What Are You Paying For? Victims of War and Disasters

SAN ANTONIO — War atrocities too painful to discuss caused Richard and Josephine Coker to become lost from each other shortly after they married in the late 1990s in Sierra Leone.

Today, through the help of the American Bishops' Overseas Appeal, the couple is safe in the United States rearing a healthy infant son.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who gave money to the Overseas Appeal,” Josephine Coker said in an interview from her apartment in San Antonio. “Things were so horrible I can't even think about them without going into depression, but thanks to Catholics who gave money we are living a wonderful life and raising our son.”

This year the annual Overseas Appeal's theme is “Who Is Jesus in Disguise?”

March 21 Second Collection

“If someone wants to do what Jesus says and care for the least among us, this is a great way to do it,” said David Early, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, referring to Matthew 25, in which Jesus teaches that our judgment will be based on how we have cared for “these least ones.”

The Overseas Appeal collection, taken up in churches in most dioceses the weekend of March 20-21, supports four agencies that build the international social ministry of the Church: Migration and Refugee Services, Catholic Relief Services, Social Development and World Peace, and the Holy Father's Relief Fund.

“Through advocacy on behalf of the powerless, and relief and resettlement services to victims of earthquakes, floods, war, and religious and ethnic persecution, Overseas Appeal-funded programs reach out to serve ‘Jesus in disguise’ in every human being,” Early said.

Stories about the mitigation of misery, such as that of the Cokers, abound as a result of money raised by the appeal.

When the Cokers found each other in war-ravaged Sierra Leone, they knew they had to flee. All they took with them was what would fit into two small, carry-on-sized bags. They managed to fly to the United States, where they got off a plane with no money and no belongings other than some clothes.

“But the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services picked us up at the airport,” Josephine Coker recalled. “They made sure we had an apartment, and they helped us with three months' of expenses. They helped us get all the documents we needed to live and work here, and they helped us find employment. They made sure we were on our feet, and then they let us get on with a new life.”

Today, Josephine takes care of their son at home while Richard works as a nurse technician in a hospital while he studies to become a registered nurse. They're biggest financial concern?

“I want to save up some money so we can make a donation this year to the Overseas Appeal,” Josephine said. “This made a big difference in our lives, and now I want to play a part in helping someone else.”

Setat, a 36-year-old Egyptian widow with no income, benefited from the appeal through aid provided by Catholic Relief Services. Before the agency came to her aid, she was feeding her five children by selling the family's furniture, the few personal items she had and even the front door to the house.

Setat knew she needed help but didn't want traditional charity. So she joined the Village Banking Project of Catholic Relief Services — a program that provides training, technical assistance and loan capital to women in targeted communities.

Setat used the money to replace her front door and start a small grocery and candy store. The business was so successful that she repaid the loan ahead of schedule and has been able to use revenues to expand her store.

With Overseas Appeal money channeled through the bishops' conference's Social Development and World Peace program, the United States has dramatically increased its commitment to address the HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria epidemics in Africa in ways that respect human life and dignity, Early said.

The Holy Father's Relief Fund, by contrast, assists victims of natural disasters and other emergencies around the globe.

Brought Closer to God

The annual overseas appeal was established 60 years ago as the Bishops' Welfare Emergency Relief Fund. In 2003, the Overseas Appeal collected nearly $17.3 million. Less than 3 cents of every dollar is used for fund-raising and administrative expenses.

Early said the Overseas Appeal has no direct evangelization program. However, he said donors and recipients alike are often brought closer to God. That was the case with a Sudanese refugee who was helped by Migration and Refugee Services.

“I didn't know what would happen tomorrow,” the refugee said. “My condition was difficult, but I just handed myself to God and asked him to take me in his hands. He has big hands.”

“Simply carrying out the call of Matthew 25 is a way to be closer to God,” Early said. “This benefits the donors and the recipients alike.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.

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