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Catholic Relief Services summer program teaches students to advocate

First slide

WASHINGTON - Instead of hitting the beach this summer, students from roughly 40 U.S. colleges and universities, mainly Catholic institutions, attended an advocacy training program offered by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency.

At training sessions in Baltimore at the agency's headquarters and at Loyola University Maryland, about 120 students and faculty learned about issues important to the church and CRS, such as human trafficking, climate change and migration.

They listened to CRS professionals talk about their work in the field with poor communities worldwide, and they also had classes on social media, communications, campus organization, and advocacy.

They spent the next morning in Washington, meeting on Capitol Hill with members of Congress and staffers to discuss the issues.

"This program is a huge expression of faith," Aimee Perhach, a student at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Ind., said after the lobbying sessions. "Look at Matthew 25," she said, referring to the Gospel's admonition that whatever you do for others, especially the poor and marginalized, you do for God.

"Obviously, deeds are what he is judging on," she added.

Perhach has been working with CRS on her campus for two years before she came to Washington for the advocacy training, which is part of CRS' SALT program - Student Ambassador Leaders Together. Time also was spent in prayer, reflection and community building.

In 2006, CRS founded Catholic Relief Services University to incorporate students into their fieldwork through the SALT program. It started with representatives from just six Catholic colleges.

For many students, SALT was an opportunity for them to express their Catholic faith through word and deed for the first time in a real-world setting; other students had already undergone CRS training online or in a regional program, and had started a CRS chapter on their campus.

Their day in Washington began with an opening presentation about faith-based advocacy, its significance and its effects in government. Two staffers, one from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate, spoke to the students about life on Capitol Hill, answered their questions and gave them advice.

The students were divided into groups assigned to program advisers. Each group would get to talk to the staffers of two members of Congress. During the meeting, each student would get a chance to speak on the topic that he or she was assigned.

Armed with facts and figures, the students either expressed thanks for a particular lawmaker's support of an issue or advocated for specific legislation to address an issue.

Jessica Marinucci, rising senior at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, visited staffers at the office of Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, to talk about the three CRS campaigns, including, "I Am Climate Change."

"The 'I Am' claims responsibility for causing those problems," said Marinucci, who has advocated on CRS issues before. This summer experience offered a networking opportunity and another chance to put her faith into action.

"As a Catholic and a Christian, we are called to be advocates. As a citizen in a secular nation grounded in faith, we are able to express and use faith as a reason to spark action," she said. "That's a huge privilege. We have to use it to help the voiceless."

For Mary Ellen Kane, a rising senior at the University of Scranton, it was her first foray into advocacy after two years of running a CRS chapter on her campus, and writing and emailing members of Congress. Her meeting with Toomey's staffers went well, she said, and they were "willing to hear us out."

After their meetings, the students gathered at St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill for Mass and a debriefing lunch, during which students shared their mostly positive experiences.

Tom Price, senior manager and deputy of strategic communications for CRS, organized and helped the SALT program run smoothly.

"I think (SALT) is bringing faith and advocacy together, and faith is a huge part of it," he said. "You can tell that it's the faith in (the students') hearts that has brought them to volunteer. This is getting Catholic soldiers on the ground, getting the word out (about) what the church wants to be done on these hugely important issues."

Price has been involved with faith-based international relief for more than 20 years; his work includes organizing communications and strategies at the executive level as well as writing, photographing and filming CRS volunteers in action around the world.

Kim Lamberty, director of university and mission engagement at CRS, explained the significance of the SALT program.

"The idea is to form them as future faith leaders and thought leaders," said Lamberty, "and to form them so that the CRS mission to serve the most vulnerable people around the world becomes part of who they are as Catholics and as leaders."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016