New head of Catholic Charities continues its humanitarian mission at the border and around the United States
Kerry Alys Robinson began her work as president and C.E.O. of Catholic Charities USA in August, becoming only the second layperson and second woman to guide the domestic humanitarian work of the Catholic Church in the United States. She succeeded Donna Markham, O.P., who retired this summer after leading C.C.U.S.A. for nine years.
“I could not be more pleased that Kerry Robinson is stepping into this role that has meant so much to me,” Sister Markham said in a statement announcing Ms. Robinson’s appointment. “I am confident that her visionary leadership, devotion to the church and sincere commitment to serving those in need will bring out the best in our staff, volunteers and supporters.”
Ms. Robinson previously served as founding executive director of Leadership Roundtable, an influential organization of laity, religious and clergy working to promote best practices and accountability in the management, finances, communications and human resource development of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Kerry Robinson: “I have a strong admiration for the ‘big tent’ understanding of the church but also the conviction that we’re called around one eucharistic table.”
She has advised the Vatican on strategies to empower and engage women leaders and served as a member of the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, F.A.D.I.C.A. (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) and on the national committee for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Ms. Robinson has also served as the director of development for Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University.
She now heads a national Catholic humanitarian organization representing the interests in Washington of 168 agencies that serve more than 15 million vulnerable people annually. America spoke with Ms. Robinson on Oct. 23. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of your first acts as the new head of Catholic Charities USA was to go to the southern border to visit the C.C.U.S.A. agencies there. Was that intended as a gesture to the Catholic Charities’ continuing commitment to assisting migrating people?
Immigration, of course, is on the minds of our constituents, and there’s concern across the country that our immigration system needs to be fixed.
I wanted to see firsthand what the realities were. It’s an extremely complex issue, but at its simplest it is living the Gospel in service to our brothers and sisters, people who have been vetted by the Border Patrol and admitted into the country, people who are exhausted, hungry, in need of a safe space. I got to see firsthand Catholic Charities in action doing just that.
Immigration has become a divisive issue even within the Catholic Church, where some express indifference, even hostility to the plight of migrating people. How do you try to address those attitudes and the disinformation that is generated around immigration?
All of my life I have tried to help the church reduce the chasms that sometimes exist between people and especially between fellow Catholics. I have a strong admiration for the “big tent” understanding of the church but also the conviction that we’re called around one eucharistic table. When I see or experience vitriol or acrimony amongst Catholics, I yearn for the church to be the place where we can model what Pope Francis is calling us to—to encounter and accompany one another.
Immigration is “an extremely complex issue, but at its simplest it is living the Gospel in service to our brothers and sisters...people who are exhausted, hungry, in need of a safe space.”
I think a byproduct of Catholic Charities in action at its most effective and most faithful will be a lessening of those divisions. That’s a hope of mine—and I think also, ideally, a measure of our effectiveness. How to go about that, I think, begins by amplifying our stories, turning statistics into names of people, of families and children who have extraordinary tales to tell about hardship, and what has prompted them to seek safe refuge in our country to begin with.
I would very much like to disabuse people of some ill-formed notions. I think they are often based in fear. Virtually everyone I speak to, whether they are critics of our welcoming care for migrants or supporters of it, agrees that the system really does need to be fixed. Now, that’s what policymakers are there to do, and we will continue to advocate that the system that is so broken be fixed. But until that happens, we’re going to continue to respond to the suffering of people who cross our borders and come into this country.
Catholic Charities is not a political entity; it’s a humanitarian entity. We are there to attend to suffering people who are probably experiencing the worst moments of their lives and need the basic humanitarian care that our agencies provide as well as the love and the merciful way in which our agencies deliver that care.
One thing that binds us as Christians is the demands of mercy. I find it baffling that anybody could be a critic of humanitarian care for migrants. If there is a hungry child in your midst, you want to feed that child; if there is a family that is exhausted in need of a safe place to sleep, you want to provide that; if people need fresh clothes and a hot shower and we can offer that, we have a moral obligation to do so.
C.C.U.S.A. offices have been accused of human trafficking, while other critics claim that immigration is somehow a “money maker” for Catholic Charities. Some members of Congress have even threatened to investigate agencies like Catholic Charities that serve immigrants and refugees. How do you plan to deal with people who have become so suspicious of this humanitarian work?
These criticisms come from a very small group of House members, just a few people who either do not understand or for some reason intentionally misrepresent the work that faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities do to support migrants and other vulnerable people. But I think most members of Congress support the work we are doing and understand that our agencies work extremely closely with federal, state and local governments.
“Virtually everyone I speak to, whether they are critics of our welcoming care for migrants or supporters of it, agrees that the system really does need to be fixed.”
Catholic Charities believes in the protection of our country and the integrity of our borders, and it works in partnership with local, state and federal officers. Our work begins after asylum seekers have been vetted and allowed access across the border. It’s at that point—when they have been through so much and are so scared and so hungry and tired—that Catholic Charities rises to the occasion and provides the comfort and humanitarian aid that is needed.
One of the things I learned at the border was how the relationship between the local Catholic Charities and the federal and state officers, particularly the Border Patrol, have been cultivated very intentionally on the part of Catholic Charities, its directors and staff. We had a chance to sit down with about 20 Border Patrol agents who all spoke very movingly about their work and how difficult it is, and each one of them pointed to Catholic Charities as a valuable resource to them when their work in vetting a particular family has been done and that family is among those asylum seekers who are welcomed into the country. That is a story that deserves greater amplification.
