by CHRIS ROGERS
Upstairs from pallets full of shrink-wrapped children’s Bibles, Spanish-language children’s games, and textbook tomes on “Catholic Ethics in Today’s World,” Brian Singer-Towns spends most days in an office, teleconferencing with writers. Last month, the Saint Mary’s Press department head travelled far, far away from the publishing house on Gilmore Creek, to places where his break-room water cooler would be an incredible luxury.
Singer-Towns was one of a handful of U.S. Catholics working in youth ministry selected to visit Ethiopia to see projects supported by Catholic Relief Services (CRS). In something of a coincidence, his trip came at a time when the Horn of Africa is going through one of the worst droughts in years, the latest in a series of droughts, and millions of people are facing hunger and famine. Singer-Towns said the parts of Ethiopia he visited were not as badly affected; southern Ethiopia and neighboring South Sudan and Somalia are worse. It was not a typical mission trip. Singer-Towns and his fellow Americans did not do any work to immediately help people, but U.S. Catholic youth ministry agencies and CRS sent them to see what life is like in developing countries, see what CRS does, and to share that with people back home in the U.S. and make it part of American youth ministry. To everyone who has contributed to CRS, Singer-Towns came back with this message: “I’m carrying the ‘thank you’ from villagers in Ethiopia.”
Singer-Towns said there are two kinds of service work: direct aid in response to hunger, disease, and disaster, and social justice work “addressing the causes that keep people poor.” He saw both in Ethiopia, but his trip especially highlighted development projects that empowered rural Ethiopians to better provide for themselves. CRS helped form village banks and farming cooperatives that make micro-loans to local people so they can buy livestock, for example, and CRS leads education programs on soil conservation, entrepreneurship, and nutrition for young mothers. “On a small scale they’re teaching people to support each other and pool their resources,” Singer-Towns said.
Singer-Towns and the group of American visitors touched down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capitol. They spent most of the eight-day trip hopping from village to village in rural Ethiopia. Singer-Towns rode while professional drivers steered Land Rovers over rough dirt tracks, crawled down gullies where the road had washed out, and waited for herds of cattle to cross.
CRS is one of the world’s largest charities, but in Ethiopia, it was rarely the lone-star organization making everything happen. Most of its projects are collaborations. In the village of Meki and surrounding villages, Singer-Towns described touring a well and water distribution system that provides access to clean water for 10,000 people. Meki was home to one of several fill-up stations, where local women turned faucets and filled gas-can-like containers with water to haul back to their homes. In another village, a central well pumps drinking water into a reservoir, and a network of gravity-fed pipes brought it to fill-up stations in several outlying villages, including Meki. Singer-Towns said that CRS helped finance the well and reservoir, local people organized by the diocese dug the trenches for the pipes, and the Ethiopian government provided a diesel generator to pump the water.
Singer-Towns also learned about the importance of listening to the people the church is trying to serve, not striding in with a preconceived solution in hand. Impressed with the water project, Singer-Towns asked a local diocese staff member how they managed to make it all happen. Singer-Towns recalled the man’s response: “For the first two years, I just came and listened to people.”
After their stop in Meki, Singer-Towns and his fellow Americans piled back in the Land Rovers and headed for the next village. Before they got there, the road plunged into a deep valley. Singer-Towns laughed nervously as he described the drive: switchbacks and a sheer drop-off just outside the window.
The drivers knew what they were doing, however, and Singer-Towns and company arrived at a village near the reservoir, where some 200 people greeted the Americans with a welcome dance. Later, the villagers would insist on a feast for their visitors, but first a few elders stepped forward to explain how the water system affected their lives. Singer-Towns remembered one woman describing how she used to spend six hours every day walking to get water and hauling it back. Animals defecated near the pond where they drew water, and it sometimes made the woman’s family sick. Hauling water took so much time and exertion that it often left her too tired for other tasks. Singer-Towns remembered another elder saying, “We used to not be able to get wives for our sons because neighboring areas knew how far they would have to walk for water, and how poor the quality of the water was.” After the water system was built, the woman was overjoyed that she could get clean water just a half-hour’s walk away. “I have been reborn,” Singer-Towns recalled her saying.
