A global mission to help others

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Robert Friedman

Sean Callahan has spent half his life working for Catholic Relief Services, becoming its CEO earlier this year. Here he speaks with young Syrian refugees at a school in Zarqa, Jordan. Callahan helps the organization work to combat poverty and hunger and help refugees in 101 countries around the world.
Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

Ellicott City resident Sean Callahan has spent half his life — 28 of his 56 years — working in countries throughout the world for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

What accounts for his commitment to this organization? “Once you have had the opportunity to work with people — to offer them ways for respect and dignity in their lives — you feel something deep inside, you feel you have to continue. It becomes a vocation, not a job,” he said.

In January, Callahan was named president of CRS, the global humanitarian arm of the Roman Catholic community in the U.S. The nonprofit works to make life better for 107 million people in 101 countries.

Refugees on the rise

In early April, when we spoke, he was set to take off for Uganda and South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, where famine and starvation have become the norm for millions.

“The most recent figures show that 20 million people are at risk of starvation in the poor countries in Africa and the Middle East,” Callahan said, which makes getting enough food to people one of the two principal concerns for CRS.

The other main concern is for the 66 million people who have been displaced from their homes around the world, causing the most serious refugee problem since World War II.

“I don’t think Americans understand why so many leave their homes,” Callahan said. “It is not only for economic reasons, as many believe. But there are wars, there are threatening gangs and other violence in their everyday lives.”

He added: “Many Americans seem to feel that displaced people simply want to come to the U.S. But if we provide those people with better opportunities to stay at home — with good livelihoods, with education, and with health opportunities — they do tend to stay in their own countries.”

Aid cut concerns

These humanitarian efforts of CRS — to improve the lives of potential refugees so they will be able to remain in their homes — could seem to jibe in one respect with the Trump administration’s stance on limiting immigration to the U.S.

But the administration is also proposing massive budget cuts for such aid. Of the $900 million in private, church and government donations distributed by CRS last year in its overseas programs, almost $500 million came from federal grants, Callahan pointed out.

“We have not been directly impacted — so far,” Callahan said. “But if some of the proposed reductions in foreign aid go through, even though we have had bipartisan support in Congress for our work around the world, well, then we can definitely be impacted.”

According to Callahan, most countries in the Middle East and Africa, some of which he recently visited in his CRS work, still see the U.S. as their best source for help in fighting poverty and health problems. “The assistance of the U.S. in the Ebola outbreak is still greatly appreciated in Nigeria,” he noted as one example. 

CRS serves countries and peoples of all religions, including Muslim countries, wherever its services are needed. “People of all faiths need to see that people care about them and are committed to helping,” he said. “We do what we do because we are Catholic, not because others are Catholic.”   

The scope of the organization’s work is mind-boggling. CRS focuses on three areas: emergency response, agriculture and health. In 2015 alone, for example, the  organization dealt with emergencies in 46 countries — including war-torn Syria, where 1 million people have received CRS help, and a food assistance program in Ethiopia that helped “stave off hunger for millions” after a drought in that country.

In its agricultural programs, CRS attempts to turn subsistence farmers into “agribusiness entrepreneurs.” Among its health services in 2015, it provided malaria prevention and treatment to more than 13 million people in 10 countries.

Meeting Mother Teresa

Callahan’s decades of field work, which he intends to continue along with his CEO tasks, included a stint in India, where he met and worked with Mother Teresa. CRS began working in India in 1946 to help the local church in Bombay provide food to people recovering from World War II.

“She was very petite and spoke in a soft voice. I was always leaning in to hear what she was saying,” said Callahan of the woman now known as Saint Teresa of Kolcata (the city in India once known as Calcutta.). “She would often wrap her hands around your hands and hold you there while she spoke.” 

He said there was “always a sense of joy” about her, while she made sure that things got done.

“One time, I received a call from Mother Teresa, who had heard there was a flood in Bangladesh. She asked if I could bring supplies in trucks because the sisters there were asking for them,” he recalled. 

“I explained that to do that would require special permissions from the governor of the state to take the food and emergency supplies across the border. 

“She asked, ‘What do I need to do?’ and I told her she needed to get the permissions. ’OK,’ she said, ‘You get the trucks, I’ll get the permissions, and we’ll meet in two hours.’ Which we did. She didn’t just send people out, she did the work herself.”

In 1996, Mother Teresa visited the CRS offices in Baltimore, where she and Callahan reunited.   

A lifetime of helping others

Callahan was born in Andover, Mass. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a master’s in law and diplomacy from Tufts University, he began his career with CRS in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

He has worked extensively in Latin America, Africa and Asia — going from intern, to the CRS representative in several countries and regions, to director of the organization’s human resources, to eight years as vice president of overseas operations, to four and a half years as chief operating officer.

Now, as CEO, he manages some 5,000 employees around the world. Callahan believes he has visited about 75 of the 101 countries in which the CRS operates, and said the visits will continue.

He is also president of Caritas North America, is a board member of Catholic Charities USA, and was an official of Caritas International — a Vatican-based confederation of 165 Catholic relief organizations that operates in 200 countries and territories. 

Callahan lives with his wife Piyali (whom he met in Calcutta) and their two children, Sahana, 17, and Ryan, 11, in a ranch-style home near Kiwanis-Wallas Park. In addition to his duties as CEO of CRS, he teaches religious education and serves as a Eucharistic minister, giving communion to congregants at Ellicott City’s Church of the Resurrection, which his family attends.

So when does he find time to spend with his family? “That is what my wife asks,” he said.

But he has also noted that “I am blessed that my wife and kids are understanding about my job, which is to bring love, joy and the compassionate spirit of the U.S. to people around the world.

“When I see children without adequate food, it really crushes me…I think of my own children.”

So his work, he said, is “really a reflection on what I would want for myself and my family. How can we assist other people to have those same opportunities?”

On the home front, Callahan acknowledged that when the couple moved to Howard County in 2004, “we wondered how my wife would be treated, since she was foreign-born.”

There was no need for concern, he said. “There are people from around the world living here, and Howard County serves as an example of what can be.”