Around the world, Catholic Relief Services is gearing up to respond to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the tens of millions more at risk of acute hunger. Milwaukee-area Catholics are asked to join CRS in their efforts to “Lead the Way” on global hunger.

The effort will address how CRS and the Catholic Church worldwide is responding to the needs of those who are unable to access sufficient amounts of nutritious food.

The campaign kicked off with “Nine Days of Action” starting May 16, during the weeklong observation of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops USCCB, which governs CRS, is also calling on Catholics to join in prayer May 24 at noon in recognition of the campaign.

Locally, Catholics are asked to watch the CRS video on hunger, available at https://www.crs.org/get-involved/lead-way/hunger to get a sense of what is going on and possibly step up to join a CRS chapter or become a parish ambassador

“One of the difficulties that CRS faces and as Catholics we face the idea of ‘how do we love our neighbor at that great a distance,’” said Rob Shelledy, Milwaukee Archdiocesan Director Dignity of the Human Person, Coordinator Social Justice Ministry. “We obviously see issues of hunger here with struggling food pantries and food banks in southeast Wisconsin. We have to make sure not to lose sight of them and those countries that CRS helps each day.”

During a May 14 video conference, Sean Callahan, CRS president and CEO, explained that millions are unable to afford nutritious food because they have been out of work since the beginning of the global pandemic, while others are unable to purchase seeds and will miss the planting season.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, 135 million people around the world experienced acute hunger. Now, because of disruptions caused by the virus, the United Nations World Food Program is estimating the number of people suffering from acute hunger will almost double by the end of this year, totaling 265 million people.

“It’s dehumanizing and strips people of their dignity,” said Callahan. “Young girls are put in marriages in communities because parents cannot afford to keep them in time of crisis. We learned of a 9-year-old girl whose grandma arranged an early marriage for her due to the virus. Thankfully CRS stepped in, stopped the marriage and provided resources in the way of food for the family.”

Shelledy is hoping for local participation in raising funds for those suffering from acute hunger and admitted the concept of acute hunger is difficult to grasp.

“We can think about it, but unless we have experienced something really hard, we can’t imagine it. Even when camping, we normally bring food and have a couple hundred dollars of equipment, access to running water and a toilet,” he said. “The Lead the Way effort is trying to further deepen the Catholic mission of CRS and doing so through the issue campaign, which was first migration and now the anti-hunger effort. It was a problem before, but this pandemic exacerbated all the problems. It is very important for folks to be engaged because the U.S. plays a key role in the ability to respond to issues.”

Shelledy added that programs such as the CRS Rice Bowl Campaign is connected with “Lead the Way.” Additionally, Marquette University has a campus Ambassador program and they hope to collaborate with parish CRS Ambassadors to work collectively on these issues.

“We are fortunate that in Milwaukee there are a lot of supporters of CRS who are aware of the need; we did have a couple of CRS events such as a Helping Hands Meal Packing Event at St. Joseph’s in Wauwatosa that had to be postponed due to the pandemic, as well as some events at other parishes,” he said. “CRS is trying to focus on particular issues over a period of time to increase the quantity and quality of Catholic engagement so as to look through Lead the Way anti-hunger as flowing out of the CRS Rice bowl themes over the years.”

For those donating to CRS, Shelledy said 94 percent of the funds collected goes to programming with overhead encompassing just 6 percent. Additionally, 25 percent of the funds remain in the local area to provide assistance to those in need. The low overhead is directly correlated with CRS partnerships among Catholic dioceses in various parts of the world.

“They don’t need much infrastructure and hire mostly people from countries doing the work, which provides them with a built-in local knowledge base and also helps the local economy,” he explained. “This is much more efficient than paying Americans to live in Nairobi.”

Those interested in helping the “Lead the Way” campaign are asked to join CRS in prayer, watch the video and find ways to get involved locally through Rice Bowl or parish Ambassador Programs.

“People can certainly contact federal officials to support funding for anti-hunger efforts overseas,” said Shelledy. “One fascinating fact is that the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is it’s the only miracle that is in all four Gospels. Obviously, the Eucharistic aspects of it are all there, which follows the basic idea that hunger is something everyone can appreciate and should be grateful that if they have enough food, that it is a wonderful blessing. It is good to keep in mind those brothers and sisters who don’t have enough.”

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Contact: Rob Shelledy