For national council president Brenda Akaraza, Development and Peace is ‘the right call’

Brenda Akaraza is the new president of the Development and Peace / Caritas Canada national council. (Photo courtesy of Development and Peace - CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – At 30, Brenda Akaraza still laughs as easily as any teenager. She’s still as earnest as any university freshman.

But she is not an innocent, untouched by the world. She knows whenever she is in contact with the joys and sufferings of others, then she is touched by God. She knew it when she arrived at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba and was introduced to Development and Peace / Caritas Canada.

“I was really looking for something where I can practise my faith,” said the new president of Development and Peace’s national council. “That was important to me — putting my faith into practice. Development & Peace was the right call for me.”

There can be no disputing that a young Black woman from Burundi is a fresh, new face for Canada’s Catholic development agency. She arrives as Development and Peace begins anew, with a new governing structure (four bishops on the governing council), a new executive director (Carl Hétu, formerly of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association – Canada) and a new challenge (responding to the war in Ukraine).

Battered in the first year of the pandemic, Development and Peace’s revenues, and the corresponding support of ordinary Catholics implied by rising donations, has already begun to rebound. The 2020-2021 Share Lent campaign pulled in 37.4-per-cent more than the previous year, for a total of $6.6 million. Membership in the Vatican-recognized movement of lay faithful stands at a solid 11,226.

On June 16, Development and Peace / Caritas Canada activists from across the country will gather in Halifax for a once-every-five-years “orientation assembly.” They will be celebrating the $10 million the organization has invested in development and humanitarian response projects in 29 countries. They’re calling the assembly “Create Hope.”

“This is what we’re called to do. It’s our prophetic voice. We’re asked to put into practice justice,” said Akaraza.

Akaraza looks to Rome for inspiration, particularly the leadership of Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. In a presentation to Canadian academics in April, the Vatican’s development chief made the case for the kind of long-term development work that Development and Peace was founded for in 1967.

“Living compassionately means more than occasional gestures of assistance, or the mere fact of doing good deeds, since compassion means having the other person’s situation at heart,” said Czerny.

The cardinal also made the case for development work as a shield against the culture wars and political divisions.

“Putting ourselves at the service of others protects us from ideological distortions, since serving our neighbour means serving real, concrete persons, not ideas.”

“How are we putting our faith into practice?” Akaraza asks. “The beauty of our Catholic faith, and you can see it in Catholic social teaching, it’s not only calling us to be providing in terms of charity. There is a justice part. That justice part is what Development and Peace does.”

By “the justice part” Akaraza means the long, slow work of organizing communities and building up their ability to shape their own destinies according to their own priorities. It is inherently political and social. It is always opposed by those invested in the way things are. But it doesn’t mean there’s no place for charity — no room for an immediate, humanitarian response Quite the opposite, Akaraza said.

The kind of humanitarian assistance provided in the wake of the Haiti earthquake of 2010 led to deeper development commitments between the Canadian organization and its Haitian partners, said Akaraza.

“Developmentand Peace was present (in Haiti, 2010). But the beauty of Development and Peace is the fact that we are still present today,” she said.

The same is already true of its commitment to Ukraine now.

“We will respond immediately in terms of supporting Ukraine, but we’re already starting to think, ‘What is the after-war?’ ”

Akaraza often explains to Canadians that though she came from one of the poorest countries in the world, she did not come from poverty.

“My parents were comfortable,” she said.

Her mother was a nurse who rose in the administration of the hospital where she worked. That hospital served the poor and Akaraza’s mother would take her daughter to work to make sure she saw Burundians who struggled to live.

“Because when you are privileged you don’t see the other side. You see it, but you don’t,” Akaraza explained. “She told me something. She said, ‘You had the privilege of being born in a family that is really comfortable. Make sure that you give back what you have received from God.’ ”