholic was part obligation and part just who we were. It was our identity.
My strong Catholic identity led me to talk to a recruiter from Catholic Relief Services when I was finishing up my master’s degree at Tufts University in Boston. In short order, I signed up and headed to Nicaragua. I thought I would spend a year in service, give something back and then return to my regular life. But something unexpected happened. In Nicaragua, I began to experience Catholicism in a different way. I wasn’t just being a Catholic—I was living my Catholic faith.
In 1988, when a horrific storm—Hurricane Joan—devastated the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, I had already been in the country for months. As part of the storm response, representatives from organizations working in the region were introduced to the community. When they got to me, people said, “You don’t have to introduce him. He’s one of us.” CRS didn’t just drop in and leave—we dedicated ourselves to the people we served. We got to know people—their pain and their hope. It made me realize the importance of perseverance. And here I am, 30 years later.
Perseverance and faith. This is how CRS’ approach to service leads to permanent change. We often promote the programs that are in progress, but our greatest achievements are those programs we have “completed”—those that continue to improve the lives of people in need.
In the 1980s, CRS worked to combat childhood mortality in the western African country of The Gambia by introducing the cultivation, processing and marketing of sesame, which produces very nourishing oil and seed cakes. It was mainly women who got involved. We worked with them, we trained them and we built up their capacities. Then over a decade ago, we moved on. But today those sesame growers are a thriving nongovernmental organization called the National Women Farmers Association, involving some 48,000 women from 1,072 villages across the country. With help from CRS, those women made sesame an important domestic—and even export—crop.
All around the world, there are examples like this. We turned our AIDS Relief work over to local partners in 10 countries. Today, their results are even better than when we ran it, and we couldn’t be happier! Whenever we start a community-run savings and lending group—SILC—we only stay for one cycle then leave once the members start seeing profits. Nearly every SILC group keeps going—and growing—on its own.
I look back over CRS’ 75 years and see a history made of stories like these. The children and grandchildren—and even great-grandchildren—of refugees we resettled in our early years are living productive lives because of work we did seven decades ago. And the children of the women in that sesame program didn’t just get better nutrition, they got an education because their mothers made enough money to pay their school fees. Our work leads to permanent change that continues for generations.
I want the future of CRS to be based on two things I learned from Saint Teresa of Calcutta while working with her in India—be bold and be humble. This may seem contradictory, but the ideas go hand in hand. To solve big problems, we must be bold enough to take them on. But we must be humble enough to know that we cannot transform the world on our own. And we must be humble enough to listen to—and learn from—the people we serve.
In the coming years, we believe we can eradicate malaria if we are bold enough. We believe we can end the HIV/AIDS pandemic. And, perhaps most boldly, we believe we can be agents of peace in a world divided by conflicts.
So many problems arise from violent conflict. It drives refugees from their homes. It sets back economic development for a generation. It leads to death, destruction and division. I can think of no better way to honor CRS’ 75-year legacy—and to live our faith—than to dedicate ourselves to peace in our lives, our communities, our country and our world.