“I was just moved to tears by this story,” the Winonan said, “by how something so simple as having clean water within a reasonable walking distance of your home makes such a difference in people’s lives.” He was moved, too, by the relatively low cost of such a life-changing infrastructure project. Ten thousand people were served by a water system costing less than $100,000, he said.
Next, the group travelled to a village where CRS had given seed money to a farming cooperative. “Getting animals to market was a big hassle for individual families,” Singer-Towns explained. The farmers used to spend all day herding a few animals to the nearest market, miles away, and they got a poor price once they got there. However, the farmers of the cooperative erected a communal barn where they could all house animals ready for slaughter. Then, buyers would come to them to purchase 50 or 100 animals at once at better prices, Singer-Towns said. He remembered families saying that the increased income helped them switch from mud houses with thatched roofs to concrete homes with tin roofs.
Singer-Towns and the his fellow visitors were sitting around, listening to the villagers describe the barn project through a translator, when a young man spoke up. The Winonan had no idea what the man was saying, but he spoke for a while and got very animated, speaking emphatically and gesturing intently at Singer-Towns and the other visitors. Finally, when the man stopped, the Americans turned to their translator anxious to know, “What was he saying?” Singer-Towns recalled the translator’s reply: “Basically what he said is, they have heard, ever since CRS came here, that the money came from donors in the U.S. This is the first time they’ve ever seen someone from the U.S. and a part of CRS, and they just want to tell you how appreciative they are and the difference it made in their lives.”
Countless other people made donations to support these projects, and Singer-Towns was there, receiving a personal “thank you” face-to-face. How did that feel? He paused. “Very humbling. I was very moved by that recognition, and I came back wanting to share that with people,” he said.
The value of Catholic relief work was not the only thing Singer-Towns took away from the trip. He also visited a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) food distribution center. CRS staff and other charities were charged with hauling rations to individual villages, but it was the U.S. government that supplied the food, tons of it.
In recent years, the Horn of Africa has been plagued by drought, and this year’s drought is one of the worst yet. Livestock are dying, and people and children in the agriculture-dependent region are suffering from malnutrition because they cannot afford food. According to the United Nations (U.N.) World Food Program, 20 million people across East Africa are in need of emergency food. Ethiopia is not the worst-hit country, but 5.6 million people in Ethiopia are food insecure, according to the U.N., and tens of thousands of refugees are coming to Ethiopia to flee war and famine in neighboring countries. According to CRS, 300,000 Ethiopian children were treated for severe malnutrition during the last year.
Singer-Towns brought up President Donald Trump’s proposal this spring to cut USAID food shipments. Trump said America needs to focus on investing in the U.S. instead of sending money overseas.
“The contributions we make to organizations like CRS are put to really good use. I saw it first-hand,” Singer-Towns said. “And the aid that comes from us as a country is really crucial. People’s lives depend on it. So we shouldn’t take that for granted nor let it disappear.”
The trip changed the way Singer-Towns thinks about his own day-to-day life. “I can’t turn on a faucet without thinking about the woman who spent half her day walking for water,” he said. “Every purchase decision it’s like, ‘Do I really need that?’” he added. Singer-Towns continued, “We are very privileged here in the U.S. … No matter how much you have, you probably have more than you really need. If we can find ways of sharing that, it’s needed in other places around the world.”
While it does not always mean traveling across the world, Singer-Towns said that service work is a critical part of his faith. “Am I my brother's keeper? Well, yes, you are. Whether your brother is across the street or helping across the world,” he said.
Singer-Towns is interested in giving presentations on his experience to local groups later this year. Interested parties may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.