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'No longer theory': One deacon describes his fellowship to Zambia


Four months ago, Deacon Mark Westrick didn’t know anything about Zambia other than its location in Africa. Today, after eight days on the ground there as a Catholic Relief Services Global Fellow, he can rattle off names of Zambia’s towns and cities. He can recall happy children in its orphanages. And he can describe how and why an internal savings and lending community is able to work for its people.

The deacon, who is assigned to St. Stephen the First Martyr Parish in Sanford, recently sat down with NC Catholics to describe his fellowship and the experience in Zambia. 

How did you find out about CRS and its Global Fellows program?

I knew about CRS from taking the Just Faith class at St. Michael Church about four years ago. Last year we had a speaker from CRS come in to do a program … I was preaching that week, and the handler for the speaker approached me about being a Global Fellow. I spent the weekend talking to him about it. And I found out Father Dan Oschwald was a Global Fellow. I was able to do some discernment with him and research online.

How and when were you accepted?

I applied last year and was accepted. In August, I went to Baltimore for four days for training and orientation. I wasn’t supposed to travel anywhere for two years, but they had an opening in the trip for Zambia.

What were your impressions when you arrived in Zambia?

We flew into Lusaka; it’s the second largest city. [We] saw a lot of poverty around it, but it wasn’t near what we saw when we started driving. We drove to a town called Ndola. It was a six-hour drive. If you had decent roads you could probably do it in about three. We saw folks living in homes that were probably not as big as a shed …[with] thatched roofs and concrete block walls. Entire families lived in those one-room entities.

What were you supposed to do there?

Learn the workings of CRS. Up to the point of seeing it … it’s all theory. [But] when you’re meeting the people ,and you’re seeing the work they do, now it’s no longer theory. It was not mission work. Purely observation.

What did you observe that stuck with you the most?

On the second day, we were at an orphanage. My professional background is developmental disabilities; I ran group homes. We were in this orphanage and could see kids lying on these thin mats. The equipment was very out of date. But … the quality of care that these kids were getting was actually better in a lot of ways than what we get here in the U.S. because the focus was all about the person. The focus here in the states can be about paperwork, site visits and documentation. Down there they put the focus on the child. We have a lot to learn from them.

The children you mentioned, what makes them happy?

Purely God. They loved celebrating Mass. Imagine this room full of these kids … and they are just excited because they don’t get to go to Mass every day. And for them to be able to give the sign of peace to guests and sing and receive the Eucharist? You could see the joy in their faces.

Did you meet any leaders?

Bishop Alick Banda, of Ndola. We talked about the issues … Ndola is in the copper belt. But with that brings a lot of problems—environment destruction … corruption. They privatized the copper mines and companies aren’t necessarily willing to provide better worker safety. And if the government tries to intervene people get upset at the government, not at the mine owners. A lot of what the bishop does there is to educate the people in hopes they will become well informed on the issues and make the change from within.

What is CRS looking for once fellows return home to the United States?

Our job is to take the stories of the people and bring them here so people learn about the work of CRS and Catholic social teaching. My hope is that I could speak at every parish in the diocese about what I learned. [Of course] I am a deacon in Sanford, and I have responsibilities there, so it has to play out over a period of time.

How did you rely on your faith through this journey?

Agreeing to go took faith! I was asked the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, so there I was, traveling with my wife in a car, road tripping to Pennsylvania. I am married; I have somebody else I have to think about. And I have kids who are grown, but I had to think about them, too. I really prayed: Was this a good move for me? Was this the right time?

While I was there, I asked God to help me use my mind and heart. It’s very easy to get caught up emotionally, but at the same time you have to be logical with some of these things, too. You can’t save the world overnight.

If people want to help, what can they do? Donate to CRS?

They could. But one of the things I would prefer them to do is to look into the CRS Rice Bowl program during Lent. It’s an incredible way for families to do something together in Lent and understand the issues. CRS provides a tremendous amount of online material to help people be more reflective and get the most out of a Lenten experience.

- Kate Turgeon Watson, editor, NC Catholics