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Blessed and broken
Catholic Charities executive Rachel Lustig sees herself in the people she serves
Rachel Lustig is in an enviable position. At 34 years old, she has found a job that fits her perfectly — blending her Catholic faith and her love of service and social justice.
Lustig, a parishioner of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, is a senior vice president of mission and ministry for Catholic Charities USA. As part of her job, she helps parishes and ministries work for justice. It’s a job that she is deeply passionate about, reflecting back to a love of service she has possessed since childhood.
Lustig grew up as one of eight children in a “very strong Catholic family” in Alexandria, Ind. She learned the importance of service from her parents, who involved the family in pro-life rallies, food pantries and a local camp for migrant workers.
“My parents really exposed us to a lot of the depths our church has to offer,” Lustig said. “They helped us see the synergy between a life of faith and a life of service and how we grow in the love of God as we grow in the love of each other.”
For college, Lustig attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where she studied corporate finance. While at the university, she became involved in the school’s service learning program. The combination of what she was studying — markets and businesses — and what she was learning from her service work about the local community was eye-opening.
“It was an interesting juxtaposition and it opened up a lot of questions for me,” she said. “It got me searching very deeply at what it is to be a person of faith in today’s world.”
While in college, Lustig spent a summer teaching as part of a service learning project in Denver. There she read about Catholic social teaching.
“Sometimes things just strike you at the right moment,” she said. “It articulated a lot of things close to my heart and as I was reading this, I was being exposed to the incredible work of Catholic Charities across the world. I was just so proud of who we are as people of faith, how we grapple with some of these really tough questions, but we also live it out and create these really great ways to care for one another.”
Deeply inspired, Lustig spent her first two years out of college working with Notre Dame’s Holy Cross Associate program as director of finance for an orphanage in Chile. That time was a major leap of faith for Lustig, who still thinks of herself as “a small town girl at heart.”
“It afforded me the opportunity to see people whose experiences were very different than mine, but we have so much in common — the desire for love, the quest for God and the desire for family,” Lustig said. “The things we have in common are infinitely more important than the things that separate us. I have always really loved having that opportunity to make that connection with people.”
In 2003, Lustig took a job working for Catholic Charities USA as a parish social ministry associate. In that position, she worked together with Catholic Charities agencies to help them better serve their local communities and parishes.
“I had no idea that this kind of work existed, but it was astounding how good of a fit it was,” she said.
Since then, Lustig has been promoted to her current position, as senior vice president of missions and ministry. In this position, she still helps work with agencies to help them understand the Catholic faith and help parishes understand what Catholic social teaching is all about through conferences, speaking engagements and resources. It’s a job Lustig finds deeply rewarding and one that has earned her outside honors. Recently, she was named to National Catholic Reporter’s list of “12 Catholic women under 40 making a difference.”
“I think that it’s such a beautiful thing to be able to help people make that connection with their faith and the work we do on a daily basis,” she said. “I could spend all day on that.”
In her spare time, she is a lector at her parish and serves on the Arlington Diocesan Peace and Justice Council. She also volunteers with Friends of Guesthouse, a transitional home in Alexandria for women coming out of jail and prison, and Beyond Borders, an organization that works to reduce child slavery and increase education in Haiti. Recently, she and her four siblings visited Haiti on a trip sponsored by Beyond Borders.
“I really love to work with people from different backgrounds, especially people who are on the margins, people who are hurting, the people of brokenness,” she said. “The volunteer work that I do in the community affords me the opportunity to be with the people on the margins, which I think has to ground the work I do with Catholic Charities.”
What is most moving about her volunteer work, she says, is how it brings her face to face with her own brokenness.
“The scary part is not other people, the scary part is that you see yourselves in them,” she said. “You see yourself in the homeless person, in the addict, and that’s the scary part. You realize your own vulnerability. Then, where can you go but to find wholeness in God?”
For her, that connection with her own sinfulness reflects the faith.
“When we talk about the Eucharist, one of the things I’m very drawn to is the idea that it’s blessed and broken,” she said. “I believe we’re all very blessed and very broken. I think when we step outside of ourselves and allow ourselves to be in a place of brokenness, it can be scary because it exposes ourselves to our own brokenness, but it’s only through facing ourselves that we truly come to rely on God.”
That faith connection is what she likes most about her work with Catholic Charities, a position in which she feels completely fulfilled.
“It’s such an honor to be able to be in a place that is such a good expression of who I am,” she said. “There’s a lot of diversity to my work, but to be able to come together with my colleagues in prayer at Mass in a small community is so important to me. To be able to pray together with the teams I work with and then to jump into things like the data on how a program is working, it seems like they are becoming more integrated and there’s God in everything.”
For others looking to get involved in service, Lustig advises them to keep their eyes open for something that will fit their personality and passions.
“Don’t be deterred by the fact that you’ve never heard it or seen it,” she said. “There is just so much depth and breadth to our faith and to the church, sometimes it’s there and you don’t even know.”
There’s an expression she attributes to St. Ignatius, which says the world’s deepest need from each person is the truest expression of who they are.
“I think that’s my hope for most people, that they find that opportunity to be the truest expression of themselves,” she said.