FORT SMITH — Father Jason Sharbaugh, pastor of St. Boniface Church, traveled to Zambia Jan. 9-18 as a Catholic Relief Services’ Global Fellow to witness the agency’s work and, upon his return, to raise awareness in Arkansas of global poverty.
Father Sharbaugh became interested in the program while working with Deacon Greg Pair of Immaculate Conception Church at St. Ann’s Society, a ministry sponsored by Fort Smith’s three Catholic parishes. He saw the power of the body of Christ at work and wanted to learn and share what the Church is doing on people’s behalf in other parts of the world.
After participating in CRS’s orientation program in Baltimore, Father Sharbaugh went with a group of priests, deacons and CRS staff to Lusaka, Zambia, in south central Africa.
“Our first stop was a Catholics Care for Children Center staffed by Dominicans,” he said. “The sisters cared for younger children with HIV, cerebral palsy and deformities. Many had been abandoned and found in landfills. I felt their intense sense of ministry and God’s grace.”
A second school served families with young children, where mothers learned about nutrition and healthy lifestyles while their children attended early childhood education programs.
“Sister Grace, a Franciscan, was so happy, working with the children, growing maize, showing families how to cultivate small plots of land. … I experienced the ‘Joy of the Gospel’ in just being with Sister Grace and the children she took care of without a desire to control or ‘fix’ anything,” Father Sharbaugh said.
Riding by bus over many miles of unpaved roads, the group’s third stop was a residential trade school for young men who had been living on the streets. The school had a sports complex and a student-run gelato stand.
Father Sharbaugh said part of CRS’ mission is to teach people life skills and move on to a new project. To encourage community ownership, CRS established a microloan program for entrepreneurs. Funds are kept within villages, and elders set up an internal loan fund and an insurance fund for emergencies. The project honors the Church’s belief in subsidiarity by providing a funding pool at the local level, which allows the community to grow economically and support one another.
CRS also operates 13 faith-based health clinics in Zambia, improving treatment for children and adults with HIV-AIDS, helped by grants from businesses and the George W. Bush Foundation.
“Just being together as the body of Christ at Mass was so powerful. There was a strong sense of community and peace. Each night we gathered together to reflect on what we had experienced and where we had encountered Christ during the day,” Father Sharbaugh said. “It is the true nature of mercy that God heals and provides for our needs by being with each other in his grace.”
As a Global Fellow, Father Sharbaugh will be available to give homilies and presentations at Masses, community events and school assemblies to share his experience and let people know how they can help end poverty around the world. He also would like to inspire people to become aware of the needs in their own communities and the role they can play.
St. Ann’s Society, similar to the St. Vincent DePaul Society, will have an office in Fort Smith’s Riverview Hope Campus, which is scheduled to open later this year. The comprehensive services — including a Mercy Hospital clinic, job training and placement and mental health care — will provide centralized services for people in need in Fort Smith as well as temporary housing for the homeless.
Father Sharbaugh said it is his hope that Catholic ministries in Fort Smith will continue to flourish, empowered by God’s grace and imbued with the spirit of the universal Church.
“As C.S. Lewis said, ‘Nothing is really ours until we share it,’” Father Sharbaugh said. “Such were my two weeks in Zambia with Catholic Relief Services.”
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