Local Catholic Charities partner with federal and state agencies and local municipalities to care for migrants. Nobody is getting rich off of this. In fact, there is never enough money to properly handle and attend to the needs of the migrants who are being admitted into the country. If Catholic Charities did not exist, I don’t believe that cities and local municipalities would know what to do. It would be calamitous.
Do you feel like you have been able to keep up with the misleading or erroneous things said about the work by internet news or on social media?
To be honest, I don’t pay attention to that. I really am just eager to learn the true stories of how Catholic Charities agencies all over this country are offering much needed aid and solace.
Just try to imagine what both our church and our country would look like without Catholic Charities, without that example, every single day, of merciful, radical love to people who are experiencing the worst days of their lives, whether it’s because they’ve lost everything when a tornado rips through their town, whether it’s because they have found themselves in such precarious financial conditions that they have to choose between medicine or food for their families or they are veterans who are struggling with P.T.S.D.
“Catholic Charities is not a political entity; it’s a humanitarian entity. We are there to attend to suffering people who are probably experiencing the worst moments of their lives.”
The lion’s share of our work is directed at people who are our neighbors all across this country. We recently surveyed our agencies and learned that 49 percent of the services we are providing across the country are for basic food and nutrition. Some of these other issues, like immigration, take an outsized place in the imagination of some people. But while all that is happening, our agencies are still going about the daily work of feeding, sheltering, providing counseling and just comforting people.
You make a good point. Immigration and the border get a great deal of attention, but Catholic Charities is engaged in a lot of other social service efforts. Housing has been a major issue historically and will likely be again in the post-pandemic world now that moratoriums on eviction and rent-freezes have expired. What are your offices seeing?
I’m glad you mentioned housing. America faces a severe affordable housing crisis, no doubt about it. There are roughly 4 million affordable homes available nationally for 11 million extremely low income renter households. That’s a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units. That’s catastrophic.
Catholic Charities is taking a three-pronged approach to this—providing services to vulnerable populations, developing new affordable units and preserving existing units and finally advocating for fair housing policies.
We need to talk more about solutions to problems caused by poverty. The 2022 U.S. poverty data was just released, and it contained alarming statistics, among them, that child poverty increased from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022—the largest single-year increase since 2010.
That spike was partly the result of a decision not to extend the enhanced Child Tax Credit program. [During the pandemic, the C.T.C.’s benefits had been expanded and the program converted from an annual to a monthly disbursement that succeeded in cutting child poverty in half in 2021.] How could hungry, poor children be used as a political cudgel? How dare we do that?
Your predecessor, Donna Markham, O.P., was the first woman to lead Catholic Charities USA. Now you have become the first lay woman to lead C.C.U.S.A. That got a lot of attention when your selection as chief executive was announced in July. Should we still be finding women in leadership positions so remarkable?
I would say don’t focus on me; focus 100 percent on the mission of Catholic Charities. The work we are doing is a much more compelling story than who is at the helm. When it comes to the church writ large, I’ve spent my entire life advocating for the role of women in the church, and opportunities for women in meaningful positions of leadership and at the tables where decisions are made. I think the church is healthier for that co-responsibility and the world is better off for it.
“America faces a severe affordable housing crisis, no doubt about it, a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units. That’s catastrophic.”
What is perhaps most notable here in this instance is that Catholic Charities is 110 years old now and has been led by priests for almost all of those 110 years. Then Sister Donna came on the scene. I am just the very, very fortunate person to be able to succeed her.
You have spent many years thinking and writing about leadership, but leading a direct service agency of this size—168 offices and thousands of employees and volunteers helping millions of people—must be a unique challenge. What’s the biggest lesson so far? Have you had to rethink any of your theories about excellence in leadership?
Actually, it’s less what I’ve learned during these first months and more what has been deeply affirmed by this experience. Pope Francis talks about being the servant of the servants of God. True leadership is service, especially in a faith-based context.
The whole role is inverted, and my job really is to equip this incredibly smart and dedicated team in the national office to collectively serve the agencies who are doing Christ-like work every single day. We are so blessed to have them working on behalf of this humanitarian mission of the church.
I inherited an extraordinary national staff from Sister Donna that is dedicated to the mission of Catholic Charities. I look at my job as figuring out ways to remove barriers that impede my colleagues from flourishing in their work and finding ways to even further motivate and equip them to succeed.
All the local Catholic Charities agencies have their own boards, their own fundraising capabilities, their own relationships at the local level. They are great examples of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. They know what the needs are in the local community.
Some offices are small; some are very large; some are at the southern border; some are in rural mission dioceses. But I’m learning that they have many things in common. And first and foremost is the example of living out our faith in service to those most in need.
Your work at Catholic Charities began just a few weeks before the Synod on Synodality opened. Have you been able to draw any lessons about leadership from what has been happening in Rome?
Absolutely. Before I could even spell or much less pronounce synodal, I had introduced it as a concept with my colleagues at the Leadership Roundtable. The principles of leading synodally are perfectly applicable in the context of my role at Catholic Charities.
So what are they? First of all, the intentionality of remembering that we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit, that we have access to transcendence, that there is a higher calling here. Then the importance of community, of literally being around a table, listening deeply to one another. I’ve spent my first weeks almost exclusively doing deep listening work, and I am so ennobled by the stories of the agencies, staff members, boards of trustees, volunteers and the people we are serving across the country.
Catholic Charities calls the church to holiness and integrity. In our work, we address complex challenges, like immigration, like chronic housing shortages, like poor kids needing to be fed. These challenges can seem intractable, but living synodaly forces you to remember that we can solve these challenges, that we have all the resources that we need at our disposal, if we would insist on working together rather than in isolation, to overcome what divides us so that we are reminded about what binds us.