Dan Lester perused the 2016 annual report from Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).
“The work we were doing at that time — it was very meaningful,” said Mr. Lester, referring to his first year as the agency’s executive director.
“But when I compare it to this year’s report, I think, ‘Holy smoke! What a ride it has been!’ It’s truly amazing,” he said.
Mr. Lester pondered the difference after announcing that he will step down as executive director on April 6, nearly seven years after accepting the role.
He said that after years of administration, he’s ready to get back into social work, family counseling or other person-to-person services.
“Plenty of prayer and contemplation and discussion have gone into this decision, and I’m feeling very much at peace,” he stated.
Mr. Lester plans to spend the next 10 weeks helping to ensure a seamless transition.
“We have people who will continue in their roles and have great skills and abilities and will be able to serve through this transition,” he stated. “The food pantry will continue to operate. Refugees will continue to arrive and be welcomed. The work will go on.”
Mr. Lester became CCCNMO’s 17th employee when he assumed the helm in 2016.
“Today, I think we’re at about 55,” he said with awe.
“I’ve had a chance to see things really grow and expand and change,” he stated. “I’ve been able to work with some really wonderful, caring folks. I will miss that absolutely.”
What he loves most is being able to bring the fullness of his faith to work every day.
“Here, you can be unabashedly Catholic,” he said. “The teachings of the Church are the very foundation of the work. Being able to make those connections and tie them all together — there’s just no substitute for that.”
One of the things Mr. Lester enjoys most is visiting Catholic parishes and schools and other groups, “talking about how we serve everyone, regardless of faith, culture or social situation.”
He’s been pleased to be a part of some of Catholic Charities’ most challenging and simultaneously rewarding situations.
“I am incredibly proud of all we’ve accomplished with help from God and all our constituents, especially through circumstances that put us and everyone else to the test,” he said.
Among these were the destructive tornado that ripped through Jefferson City and Eldon in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rush to resettle hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
“We actually expanded and provided more and varied services during the pandemic,” he noted. “We’ve been able to navigate a whole host of challenges because of the support of our bishops and our donors and all the people who are invested in seeing Catholic Charities be as successful as it can be.”
He recalled how Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos and his successor, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, directed Catholic Charities to cultivate partnerships and collaboration with other faith- and community-based organizations and agencies.
That was crucial throughout the aftermath of the 2019 tornado.
“We played an invaluable role in the community’s ability to recover from that event,” said Mr. Lester. “We were instrumental in getting the short-term recovery committee and the long-term recovery committee structured and established.
“We took on the management of the warehouse of relief materials,” he noted. “We provided long-term case management and were still working with some particularly vulnerable families a year and a half or two years later.”
Local United Way ambassadors often pointed out that disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.
“I’m very proud that we were part of running that marathon with our community, and I think we did a really good job with it,” said Mr. Lester.
“Valued and welcome”
Another highlight of Mr. Lester’s tenure was the yearlong process of raising money, purchasing, renovating and expanding the former Shikles Community Center in Jefferson City into a Catholic Charities headquarters and service hub.
He recently entered the center’s expansive food pantry one evening and found it teeming with activity.
“People were shopping and pushing their carts and selecting their food through the aisles,” he observed. “There were wonderful volunteers behind the counter with our staff, signing people up and getting them checked out and making them feel seen and valued and welcome.”
He walked back to the food pantry warehouse.
“I found our warehouse manager there with a group of kids from the local Boys & Girls Club, sorting and inventorying items, laughing and having a good time,” he recalled.
“It’s a dream come true to have this welcoming space where people in need can come and have so many services provided out of love and compassion and care,” he said.
Later that night, a group of volunteers welcomed some of the city’s unhoused residents into a nighttime warming shelter that uses the Catholic Charities Center’s community room.
“These are people who would otherwise be sleeping on the street tonight,” Mr. Lester noted. “Here, they’re warm and welcome.”
Mr. Lester recently attended the one-year anniversary celebration of three refugee families from Afghanistan arriving in the Capital City.
“I looked around at these families and this large, ecumenical group of volunteers and some of our Catholic Charities staff,” he said.
“What really struck me was seeing all these children, running around and smiling and eating cake and having fun,” he said.
“Together with the community, we’re doing a generational work of love that will outlast all of us,” he stated. “Hundreds of lives of people who haven’t even been born yet will be impacted by this work.
“It just doesn’t get any better than that,” said Mr. Lester. “That’s why we do it.”
Hope for expansion
Mr. Lester said he’ll miss working and interacting with the CCCNMO staff and clients and networking with other Catholic Charities agencies throughout the United States.
“I’ll also miss being a part of the diocese,” he said. “It was Bishop Gaydos’s vision that made this a reality, and then Bishop McKnight brought his vision of parishes as centers of charity and mercy, and continuing to press Catholic Charities to do more and be more and find ways to serve beyond what we’ve already got going on.
“This whole network and this whole organization is truly a gem, truly something special,” Mr. Lester stated. “Working here is a gift and a privilege, and I will miss it.”
He’s convinced that Catholic Charities will continue to grow and find innovative ways to serve people in need in ways that touch the entire diocese.
“We have a strong presence in Jefferson City and Columbia and a bit of a presence in Sedalia and also with our Refugee Services in Fulton,” he noted. “I’d love to see the agency do that on an even broader scale and in a more geographically expansive way.”
He said the long-term ideal is for Catholic Charities to go out of business for lack of clients.
“We’re supposed to be working ourselves out of a job!” he noted. “Our work involves helping people with their immediate needs but also providing them with the skills and abilities they’ll need to make long-term change that is sustainable.”
“Ministry of encounter”
Mr. Lester asked the people of this diocese to pray for a successful transition of leadership at Catholic Charities “that allows for everyone to see and acknowledge the beauty of the work that we’ve been able to accomplish and we give that glory to God on high.”
“This is all driven by the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I truly believe that.”
He pointed out that service and truth are attractive paths to discipleship, especially for young people.
“They want to see that the Church is walking the walk that they proclaim to walk,” he said.
For himself, he requested prayers to be able to continue finding meaningful ways to help people on the margins — “to be there for ‘the least of these’ and to see Christ in our brothers and sisters, particularly those who are struggling the most.”
To his successor, as yet unknown, he suggested viewing the role of executive director as “a ministry of encounter.”
“The model that we have for this work is Christ, who went out and engaged directly with the people who needed it the most, breaking bread and having fellowship with them,” he said.
“God created us as social creatures, and we need to continue to be with each other and be in encounter with each other in order to be most effective.”