Xavier students go to summit as CRS ambassadors

By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) –Denise Ssettimba just began her brief presentation to an aide to Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, on the need to maintain U.S. funding for global anti-hunger efforts when two congressional dining staffers with food carts in tow asked to squeeze by in a busy hallway in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

The 18-year-old Xavier University of Louisiana student stepped a little closer into the tight circle around the aide, Kaitlyn Dwyer, staying on message.

“We want to share that there are a lot of ways that this aid helps people avoid migration,” Ssetimba said.

Fellow Xavier University students Ja’Che Malone and Sarah Bertrand accompanied by chaplain Josephite Father Etido Jerome, and Madeleine Woolverton, a student at Tulane University with Dominican Father Thomas Schaefgen, chaplain and director of Tulane University’s Fr. Val Ambrose McInnes, O.P. Center for Catholic Life, picked up the call as Ssetimba finished.

“The issues of global hunger and migration are intimately linked because hunger is one of the causes of migration,” Woolverton said. “When we can provide funding for programs that can provide sustainable solutions … not creating dependency but creating systemic change in farming communities, we can prevent some of these problems.”

The four students asked Dwyer to share with Kennedy their concern that no funding be cut from international poverty-reducing programs.

Preserving current spending levels for disaster relief, health care, nutrition, anti-human trafficking efforts, migration and refugee assistance is a major priority of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international humanitarian organization of the U.S. Catholic Church.

The students from New Orleans, part of the CRS Student Ambassador Leaders Together initiative, were helping carry that message to Congress on the last day of the Student Ambassador Leadership Summit (SALT) July 15-18 organized by CRS. 

They joined more than 150 students from 58 Catholic and non-Catholic colleges and universities who participated in the summit visiting members of Congress, sharing the same message that Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, Philippines, brought to Capitol Hill a day earlier.

The programs they addressed were targeted for an overall 36 percent cut in federal spending in the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) proposed fiscal year 2019 spending outline. The OMB plan seeks to reduce funding to $15.1 billion from nearly $23.8 billion authorized for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Such spending comprises about 0.5 percent of the federal budget.

“Our time at the CRS SALT Summit was full of educational and motivating lectures, inspirational stories from different CRS campus, great testimonies from CRS overseas and moving examples of faith in action,” said Bertrand, a Xavier pre-med student. Bertrand made presentations on inter-campus collaboration and leadership development during pre-panel sessions at the summit.

Having so many young people bringing a consistent message to Congress was sure to have an impact, Kathleen Kahlau, senior adviser at CRS, told the students before they fanned out across Capitol Hill.

“You’re bringing some good news. Not the Gospel in the religious sense, but good news in the sense that you’re sharing with these staffers the fact that what America does through its aid is effective, is efficient, does really save lives,” Kahlau said.

Bertrand said Xavier students worked on action plans to bring new ideas back to campus. 

“CRS focuses on international social justice topics such as climate change, migration, human trafficking, and world hunger,” Bertrand said. “Realizing that these topics are all interconnected, the Louisiana delegates participated in advocacy training at CRS headquarters on July 18” where they heard stories from CRS partners nationwide and facts about the U.S. government’s positions on food insecurity relief programs as well as migration and refugee assistance.“

Were well-schooled

Three days of advanced preparation for congressional visits served to create broader awareness of the work of CRS and deeper understanding of the importance of U.S. aid for that work, students said. Several students who are CRS campus ambassadors told Catholic News Service they were willing to step away from jobs, summer internships and research projects to advocate for people without a voice.

The Louisiana delegation along with FOCUS missionaries met with Kaitlyn Dwyer from Senator John Kennedy’s office and discussed funding for international aid in the upcoming budget bill. The Louisiana delegation then visited with Senator Bill Cassidy to discuss implementing sustainable community development programs in Central America and how the federal international aid budget contributes to this life saving work. 

“Cassidy’s office expressed interest in discovering the root causes of migration in Central America,” said Bertrand, who relayed the summer service trip she planned with Xavier students to La Pena, Honduras, and how human dignity can empower impoverished communities to continue developing, knowing that someone does indeed care for them and their wellbeing.

Xavier students met Congressman Cedric Richmond, and Tulane students met with Congressman Steve Scalise. The day concluded with a ceremony on the west lawn of the Capitol where students from 61 universities pledged themselves to instituting social justice and advocacy efforts on their campuses. This was not the first rodeo for many of the Louisiana delegates advocating on the hill. Many of the students participated in the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in February of 2018, discussing similar issues with Congress.

Will pass on knowledge  

Students also said they planned to return to their campuses this fall ready to share what they learned about the global work of CRS and encourage others to join them in promoting the agency.

“I will take back to Tulane so many new ideas about how to run our club more effectively, such as how to engage more students, how to collaborate with other campus organizations and ideas for different events we can host,” Madeleine Woolverton said. “I’ll take back a deeper understanding of how CRS is creating systemic, lasting change around the world.  I now have the ability to truly explain the significance of CRS’s work to my fellow ambassadors (on campus) and share the confidence that we are living out our faith and truly making a difference by advocating for them.

“Our Catholic faith calls us to protect the poor and vulnerable …. and sometimes that means investing more than $10 in the collection pot each week at Sunday Mass,” said Bertrand from Xavier University. “While monetary donations are important, I feel called to invest my time and efforts into working with poor communities to create sustainable change. … Overall, the SALT summit has reconfirmed my mission to improve the healthcare and quality of life of the poor and vulnerable.”

Dennis Sasdowski writes for CNS. Christine Bordelon, associate editor at the Clarion Herald, contributed to this story.

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