Priest-uncles inspired another Tobin to service
By Loretta Shea Kline
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Listening to two uncles who are Diocesan priests talk about their work in various parts of the world had a positive effect on Kevin Tobin growing up.
When Tobin was 8 years old, one uncle, Father Pat Tobin, began giving retreats for the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa. He was 12 years old when another uncle, Father Chuck Tobin, traveled to Bolivia to serve in the missions there.
Their stories inspired Tobin, who has traveled extensively in economically developing nations and will move to the Democratic Republic of Congo in January to work for Catholic Relief Services there.
"I think it's important for us to realize the effect we can have on young people," Tobin, 38, told The Catholic Key. "I can say that my work is a direct result of the influence of and exposure to my uncles' work."
Tobin first learned about the work of CRS - the official overseas development and relief agency of the U.S. Catholic Church - from Father Pat Tobin, a longtime CRS Diocesan director. And he learned about Latin America from Father Chuck Tobin, pastor of St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Maryville, whose slide shows of Bolivia inspired Tobin to study Spanish in high school and college.
These days, Father Pat Tobin said, he and his brother are learning from their nephew.
"Now, we are listening to him," said Father Tobin, associate pastor at St. Therese Parish in Kansas City, north.
Tobin is wrapping up a two-year project at CRS headquarters in Baltimore studying ways to reduce losses of government commodities shipped from the United States to hungry people around the world. CRS handles thousands of tons of food aid each year that the U.S. government gives to the neediest countries.
"It's a difficult task to get that food from the U.S. port to the beneficiaries," Tobin said. "I've been involved in looking at the whole pipeline, so to speak, and trying to take steps to reduce losses."
One of those steps would be to use better quality bags in the shipping process, Tobin said. He was involved in testing two new types of bags, which although more costly would significantly cut losses, he said.
While losses in the ocean shipment portion of the process are less than 2 percent, cutting that number in half would make a substantial difference, Tobin said.
"One percent doesn't sound like a lot, but when you are talking about feeding someone, it is," he said.
The task now is to persuade the government that new bags would result in a significant enough improvement to make it worth the extra cost, Tobin said.
With the project on loss reduction ending, Tobin was given the opportunity to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in west central Africa, where his girlfriend, Cristine Betters, is an assistant CRS director. CRS is not sending food aid at this time to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is engaged in a Civil War, he said.
Tobin said his job will involve one of two possibilities: traveling the African continent as part of a program that allows private volunteer organizations such as CRS to sell some of the grain they handle to pay for health, agricultural and other projects; or working with the local Church on justice and peace issues.
"I've always enjoyed traveling, and I've enjoyed seeing new places," Tobin said. "So it's something I'm excited about." Traveling to new places, even countries where the political situation is unstable, is less daunting because of the CRS support network, Tobin said.
"I always have that connection, sort of a built-in family, if you will, of national and international CRS staff," he said. "There are always people there willing to give advice and encouragement, so that makes it a lot easier."
Tobin, who was born in Maryville the third of J. Kelly and Irene Tobin's four sons, has a bachelor's degree in agricultural operations and international agriculture from Iowa State University, and a master's in theological studies from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His professional experience includes seven years' working on his family's farm in New Market, Iowa, north of Maryville.
Tobin has traveled with various groups to places such as Costa Rica, China, India, Mexico and Somalia, where he worked with CRS for a year in 1993 as part of the Seeds and Tools program. The country was embroiled in a civil war at the time, and thousands of people were starving.
"It's not enough to provide seeds," Tobin said. "If they are hungry, they'll eat the seeds. It was a coordinated project of providing food and seeds."
Often, in emergency situations after catastrophes such as a flood, drought or war, people lack the resources to plant their next crop, Tobin said. The Seeds and Tools program provides the assistance and resources people need to begin to grow their own food again, he said.
Tobin, who was in Missouri and Iowa recently visiting family, will travel to Mexico before heading back to Baltimore next month. He will visit an orphanage south of Mexico City where he has been involved off and on helping to manage a farm that provides food for the children.
Working to combat hunger around the world is something Tobin envisions doing for a long time.
"I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life," he said. "I enjoy it, it's rewarding, it's challenging, and no two days are ever the same.
"For me, it helps to bring together my background growing up in the rural Midwest, along with my agricultural training and my theological training. It's a nice fit for me, personally."
Having the opportunity to get to know people around the world has given him a better understanding of how people of different cultures and religions have "basic goals, hopes and wishes that are very similar," and a "greater appreciation for the power of the human spirit," Tobin said.
"One obvious thing I have learned is how fortunate I've been in where I grew up and the opportunities I had for a safe home, a good education, food and clean water," he said. "Those things I don't take for granted because I have seen a lot of people who are not so fortunate."
Something else Tobin has discovered is that by and large "the feelings of the people we come in contact with are very positive toward the United States."
"I'm talking beyond the immediate gratefulness of the gift," he said. "I'm talking about an overall sense of respect and admiration." That may come as a surprise to some, Tobin said.
"The people that get in the press are the militant groups that have a cause and are very vocal," he said. "But you don't see stories of everyday persons on the street who have benefitted from U.S. economic and political leadership."
The amount of food aid the U.S. is giving overseas has increased in the last six months because of a food surplus here, and there a lot more people living with "food insecurity" in the world who are eating today because of the surplus, Tobin said.
"The world is very fortunate that the U.S. has excess agricultural capacity to fill in after hurricanes or droughts or floods, and that the U.S. has a charitable attitude," he said. "The flip side of that is the U.S. could be doing a lot more."
While cumulatively the U.S. gives more than any other country, it ranks among the lowest of the industrialized nations in per-capita giving for international humanitarian aid, Tobin said. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget is devoted to such assistance, he said.
"Sometimes there is this sentiment of taking care of our own, that we're sending money down a rat hole," Tobin said. "But the reality is we are spending very little per capita on international aid."
Catholics can help others around the globe with their donations, by becoming educated on world hunger and other issues, and by being politically active, Tobin said.
"It's not enough in my mind to give money or donations," he said. "We should all strive to become more educated on the issues because the solutions are complex, and we can't hope to find solutions without being informed."
Tobin said Catholics can become better informed by participating in CRS programs such as Operation Rice Bowl, a Lenten program that emphasizes prayer, fasting, giving and learning, and Food Fast, a 24-hour fast and education program for youth in grades eight to 12. CRS also provides updates on the more than 80 countries where the agency is present, and that information is available by writing or calling CRS or visiting the agency's web site.
Fund-raisers are a good way to raise consciousness, Tobin said. Volunteering locally at a soup kitchen, food bank or pantry, or visiting someone who is lonely are all good ways to help and learn, he said.
"More often than not, you get more out of it than the person you are helping," Tobin said.
To find out more about CRS programs, write Catholic Relief Services, 209 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, Md., 21201-3443, call 1-800-235-2772, or visit the CRS web site at www.catholicrelief.org.