Catholic Charities coordinators attend NY conference

NEW YORK — Liberia, social action and Sept. 11, 2001, were topics at the annual Roundtable Social Action Summer Institute held at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y.

The Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors was organized in 1985 to serve those in diocesan offices linking justice and faith in light of Catholic social teaching.

The roundtable has held the Summer Institute for the past 17 years in different locations such as Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C.

Tracy Kroll, regional coordinator of Midlands Office of Catholic Charities in Columbia attended the roundtable, as did Diane Bullard, regional coordinator of the Pee Dee Office of Catholic Charities in Conway.

Kroll came to the institute seeking national support for the challenge the Columbia area is encountering in working with government agencies to resettle Somali Bantu refugees.

Bullard called the annual institute “one of the most worthwhile and important gatherings that anyone who is involved in promoting Catholic social teaching can attend. The institute allows for an informal forum for the sharing of justice issues with those who staff Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Bishops Conference’s Office of Social Development and World Peace. Not only is it a chance to meet these folks face-to-face but to share ideas and work on collaborative projects. Our diocesan office tries to send at least one staff member each year.”

The Rev. Robert Vitillo, executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, spoke at the institute. “I have been coming here for about six years,” he said. “My office actually co-sponsors the Summer Institute, so I don’t know how objective an opinion I will have of it, but I think it’s an excellent event.

“People are still very generous to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Last year we had about a five percent decrease in our national collection, but we’re grateful for that generosity, and we know that times are hard in this country.”

“Over the years we have given away about $260 million to more than 4,000 self-help community-based projects… Last year we gave away about $10 million to 339 projects in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, so we’ve been able to share the generosity of Catholics through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.”

Vitillo has visited Ground Zero, the site of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. “I’ve been there several times because I actually attend a board meeting every six months or so right near there,” he said. “It’s a very powerful experience to think of the people who lost their lives there, and also the effect on their families… To me, it’s a symbol of violence in all parts of the world. So many times we focus on what happened there, and we forget about the fact that thousands of people lose their lives every day in other parts of the world, and most Americans don’t pay any attention.”

Kathy Brown, director of community engagement at Catholic Relief Services in the Division of U.S. Operation in Baltimore, Md., explained her work to institute participants. “We have two areas that we are really concerned about right now. One is Ethiopia. The famine continues to be heightened there, so it is a tremendous concern for us. The second one, of course, is Liberia, where the people are asking for the United States to come in and help them. We’re very concerned about that area as well.

“The major crisis right now is in Africa with the famine, and we’re also in Iraq,” Brown said. “Before the war we were getting in there to try to provide some medicine and water sanitation, and now we are trying to get food to the people and health care to the children.

Brown explained to institute participants that Catholic Relief Services is “the international arm of the Catholic bishops of the United States. We’re 60 years old. We began toward the end of World War II to help refugees. To this day we still have refugees of wars, famines and droughts. We do emergency relief work, but we also do development assistance and peace-building… We’re in 90 different countries around the world. Our mandate from the bishops is to work in the poorest of the poor countries of the world.”

New York Times “Beliefs” religion columnist Peter Steinfels and his wife, editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, spoke on “American Catholics in the Public Square” with moderator Jeff Korgen, secretary of the roundtable.

Steinfels book, “A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America,” will be published this month.

Institute participants spent some free time touring New York, and visited the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Ground Zero.