Catholic Charities works with all, for all who are in need


You don’t have to be Catholic to get help from Catholic Charities.

“Some people hear the name and think, ‘If I’m not Catholic, I’m not able to receive help,” said Dan Lester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).

“But we never turn away someone looking for assistance because they’re not Catholic or not Christian,” he said. “As we like to say, we help because of what we believe, not because of what they believe.”

Mr. Lester recently spoke to a faith- and community-minded audience at a meeting of the Capital Area Interfaith Alliance in Jefferson City.

About 15 members, including Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, diocesan vicar general and pastor of St. Michael parish in Russellville, attended.

After quickly clarifying who’s eligible to receive help, Mr. Lester addressed a wide variety of services CCCNMO has a hand in providing throughout the 38 counties that make up the Jefferson City diocese.

Audience members were especially interested to hear about:

  • CCCNMO’s work to resettle refugees fleeing danger and persecution in their home countries;
  • the agency’s plans to purchase and convert the Shikles Auditorium Building into a hub of charitable outreach in the Capital City;
  • its ongoing commitment to providing long-term disaster case management and assistance to people recovering from recent natural disasters in the state; and
  • its collaboration with other faith-based and public agencies and organizations to help people in need.

“Since this is the Capital Area Interfaith Alliance, people were especially interested in how we engage as a diocese from an interfaith perspective,” said Mr. Lester.

He pointed out that Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS) of Catholic Charities has been working with other faith-based groups for almost 50 years to help people escaping war and violence begin their new life in Missouri.

“We have a long history of working not just with our Catholic parishes in and around Columbia but also with multiple denominations there, from the Islamic Center there to Broadway Christian Church to any number of different interfaith outlets in drawing in volunteers and collaborating in our resettlement work,” he said.

Similarly, Catholic Charities’ role in responding to this year’s flooding in the diocese and the May 2019 tornados in Eldon and Jefferson City has tightened its bonds with other faith groups.

“We’ve worked with Quinn Chapel AME Church, Adventist Community Services, the Missouri Baptist Conference and many other groups,” said Mr. Lester.

“If you look at the long-term recovery committee that we’ve had a hand in helping to create, you see multiple groups that are represented there from a number of churches and interfaith groups,” he said.

One of their collective goals has been to avoid duplication of services wherever possible, so money can be spent where it’s needed the most.

“But you can never completely eliminate duplication,” he said, “because in many cases, any single organization simply doesn’t have the resources to go around.”

All four Roman Catholic dioceses in Missouri have their own affiliates of Catholic Charities USA, and they work well together in times of need.

For instance, caseworkers from Catholic Charities of St. Louis helped assess people’s needs after this summer’s flooding in Pike County.

The area is part of the Jefferson City diocese but borders the St. Louis archdiocese.

“That’s the ideal model for us: working together to make the most effective use of the resources that have been given to us,” said Mr. Lester.

Come hell and high water

Regarding ongoing help with disaster recovery, CCCNMO currently has two full-time case managers working with households affected both by the tornados and the floods.

In particular, they’re helping people apply for and properly spend assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and helping people file an appeal if their application for help from FEMA gets denied. They also connect survivors with additional recovery resources, from housing to food to household goods.  CCCNMO has also been instrumental in assisting with the formation of long-term recovery committees in several impacted communities.

He pointed out that many of the people who were affected by flooding own their homes and have insurance, but a majority of those displaced by the tornados were renting and don’t have access to as many resources.

“That can make the process much trickier for them to navigate,” he said.

Not enough hours

CCCNMO has received grants to pay for many of its employees, so more money can be spent on helping people in their time of need.

“I think the biggest shortage and the biggest barrier is that there are simply not enough hours in a day to get to everything we want to get to,” said Mr. Lester.

Recovery, by nature, also tends to be a slow process.

“There are a lot of response agencies in the nonprofit and the public sector who are working hard to make this recovery as successful as possible,” he said. “But it doesn’t happen overnight.”

He noted that Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri was helping some families through recovery from the 2011 Joplin tornado until May 2019.

Such disasters often have the heaviest effect on the people with the least access to help.

The reduction in available low-income housing in Jefferson City due to the May tornado has led to homelessness or housing insecurity for some people.

CCCNMO recently hired a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) certified housing counselor.

She helps people who are homeless find a place to live, people who are facing eviction do what they can to avoid it and people hoping to become first-time homebuyers navigate the byzantine process.

“People’s ears perk up when they hear that,” said Mr. Lester. “She has expertise and the skills to walk people through that process, to make budgets, to apply for a loan.”

Place of refugee

Several people at the Interfaith Alliance meeting asked how CCCNMO’s Refugee Resettlement Services will be affected by the Trump administration’s recently announced reduction in the number of refugees who will be allowed into the country next year.

Mr. Lester said determinations will likely be made in November or December about how many refugees will be resettled in central Missouri.

In the meantime, refugees approved during the 2018-19 fiscal year continue to arrive.

“And we’re praying that they continue to send folks,” said Mr. Lester.

“What I tell the staff is, ‘Keep doing the wonderful amazing work you’ve been doing, and know people are pulling for us.’”

He noted that several RIS staff members who are also certified immigration specialists are laying the groundwork for regular visits to the Kirksville area.

There, they will help a growing community of migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the legal immigration services they desperately need.

A place to serve

With a substantial grant from the SSM St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation in Jefferson City, CCCNMO recently agreed to terms for purchasing the Shikles Auditorium building from the Jefferson City Housing Authority.

The goal is to convert it into a venue for various community-based charitable activities.

Initial plans call for food distribution and some sort of health services to be offered there. CCCNMO will make final decisions on the building’s uses after finding out from nearby residents what their needs are.

Since the building was originally a chapel for the former La Salette Seminary for Catholic missionaries, “we’re reclaiming a piece of our Catholic heritage,” he said.

It will contain a small, nondenominational chapel, he said.

Holy ground in common

Mr. Lester said it’s not hard to find common ground among people of various faith traditions when it comes to serving “the least among us.”

“Although we do have some pronounced doctrinal differences, we have a common desire to serve people who are being underserved,” he stated.

“And when we all pull together, as Bishop McKnight likes to point out, we really are ‘better together.’”