Sign up for the latest
updates from CRS.

Donate now to Catholic Relief Services

Pray with us. Light a Candle in CRS' Virtual Chapel.

Raising Our Voices

By Bill O'Keefe

In Catholic Relief Services' 65-year history, advocacy has only recently been added as an essential part of our work on behalf of the people most in need around the world. The change came during a 1993 meeting in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, attended by CRS program directors from some of our overseas regions—Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East—and staff from headquarters in Baltimore.

Rwanda genocide memorial

Crosses erected to remember the victims of the Rwandan genocide. Photo by Steve Rubin for CRS

Ken Hackett had just become CRS executive director at a time when the buzzword in international circles was "globalization." On the surface, globalization signaled a dramatic increase in the pace of change, trade and economic activity around the world.

But at a deeper level, especially to those supporting humanitarian assistance and development, the fast track of globalization was an express ticket away from positive, lasting change for some of the world's most vulnerable individuals, communities and regions. Breaking down barriers to global markets benefited many, but treated others as disposable commodities. Suddenly the world was in play and the new game had the potential to blow a hole in the safety net CRS had worked so hard to create for the world's poorest citizens since 1943.

Simultaneously, the world was witnessing a series of brutal conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, and most deadly of all, Rwanda. There, CRS had built up 30 years of close working friendships, collaborations and strong humanitarian programs, all of which were destroyed in a few short weeks. The death of 800,000 people, including 5 CRS staff members, brought a grief and self-reflection to CRS that climaxed during the potent Gettysburg meeting.

The Justice Lens

This defining moment changed the way CRS approaches its work profoundly. It caused CRS to hold up a new lens—the lens of social justice—and to look more deeply at Catholic social teaching as both our touchstone and compass.

Further reflection also opened our collective eyes to our fellow constituents at home—the nearly 70 million Catholics in the United States who have the power, through awareness and personal engagement with the people CRS serves, to help transform the world for the common good and to humanize the forces of globalization.

Helping our constituents raise their voices in solidarity with the poor overseas to create more just U.S. policies is the work of advocacy. Working under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRS brings to the policy formation process our experiential knowledge of what works and what's needed to help communities grow and sustain themselves in the developing world. At home, we provide input to U.S. legislation and our government's policies to help alleviate poverty and promote health and human dignity throughout the world.

In the countries where we work, we also strengthen the voice of the local Catholic Church or other partners to advocate toward greater justice. From helping empower women's groups to change discriminatory local laws, to assisting organizations striving to influence the World Bank's global lending practices, CRS provides training, mentoring and financial resources to help local organizations gain the skills to change local policies and laws impeding positive social development.

When we marry CRS' experience around the world, the voice of the USCCB, and the support of American Catholics, we can contribute to a better, more just world.

To add your voice to this chorus, join CRS' Legislative Network. You will receive The Advocate, a monthly e-mail update on important policy; and periodic Action Alerts, which include news about U.S. federal legislation and resources to help you stay informed on global topics.

Bill O'Keefe is the senior director of CRS' Advocacy Department and is based in Baltimore, MD.

Share on Twitter