BALTIMORE –– For Stanford University history major Karl Kumodzi, when injustice cries out Christians have a responsibility to act.

From aiding “unhoused” people in Palo Alto, Calif., where Stanford is located, to working with his mother in Las Vegas to establish a foundation to help educate Togolese students, Kumodzi finds that working to overcome the unpleasantness of injustice is what Catholics are called to do.

A refugee from Togo as a year-old child with his political activist mother in 1993, Kumodzi said it is God who sets the agenda in his life.

For his work, Kumodzi, 20, was honored by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development Nov. 12 with the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin New Leadership Award during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall general assembly in Baltimore.

The award, named for the late Chicago cardinal, has been presented annually since 1998 to a young adult working to empower others and respond to injustice in his or her community.

Kumodzi said his response to the injustices he sees extends from his Catholic faith and the life of Christ.

“Jesus is the biggest person that I try to be like and I try to emulate,” he told Catholic News Service prior to the award ceremony during the U.S. bishops’ fall general assembly. “Jesus spent his whole life loving people and showing that love through actions. That’s pretty much what I try to do. I want to emulate love,” he said.

Kumodzi also credited his mother for her role in demonstrating how to respect and love others. She was targeted by the Togolese regime of President Etienne Eyadema and was among some 300,000 people who fled the country in 1993 to neighboring Benin.

Their experience led the mother-son duo to establish the Hidden Talent Foundation in 2007. The foundation connects Americans with students in Togo and Benin to help them enter college. Kumodzi recently visited his homeland to learn how the foundation can better serve young people.

Kumodzi considers himself fortunate to be in the U.S. Mother and son arrived in 1996 from Benin. Their trek took them from Louisville, Ky., to Tampa, Fla., and finally to Las Vegas. Along the way, his mother made education the family’s top priority.

The result: Karl received a full scholarship to Stanford after being part of TRIO and Gear Up Educational Talent Search, federal programs for disadvantaged students.

At Stanford, he joined other students in working with local churches to shelter women they met while volunteering with Night Outreach. The program sent teams of students into Palo Alto’s neighborhoods to find people living on the streets or in cars. The people he ran into were not the stereotypes often portrayed by society. These “unhoused” women usually were victims of violence or the high cost of housing, he explained.

The shelter operated for three months last winter. This year the students formed a nonprofit corporation and are planning to reopen a shelter in a local church in January, he said.

“Growing up I’ve always been aware of inequality in the world and I’ve always really been bothered and affected by suffering,” Kumodzi said. “I feel like my life isn’t my own, that God has given me so much and that everyone is here for a purpose. I feel that God made me sensitive to injustices because he wanted me to be someone who does something about it.”

“I’ve been fortunate to be around people who helped me develop the way I feel about the world and how I do things and to have enough confidence to do things I wanted to be done.”

In 2011, Kumodzi was one of about 40 college students chosen as a student freedom rider to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights freedom rides from Washington to New Orleans. The project was featured in a series on the Public Broadcasting System. The students met some of the original freedom riders, some of whom joined them on the re-enacted trip. Kumodzi recorded video diaries and blogged about his experience.

He said he learned that institutional racial barriers still exist in the country and that the experience strengthened his resolve to overcome the oppression of poor and marginalized people that still exists across America.

“I love people because I see Christ in people. I don’t think any of us can stand idly by and see Christ suffer,” he told a crowded reception at the award ceremony.

“I truly believe that we were meant to help prepare the kingdom on earth for Christ’s return. I strongly believe through love and through the seeking of justice we will realize our obligation to build the kingdom.”