Tag Archives: Catholic Relief Services

Agent of change

Milwaukee Legate Art Wigchers — dubbed ‘Father of the Poor’ — has begun a tidal wave of cultural change in Ethiopia

Art Wigchers

Art Wigchers

Art Wigchers didn’t set out to change the world, but the soft-spoken Milwaukee businessman is doing just that — beginning with one small Catholic diocese in Central Ethiopia.

When his father-in-law died about 15 years ago, he left a sizable sum of money that Wigchers (pronounced Wiggers) and his wife Mary Ann — members of Legatus’ Milwaukee Chapter— decided to send to Catholic Relief Services.

It was meant to be a one-time gift, but the local CRS rep called Wigchers every three months to invite him on a trip to visit CRS work in Latin America.

“Then, in 2003, they asked if I’d like to go to East Africa, and I said yes,” he said with a grin. “I’m a news junkie, and I knew of the difficulties in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. I thought, ‘Here’s my chance to see what’s really going on and understand from the ground up.’”

Catholic investment

The last leg of Wigchers’ trip took him to the Vicariate of Meki, a few hours south of the nation’s capital in central Ethiopia. In the Catholic Church, an apostolic vicariate is a form of territorial jurisdiction in missionary regions where a diocese has not yet been established.

After touring several CRS projects, Wigchers struck up an almost instant friendship with the newly appointed leader of the vicariate — Bishop Abraham Desta.

“I asked him what he needed most,” Wigchers said. “He said he needed help with a school in the mountains in a heavily Muslim area. I went home and talked to my wife, and we decided to help.”

After pondering his gift for a few months, Wigchers decided to return a year later and check on the school’s progress.

“My 2004 visit is where I really got hooked,” he explained. “I had been wondering if the school we helped fund really existed. The school not only existed, but it was doing every well.”

In fact, because of the Catholic Church’s investment through CRS in education, sustainable development projects, famine relief, disease prevention and community water projects over the last 58 years, the Church has earned the respect of faith and community leaders nationwide. That would prove beneficial for the work Wigchers would later undertake.

Elevating women

Bishop Abraham Desta

Bishop Abraham Desta

The 72-year-old Wigchers said that being on the ground in Meki — seeing firsthand the incredible poverty and the great need for education — touched his heart because of his own upbringing.

Raised in rural northwest Wisconsin, Wigchers, at a very young age, suffered the death of his father.

“We didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing, but we had focus,” he said. “My mother had six years of schooling, and she said, ‘You’re going to college. You’re not going to end up like me.’”

Wigchers went on to earn an MBA and CPA. His career led him to work for a large real estate developer in Milwaukee where he spent 35 years. He retired as CEO of Zilber, Ltd., six years ago.

Bishop Desta said that Wigchers’ 2003 visit was a Godsend because he brought a remarkable zeal for education.

One of the challenges the bishop found as a new leader was that women were not being afforded their rightful place. This is not only a problem in his heavily rural, poverty-stricken vicariate, but across his country with its male-dominated society.

Art Wigchers gathers with school children near Meki, Ethiopia

Art Wigchers gathers with school children near Meki, Ethiopia

“I saw that women are, in this area, not well-treated,” he explained. “They’re not given the opportunity to advance. As they grow up, girls drop out of school.”

Another danger that caught the bishop’s attention was that most Ethiopian girls are subject to harmful traditional practices — including female genital mutilation (FGM).

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM with 3 million girls in Africa at risk every year.

In fact, President Barack Obama lashed out against FGM during his July visit to Kenya and Ethiopia. He reiterated those remarks to African leaders in Washington a week later.

“There’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation; there’s no place in a civilized society for the early or forced marriage of children,” he told an audience in Kenya. “These traditions may go back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”

Change through education

Girls fill their containers of water at a community well near Meki, Ethiopia.

Girls fill their containers of water at a community well near Meki, Ethiopia.

Wigchers and Bishop Desta agreed that the best way to eliminate these traditional harmful practices was through education.

“The Catholic Church is a big voice here,” Bishop Desta explained. “If anything comes from the Catholic Church, people see it as a positive. We are a moral voice, plus we have the understanding of the people around us to start this project.”

Wigchers, a member of the CRS Foundation Board, began by supporting the vicariate’s 44 schools. The idea to advocate for women began to blossom only three years ago.

