Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Parish Social Ministries director visits Tanzania with Catholic Relief Services

by Scott Cooper, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 8, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

When asked why the Church in Africa is experiencing such growth, Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, replied, “People in Africa pray to God because they need him.”

As Director of Parish Social Ministries for Catholic Charities, Spokane, I was one of six Diocesan Directors for Catholic Relief Services who enjoyed this challenging experience during a 10-day tour of projects and communities linked with CRS, the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Hosted by CRS, I joined five other Diocesan CRS coordinators from the West Coast to visit people and to learn how our prayers and our donations make a difference in the lives of real people halfway around the world.

We learned that the Church in Tanzania can be found primarily in the small Christian communities that meet in neighborhood homes. Those communities and neighborhoods are the source for most religious formation, including RCIA, as well as much outreach to the larger community.

Cardinal Pengo praised the work of CRS in his country, emphasizing the collaboration between CRS and the local Church at diocesan and even parish levels. CRS’ current programming in Tanzania, a large country in East Africa on the Indian Ocean, began in 2004. Coordinating with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health, one of CRS’ main goals is to confront the AIDS pandemic that affects so much of Africa and the developing world. There are now approximately 60 staff – mostly Tanzanians – working in six of that country’s 30 dioceses, in four broad areas: HIV/AIDS, agriculture, community-based finance and peacebuilding.

More and more, CRS’s efforts are being integrated to reach out to those struggling with AIDS at the same time that they receive aid to grow more food and structures that allow them to save money for future needs. This multi-pronged approach hopes to address the immediate health and food security needs of thousands of people while also looking at long-term poverty concerns.

In a country where 80 percent of the people raise corn, rice, beans, cassava and sweet potatoes on plots of land totaling one or two acres in size, and where one in five children does not live to age 5, holistic strategies that combine farming with health care are having far-reaching impacts on the lives of the poorest. What became clear as our tour went on was that we were in a land where the Gospel stories come alive before your eyes, where the parables would have immediate meaning to the lives of the local people. Women draw water from wells. Fishermen cast nets into the lake. Herds of goats tended by older children dot the countryside. It was easy to imagine familiar scenes from Scripture.

We met many direct beneficiaries of CRS-supported work. Villagers welcomed us into their homes. We sat in dark, tin-roofed houses without electricity or running water, or in dusty courtyards among the chickens and children, listening to people relate their journeys from despair to hope.

• Rahel is a frail, shy woman of 20 who returned to her mother’s home with her young son after falling sick with HIV-related illnesses. She thanked us for the nursing care and social support she receives from volunteers who visit her mother’s rural home twice each week, as rain slowly leaked into the main room. Her mother praised Rahel’s improvement, happy that her daughter was now able to get out of bed. Rahel looked forward to treating her tuberculosis so that she could begin anti-retroviral therapy for HIV at the regional Catholic hospital, also supported by CRS. Her simple message to Americans was, “Thank you. Get tested.”

• We met Maria, a mother five with beautiful farm plots in a village not far from Lake Victoria. She showed us her experiments with different varieties of sweet potatoes planted among corn and beans, looking for which type might produce the largest yield. She takes part in a SILC (savings and internal lending community) made up mostly of other village women. Because there is little access to banking and credit in rural villages, this group has allowed her to buy the plots she farms and to pour a concrete foundation for the new home she hopes to build next to the mud-brick, thatch-roofed home where she currently lives. Maria proudly showed us her tiny three-room home and we met her two older daughters who attend the village school. CRS supports SILC and other microfinance groups with staff, training and oversight as a way of helping the local community leverage its own internal resources to overcome the affects of poverty.

• In the village of Kibara, we visited the simple home of Achthani and his wife. Quietly, in order not to upset his family, Achthani shared that his health had greatly improved since receiving care at the local diocesan hospital for his HIV-related illnesses. His wife laughs when a woman in our group tells her, through our Swahili translator, that she herself would not look so good after having 11 children. Achthani’s wife had recently been tested for HIV, but she did not yet know if she would be eligible for anti-retroviral therapy. The children do not know their father’s status – only that he has been able to return to his work selling the fish caught in nearby Lake Victoria.

• In a country where roughly half are Christian and half are Muslim, we also heard Peter, a CRS staffer, describe his work bringing Christian and Muslim community leaders together for interreligious dialogue in the hopes of avoiding tensions and violence, especially during election seasons.

Much of this work is possible because of the regular Lenten support of Catholics in parishes across the United States through Operation Rice Bowl. Designed to lead families with school-age children through a series of reflections during Lent, Operation Rice Bowl invites us to consider a simpler lifestyle as we learn how many around the world live. Families are encouraged to make simple vegetarian recipes from the five developing world countries that are the focus of each week. Some 75 percent of Operation Rice Bowl donations go to support CRS’s work in 99 countries around the world.

(To receive a Rice Bowl and home calendar guide, call the Parish Social Ministries office of Catholic Charities, Spokane, at (509) 358-4273 or (800) 831-1209.)

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