|Deacon John Calzavara of Holy Family Parish in Brentwood and Deacon Brian Edwards of St. Edward Parish in Nashville recently traveled to Zimbabwe as Catholic Relief Services Global Fellows. While there, they observed several CRS-sponsored programs designed to uplift the poor. Above, several other members of their group, Father Ed Rooney, CRS employee Roberto Rojas, and Deacon Tom Berna dance with Zimbabwe locals who were welcoming them to their village to learn about a micro-lending program. Photos by Mikaele Sansone/Catholic Relief Services
After a “life altering” trip to Zimbabwe last month, Diocese of Nashville deacons Brian Edwards and John Calzavara are back, ready to share stories about the struggles and triumphs of some of the world’s poorest people, and how local Catholics can act in solidarity with them.
“We really are tied together, more so than we realize,” Deacon Calzavara said.
Deacon Calzavara, of Holy Family Parish in Brentwood, and Deacon Edwards, of St. Edward Parish in Nashville and Pope John Paul II High School, several months ago were chosen as Catholic Relief Services Global Fellows. They now belong to national pool of more than 50 priests, deacons and seminarians who have witnessed first-hand the plight of the poor and marginalized overseas and can preach about global solidarity and the work of CRS.
During their trip to Zimbabwe in late January, Deacons Calzavara and Edwards traveled with a group of nine, including six deacons, one priest and two CRS staff members who acted as guides for the journey. Along the way, they stayed at a Dominican convent, met with local bishops to discuss the struggles and successes they are experiencing in their dioceses, explored some of the natural beauty of the land, and visited sites where CRS manages programs designed to uplift the poor.
Catholic Relief Services has been working in Zimbabwe since 1989, partnering with the local Catholic Church, community-based organizations and government institutions. During that time, CRS Zimbabwe has built strategic partnerships with more than 20 local organizations, bringing humanitarian, recovery, and development programming to the impoverished country’s urban and rural communities.
Two of the CRS programs that made a big impression on the deacons were the Savings and Internal Lending Communities program, known as SILC, and the Bicycle Project.
|Students in Zimbabwe ride bikes that are part of Catholic Relief Services’ Bicycle Project, which provides bikes to students in remote communities who sometimes were walking over 20 miles to and from school every day.
SILC is a community-based micro-lending program that allows people to invest money and take out loans for small projects. Deacons Calzavara and Edwards heard the story of one woman who took out a loan out for $6 to buy chicks, and then six weeks later when they reached maturity sold them for $12 and made a profit. She continued this for some time until she saved up about $150, and was able to replace the clay and cow manure floor in her home with a concrete floor.
“Her modest improvements gave her confidence and made her feel like a modern woman who was capable of making progress,” Deacon Edwards said. “The joy in her voice and smile on her face was so inspiring.”
“The greeting we received in the village with the SILC program … people singing and dancing as we arrived was so vibrant,” Deacon Calzavara recalled. “They have nothing in the way of material goods, but the spirit is so alive.”
When the group visited the site where CRS runs the Bicycle Project, the deacons met with a teenager who, before receiving a bike, walked more than 10 miles each way to school every day. While it’s hard to imagine any American school child undertaking such a task, the boy told Deacon Edwards that he did it “because I want a good education, and I want a better life.”
Now after receiving a bike, the boy’s former five-hour daily commute has been cut to just over an hour, vastly improving his quality of life.
While Zimbabwe’s education system is quite good, and more than 80 percent of the adult population is literate, the country has an extremely high unemployment rate. “There are a lot of able bodied people with no way of making a living,” Deacon Edwards said. While the work that CRS does creates some jobs, it barely makes a dent in the problem, he added.
|A boy from rural Zimbabwe fills a barrel with water from a public spring, which he will carry back to his home via ox-driven cart. Many in Zimbabwe do not have access to fresh drinking water, or have to walk long distances to collect it every day. Catholic Relief Services has worked in Zimbabwe since 1989 and helped establish a number of programs that improve the lives of the country’s poorest people, including water and sanitation, agricultural, and educational programs.
But, Deacon Calzavara said, they are “focused on direct aid and looking at the root causes of the problems … asking why is this happening?”
To a large extent, in Zimbabwe, “economic change depends on government change,” said Deacon Edwards.
In recent decades, the country has been at the mercy of dictator Robert Mugabe, who has dominated the country’s political system since the country gained independence in 1980, and has served as president since 1987.
Zimbabwe is one of more than 30 countries in Africa where Catholic Relief Services has worked for many years, and strives to empower the poorest of the poor. Global Fellows who travel to one of these countries on CRS-sponsored trips are expected to give at least three presentations about their experience to help spread awareness about the organization.
Deacon Edwards is so eager to share his experiences, in fact, that he has to remind himself, “don’t talk about it too much, feed it to people a little bit at a time to keep their interest.” He has started a blog, available at https://catholicdeaconthoughts.wordpress.com, and has been speaking about his experiences during homilies.
Deacon Calzavara will formally share his experiences for the first time this weekend at Holy Family with small faith sharing groups. He is exploring how to best integrate CRS’ work into the fabric of the parish, one that already makes annual international outreach trips to Honduras, Haiti and India.
For Deacon Calzavara, the trip was a reminder of how “the social justice teachings of the Church are intrinsically tied to our spirituality.” The message he wants to spread is simple and universal: “Whatever you do to the least of my people, you do to me.”