“In 2012, when I was here with some college professors,” Wigchers explained, “the bishop said that the most important thing he needed was help for the girls to have more respect and equality in the society.”

Wigchers began to rally support at Marquette University and Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. That caught the attention of some highly placed educators.

Linda Gordy, associate dean at Waukesha County Technical College, is a literacy expert who heard about Wigchers’ work three years ago. She jumped at the chance to help.

Wigchers also recruited Madeline Wake, a retired dean of nursing at Marquette. The three put their heads together and developed a program to help restore women to their rightful place in Ethiopian society by training teachers in hygiene, nutrition, health and the dangers of FGM and other harmful traditional practices.

“We knew that the teachers could reach parents in a way that we never could,” Wake said. “Education always empowers a community.”

The project has trained over 270 teachers and 34 administrators with another 26 school directors being trained to teach others.

“Our goal is to make this self-sustaining in the vicariate so we can work in other areas,” Wigchers said. “This is a large country — 90 million people in an area twice the size of Texas — so there’s no end to what we can do to help.”

“Art is a unique individual,” Gordy said. “His personal commitment and vision is very special, giving him the ability to gather all these different perspectives.”

Bishop Desta also lauds Wigchers’ passion, which has yielded great success. The businessman has helped rally secular, ethnic and faith leaders to back his plan to restore women’s dignity.

“He is a pioneer in this area of education,” Bishop Desta said. “Art is ‘Father of the Poor,’ really. I admire him for his concern — especially for the girls who are burdened with so much in this male-dominated society. From his heart, he wants to help with knowledge, empowering people. This is truly the social teaching of the Church in action.”

PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief. He spent five days with Wigchers in Ethiopia in July. To learn more about Wigchers’ work, contact him at awigchers@wi.rr.com

Bringing Washington to Rome

Legatus magazine’s exclusive with U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett . . .

Ken Hackett is not a career diplomat, but he is a career humanitarian. The West Roxbury, Mass., native worked for Catholic Relief Services for 40 years — including 19 years as president — before being named U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in 2013.

Hackett attended Boston College, graduating in 1968. He then joined the Peace Corps and served in Ghana. Afterwards, he joined CRS, serving in Africa and Asia. He retired from CRS in 2011.

You really traveled the world with CRS. Talk about your experiences.

Then CRS-president Ken Hackett chats with St. John Paul II during the Holy Father’s visit to CRS headquarters in Baltimore on Oct. 8, 1995.

Then CRS-president Ken Hackett chats with St. John Paul II during the Holy Father’s visit to CRS headquarters in Baltimore on Oct. 8, 1995.

I lived a good chunk of my life in Africa and in Manhattan covering Africa. I was on the road a lot in sub-Saharan Africa. My wife also lived in Africa, in Ghana, Mauritania and Cameroon. After we were married, we moved to the Philippines where we spent five years and had our first child. Then we transferred back to Kenya where we had our second child. Before going back to the headquarters in Baltimore, we had covered a good chunk of the world.

I can go back to the latest traumatic episode, the Haitian earthquake, which was really all-consuming on people in Catholic Relief Services because we had such a large role to play. When we can bring, as we did, U.S. government resources and private resources — and put it through that powerful resource of Catholic hospitals and health care centers where nuns are doing heroic and saintly work to reach the poorest of the poor — that made a big difference.

Human trafficking is an important issue for the Embassy.

Yes. Combating trafficking in persons has been an important policy goal of our Embassy for years. As you know, human trafficking is an issue that Pope Francis has raised frequently as well. Our Embassy holds regular meetings with Vatican officials, NGOs, and men and women religious to discuss collaboration. We have also organized several events over the last year on the issue of trafficking.

Most recently, we supported the visit of [high-ranking U.S. officials] in Rome to participate in a Vatican interfaith conference on human trafficking. We support Church organizations doing the important work of combating trafficking on the ground. Secretary of State John Kerry has also announced the State Department’s plans to work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in order to map and coordinate the church’s efforts on a global basis. Last July, we partnered with the Vatican’s newly launched interfaith anti-trafficking initiative, the Global Freedom Network, to host a video conference.

How does the U.S. work with the Catholic Church on the plight of Christians living in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq and Syria?

