This past Tuesday, seven representatives of Catholic Charities USA were welcomed into the Oval Office by President Obama on the occasion of the organization’s 100th anniversary.
Those invited were Rev. Larry Snyder, president; Retired Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, Catholic Charities USA’s 2010 Centennial Medal winner; Sr. Donna Markham, Board Chair; Candy S. Hill, Senior Vice President for social policy and government affairs; John Young, Board Vice Chair; Ed Orzechowski, CEO, Catholic Charities, Washington, DC; and Gregory R. Kepferle, CEO, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.
Mr. Kepferle wrote an account of the meeting — here is the bulk of the report:
I am still in awe over our meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Tuesday in honor of the Centennial of Catholic Charities USA…..
President Obama welcomed us with a hearty “Happy Birthday” shout to Catholic Charities USA on its 100th anniversary. He greeted each of us personally at the door and welcomed us to chairs and couches in the Oval Office. It was like walking into someone’s (very nicely re-done) living room. We were served coffee, tea, juices and water.
The President talked about his respect for Catholic Charities and Fr. Larry Snyder’s role on the White House advisory committee for faith-based initiatives. He noted his own experience community organizing in Chicago with funding from the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development, and he named a number of the Catholic churches he organized with. He talked about how now that the immediate economic emergency is over, there is much more needed to do to help those in poverty and who need jobs. He said his focus on cutting poverty is on getting the economy back on track to create jobs as well as the longer-term strategy of education.
Fr. Larry Snyder, President of CCUSA, talked about our long history of working for those in poverty in partnership with the government, of being an immigrant church, and of past presidents who honored Catholic Charities such as throughout history Presidents Taft and Eisenhower. Candy Hill, VP for Social Policy at CCUSA discussed our landmark anti-poverty legislation which is locally controlled, flexible for clients, reduces the deficit, and focuses on providing a trampoline rather than only safety net. It is basically the Promise Neighborhood model on steroids for social services.
The President was very engaging, warm, thoughtful, and genuine.
…Just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job…like each one of us. He asked thoughtful questions and invited each of us to speak. As he spoke, I noticed just over his left shoulder a bronze bust of Lincoln. The symbolism was iconic.
The President gave each of us the opportunity to talk about our concerns. Bishop Sullivan spoke of the importance of government’s role in fighting poverty over the years. Ed Orzechowski and John Young spoke from their experiences in the south and in Washington, DC, and Washington state. John spoke of the critical need for housing solutions.
Sr. Donna noted she now lives in the neighborhood that Obama organized in Chicago years ago.
I got the opportunity to talk about the needs of families in San Jose
and the creative anti-poverty work of Catholic Charities and of our local partnership initiatives. I told the story from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath of Ma Joad telling Pa to bring the preacher with them on their trek to California from Oklahoma. Ma Joad said, “It’s not ‘Can we’, it’s ‘Will we’.” And I added, “Mr. President, together, ‘Yes, we can’ and ‘Yes, we will’ cut poverty.”
We ended our conversation with a prayer led by Bishop Joe Sullivan. It was an amazingly powerful experience to stand holding hands in a prayer circle with the President of the United States of America in the Oval Office.
After a group picture he shook our hands and graciously said goodbye at the door.
We are truly blessed to have a President who understands the needs of the people we serve and who is committed to helping our country move forward.
All the best!
I think it’s highly appropriate that President Obama would show such respect for the work of Catholic Charities USA, especially given the fact of how often the historic and distinctive contributions of Catholics to American social institutions are overlooked.
When Obama asked for each of his guests to voice their concerns, however, I would have wished some mention of the defense of life, which has been thrown completely out of the window by the president who, as a candidate, constantly promised “abortion reduction.”
It’s not often that Catholic leaders are given an opportunity to talk to a president face-to-face in such an intimate setting. Score one for the president in recognizing the centenary of Catholic Charities, but if this was all that was said in the meeting, then an opportunity was lost to tell President Obama what he really needs to hear from Catholics.
Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza