When famine, war or natural disasters hit, relief often comes from church agencies.
Jerry Farrell, the Catholic Relief Services country representative in South Sudan, knows this to be true. “The church is a lifeline in South Sudan, not only spiritually, but also physically,” he told Catholic News Service last March. “We can distribute medical supplies, food, shelter, water, through the church in communities where you would think nobody could go.”
CRS, of course, is the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic Church, assisting people in more than 100 countries. What makes the church a trusted partner in world relief efforts is its “boots on the ground” mentality.
“The Catholic Church has always been in a unique position to respond to humanitarian disasters no matter how bad the situation escalates,” said Farrell. “The church never closes down.”
Whether the humanitarian disaster is natural (such as the recent earthquake in Mexico City or hurricane in Puerto Rico) or a man-made crisis (like the persecution of the Rohingya, the Muslim ethnic minority group in Myanmar), Catholic Church relief agencies are there to lend a hand.
Pope Francis is often quoted defending the poor, displaced refugees and victims of war around the world. He uses Christ’s mandate often referenced in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, which says: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
But his words would ring hallow if they were not followed up by actions, by caring for the needs of the suffering, as if each person was Christ.
This is where agencies like CRS enter the picture, in places like South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Three years after its independence, a power struggle between the country’s president and his former deputy forced another civil war and led to the deaths of thousands.
Although the United Nations has had a long peace-keeping presence in the country, it has failed to stop warring factions from threatening and killing civilians.
As a result, hunger plagues the nation. According to Caritas South Sudan, half of the population is suffering from extreme hunger and about 1 million children under age 5 are severely malnourished. Nearly 2 million people are displaced within the country and another two million have left the country.
Many relief agencies and NGOs have abandoned South Sudan due to the violence. But as Farrell stated, the church never closes down. “The church is one of a few institutions in South Sudan that has the credibility, capacity and presence to effectively address concerns affecting society at large,” according to CRS.
When it comes to following the Gospel mandate of feeding the poor, welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked, the church, particularly through its network of relief agencies like CRS, has proven to be the hands and feet of Christ. Like the open arms Pope Francis offers to refugees, the homeless and others, the church’s doors are always open. They never close down.
To help keep the doors wide open, consider learning more about CRS and supporting their relief efforts in South Sudan.