Story by Justin Reilly
Reilly converted to Catholicism while studying at Vanderbilt Divinity School, where a Jesuit professor and the writings of Thomas Merton deeply influenced him. He now represents the work of CRS to Catholics in nine U.S. states. He spoke with Cross Roads about the organization he serves and the impact it has in the world.
CR: What drew you to working for CRS?
JR: Meeting the people of CRS is largely what drew me to CRS. … They’re professional. They try to be kind and welcoming to the people around them. … I consider it a calling and a privilege just to be a part of an organization that has a true mission, follows that mission and, very simply put, gets to be at the service of other people, to help people. And that’s something that
I’ve always wanted to do.
My division — we’re mission and mobilization — works directly with Catholics and people of goodwill in the U.S. to invite them into taking action, both through advocacy and through community giving, and those two things directly have an impact on people overseas.
CR: What does local engagement look like for CRS?
JR: We have about 30 chapters in the U.S. that usually have about 10 people in them. And what they really work on is advocacy, community giving and educating others in their parish and their diocese about how people can contribute to helping folks overseas.
Of course, Rice Bowl is a huge part of what we do every Lent. We see it as a formation tool, where people can reflect on Lent with their family. They can also directly give to programs overseas. That’s what that sort of community giving aspect of it is.
And I think it’s always important to remember too that, for example, in the Diocese of Lexington, whatever you give as a diocese, 25 percent comes back to the diocese to be used for local poverty alleviation. So it has an international impact but also a local impact as well.
CR: What issues does CRS address overseas that people also experience stateside?
JR: I started my career in far southwest Virginia. My house was in Norton, Va., which is very close to the line of the southeast part of your diocese, where they experienced a lot of … environmental challenges through some of the coal mining practices.
There always has been a little bit of a tension there, because for the moment, they’re contributing to the economy and jobs are being provided. There’s also harm being done to the land and to the people.
People who were already vulnerable were made more vulnerable. Once trees are gone, which has to happen for mountaintop removal, erosion is much more likely to happen. Flooding is much more likely to happen. It’s not just that the coal mining happens. It’s that it drastically affects the environment and the way people live around it. I witnessed it on the local level.
Those type of things happen all around the world, and those are the things that we’re addressing in countries all over the place.
Care for creation, at its essence, is about the dignity of the human person. And what I mean by that is, if we care for creation andwe take of it, we cultivate and not destroy, then we’re caring for the human person.
We’re loving our neighbor.
CR: How has the pandemic impacted your work?
JR: If we’re working in a community where hunger and nutrition are a problem we’re trying to solve, COVID adds another layer of difficulty to that, because of access.
So we’ve had to adapt. One example I’m thinking of: In Burkina Faso, instead of having people coming to get food, the way we’ve always done it, we had to send takehome rations home to students. It’s adapting and problem-solving in ways we’ve never had to think about.
CR: What do more people need to realize about CRS?
JR: Last year we served over 100 million people in various ways. … The scale and impact is inspiring. But what’s more inspiring is how we do it. We ascribe to something called integral human development, which means that when we are serving somebody, we want to think about the whole person, all the dimensions of the person, not just their physical needs but their emotional, their spiritual, their well-being.
They want to work and have dignity, and they need someone to give them a chance. So that’s how we like to approach our work. I think, on a personal level, it’s how we feel too. We want to have some determination of our own destiny. We don’t want things decided for us. And that’s what folks around the world want.
Learn more about the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl at: www.crsricebowl.org