WASHINGTON - Instead of hitting the beach this summer,
students from roughly 40 U.S. colleges and universities,
mainly Catholic institutions, attended an advocacy training
program offered by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S.
bishops' overseas relief and development agency.
At training sessions in Baltimore at the agency's
headquarters and at Loyola University Maryland, about 120
students and faculty learned about issues important to the
church and CRS, such as human trafficking, climate change and
They listened to CRS professionals talk about their work in
the field with poor communities worldwide, and they also had
classes on social media, communications, campus organization,
They spent the next morning in Washington, meeting on Capitol
Hill with members of Congress and staffers to discuss the
"This program is a huge expression of faith," Aimee Perhach,
a student at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Ind.,
said after the lobbying sessions. "Look at Matthew 25," she
said, referring to the Gospel's admonition that whatever you
do for others, especially the poor and marginalized, you do
"Obviously, deeds are what he is judging on," she added.
Perhach has been working with CRS on her campus for two years
before she came to Washington for the advocacy training,
which is part of CRS' SALT program - Student Ambassador
Leaders Together. Time also was spent in prayer, reflection
and community building.
In 2006, CRS founded Catholic Relief Services University to
incorporate students into their fieldwork through the SALT
program. It started with representatives from just six
For many students, SALT was an opportunity for them to
express their Catholic faith through word and deed for the
first time in a real-world setting; other students had
already undergone CRS training online or in a regional
program, and had started a CRS chapter on their campus.
Their day in Washington began with an opening presentation
about faith-based advocacy, its significance and its effects
in government. Two staffers, one from the House of
Representatives and one from the Senate, spoke to the
students about life on Capitol Hill, answered their questions
and gave them advice.
The students were divided into groups assigned to program
advisers. Each group would get to talk to the staffers of two
members of Congress. During the meeting, each student would
get a chance to speak on the topic that he or she was
Armed with facts and figures, the students either expressed
thanks for a particular lawmaker's support of an issue or
advocated for specific legislation to address an issue.
Jessica Marinucci, rising senior at St. Joseph's University
in Philadelphia, visited staffers at the office of Sen.
Patrick Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, to talk about the three CRS
campaigns, including, "I Am Climate Change."
"The 'I Am' claims responsibility for causing those
problems," said Marinucci, who has advocated on CRS issues
before. This summer experience offered a networking
opportunity and another chance to put her faith into action.
"As a Catholic and a Christian, we are called to be
advocates. As a citizen in a secular nation grounded in
faith, we are able to express and use faith as a reason to
spark action," she said. "That's a huge privilege. We have to
use it to help the voiceless."
For Mary Ellen Kane, a rising senior at the University of
Scranton, it was her first foray into advocacy after two
years of running a CRS chapter on her campus, and writing and
emailing members of Congress. Her meeting with Toomey's
staffers went well, she said, and they were "willing to hear
After their meetings, the students gathered at St. Peter's
Church on Capitol Hill for Mass and a debriefing lunch,
during which students shared their mostly positive
Tom Price, senior manager and deputy of strategic
communications for CRS, organized and helped the SALT program
"I think (SALT) is bringing faith and advocacy together, and
faith is a huge part of it," he said. "You can tell that it's
the faith in (the students') hearts that has brought them to
volunteer. This is getting Catholic soldiers on the ground,
getting the word out (about) what the church wants to be done
on these hugely important issues."
Price has been involved with faith-based international relief
for more than 20 years; his work includes organizing
communications and strategies at the executive level as well
as writing, photographing and filming CRS volunteers in
action around the world.
Kim Lamberty, director of university and mission engagement
at CRS, explained the significance of the SALT program.
"The idea is to form them as future faith leaders and thought
leaders," said Lamberty, "and to form them so that the CRS
mission to serve the most vulnerable people around the world
becomes part of who they are as Catholics and as leaders."