Ken Hackett speaks to the media in 2011 (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Ken Hackett speaks to the media in 2011 (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The safety and rights of members of religious minority groups and other vulnerable people in Iraq and Syria are issues of longstanding concern to the U.S. government. The United States and the Holy See share the goal of peace in the region, and we have shared information with the Vatican on our efforts to combat [ISIS]. These terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities.

We often meet with Vatican officials who are in touch with the Christian communities in the region and with Church leaders from Iraq or Syria when they visit Rome. The humanitarian emergency created from this violence is devastating. The U.S. is the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance, providing more than $3 billion in critical aid since the start of the crisis.

How can the U.S. work with the Church to stop religiously motivated violence — like what we’ve seen from militant Islamists?

The U.S. and the Holy See have been outspoken in condemning the use of religion by terrorist groups to justify their horrific actions. Pope Francis said most recently during his trip to Turkey, “Any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation.”

Credible religious leaders and interfaith organizations can do much to help discredit those groups. These leaders and groups can also work to prevent other young people from falling into the clutches of violent extremist organizations.

Of course it’s important for all states to help youth find peaceful and productive alternatives to express and achieve their aspirations.

How is the U.S. working with the Church in Ebola-affected areas?

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett presents his credentials to Pope Francis on Oct. 21, 2013.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett presents his credentials to Pope Francis on Oct. 21, 2013.

The Catholic Church is on the ground and has a vast network of religious workers and lay people who are responding to the needs of those in Ebola-affected areas. We share with the Church the latest news we have from our efforts in the region to try to coordinate our approaches.

The Church has not only been a crucial element of the medical care on the ground in affected countries, but is also helping to address social and economic aspects of the crisis such as grieving, trust of health care workers, dignified and safe burial, and food aid.

Is there cooperation with the Vatican on aiding migrants reaching Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea?

Our government has been most generous to migrants, and the Catholic Church — as you well know — is often on the front lines when people arrive. You probably read that our Holy Father, in particular, has picked someone from his household to deal with this issue. His name is Archbishop Konrad Krajewski. He is the papal almoner. His office deals with papal blessings.

Archbishop Krajewski was told by Pope Francis not to stay behind his desk, but to “get out there.” The Holy Father gets letters from people all over the world. He will scribble a few words on the corner and ask Archbishop Krajewski: “Take care of this, will you?” or “Call this family who has a sick child.”

When this archbishop went to Lampedusa [Italy’s southern-most island which receives most of the migrants], he did two things: He brought $2,000 worth of phone cards and handed them out to recently arrived migrants. Secondly, he bought a whole bunch of pre-stamped envelopes for people who did not have phones at home to write a note to tell loved ones they had arrived safely. These are little things which get to the heart of things. It shows compassion.

What developing issues do you see down the road?

A number of human rights issues will continue to be at the forefront of our work. Combating human trafficking will remain a priority as will the search for peaceful solutions to conflict, countering violent extremism and the persecution of Christians and other minorities, promoting interreligious dialogue and understanding, and combating hunger and poverty.

And we are of course very excited that Pope Francis will be making his first trip to the United States this coming September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

Deadly Dealings USA

The disturbing spread of human trafficking has spawned a wave of faith-based relief . . .

The day before the Seahawks celebrated their Super Bowl victory with a parade through downtown Seattle on Feb. 5, the dark side of professional sports in America reared its ugly head.

FBI officials announced that 16 children as young as 13 – some of whom had been reported missing by their families – were rescued from the sex trade in a law-enforcement sting operation that targeted alleged pimps who brought the victims to New Jersey for Super Bowl weekend.

Law enforcement took down more than 45 pimps and their associates – several who brought their victims from out of state – in the sting.

Modern-Day Slavery

An anti-trafficking ad in New York City

An anti-trafficking ad in New York City

In its Feb. 4 announcement, the FBI noted that high-profile special events which draw large crowds have become lucrative opportunities for child prostitution criminal enterprises — a modern-day form of slavery, commonly known as human trafficking, where people are deceived and exploited for their labor or their bodies.

“The typical story in our country will be of a girl who suffers at home from sexual abuse,” said Jeff Wilbarger, founder of The Daughter Project, a shelter for trafficking survivors in Toledo, Ohio.

“She might come from a home where the mom or dad is addicted to drugs. She spends hours at the mall every day in order to avoid going home. Traffickers will approach the girl and tell her she could be a model. She goes with them because she thinks she can make money and get affection. She is never seen again, and often enough her family never even reports her missing.”

Officials say the exact numbers of people being trafficked are difficult to come by. “The numbers keep changing, but it’s believed that 21 to 27 million people are trafficked around the world,” said Mary DeLorey, a human trafficking expert with Catholic Relief Services.

Southeast Asia is an epicenter for both forced labor and sex trafficking. Women and children are often trafficked to the Middle East as laborers. Sometimes small children are forced to become camel jockeys. In Europe, most people are being trafficked for sex. In India, it’s estimated that 200,000 women and children are forced into the flesh trade each year.

In the U.S., there is a growing labor- and sex-trafficking market. Sex trafficking exists in alarming numbers among minor girls — as many as 100,000 children.

“In some of these cases there is kidnapping,” DeLorey explained. “At other times, they’re tricked into thinking that they’re getting a job. This is what makes following human trafficking so difficult. At some point along the journey, a person is deceived.”

Christian Intervention

If the stories of human trafficking are horrific, then the stories of how Christian organizations reach out to victims are heartwarming.

“We have the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, which is a network of Catholic refugee foster care programs,” said Nathalie Lummert, director of special programs in Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Sometimes foreign children are discovered in raids at brothels here in the U.S., or children are found who were forced to carry drugs across the border,” she said. “The child will be brought into a private Catholic foster care program to live either with a family or in a group home. We will get them the counseling they need to recover from the trauma. They also get legal help and cultural orientation services.”

Last November, the Vatican held an international working group on human trafficking to help Catholic conferences around the world share ideas and work together.

“Human trafficking is a crime against humanity,” Pope Francis told a group of ambassadors to the Vatican on Dec. 12. “We must unite our efforts to free victims and stop this crime that’s become ever more aggressive, that threatens not just individuals, but the foundational values of society.”

The first U.S. legislation to combat trafficking came in 2000 with the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). The bill gave $95 million to law enforcement to fight trafficking and assist victims. It also laid out severe punishment for traffickers.

Although law enforcement has known for years that major sporting events like the Super Bowl act as a magnet for sex trafficking, the media had been slow to report the story. But this year was different.

“I think the tide has turned,” the USCCB’s Lummert explained. “There’s a lot of energy. Many people want to know about it and want to do something about it. This is the result of a lot of work in the last 10 years and a great deal of momentum.”

The U.S. bishops’ conference combats trafficking in three ways: services for victims, a National Day of Prayer for Victims on Feb. 8, and an educational awareness program. The USCCB developed a Become a Shepherd tool kit for parishes to learn about trafficking and how to organize prayer services for victims.

Their Amistad program takes it a step further.

“Amistad trains local leaders in parishes where there are many immigrants,” Lummert said. “It trains them to identify victims and helps them learn how to build coalitions within their communities. The goal is to prevent trafficking among vulnerable populations.”

Making a Difference

trafficking-2When U.S. law enforcement officials rescue a victim, they often discover there is no stable family for the girls to return to. They will often bring the victims to shelters run by Christian organizations. One of these organizations is Wilbarger’s The Daughter Project.

“A couple of years ago, I was living a very comfortable, Christian life — teaching math at a local school,” Wilbarger said. “My son-in-law gave me a book called Not for Sale by David Batstone, and it was real-life stories of women who had survived human trafficking in the U.S. I had thought that slavery was over. It was really shocking.”

When Wilbarger realized how bad the problem of trafficking was, he decided to build a shelter for victims with the help of his Lutheran church.

“We give the girls psychological help, education, health and good nutrition. For them, it’s a lifelong journey to recovery,” he said.

Most of the girls they help are between 13 and 15 years old. A team of “house moms” lives at the shelter full time so the girls can develop strong relationships — for many, their first positive relationship with an adult.

“Trafficking has always existed,” Lummert explained. “It’s linked to poverty, but ultimately this is a life and dignity issue.”

For the workers in this vineyard, the task is continually to shine a light on the problem, assist the victims, and prevent it from happening again, she said.

“We still have a way to go,” said Lummert. “People still have a hard time believing that this is happening here. You could be looking at a trafficking victim in plain sight and not know it. It’s very complicated.”

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

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