Dinner with Dr. Carolyn Woo

Every so often, we come face-to-face with moments where everything just seems to fall into place. It is in these moments that life finds meaning for what feels like the very first time. Our minds open, plans unfold, and hearts rediscover their purpose buried so deeply inside.

I had one of these moments Sunday night.

If you know me well, you know it has been my dream to work for a company called Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for about as long as I can remember. CRS is the official humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. CRS's mission is to "assist impoverished and disadvantaged people overseas, working in the spirit of Catholic social teaching to promote the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the human person."
The current CEO of Catholic Relief Services is an incredible woman named Dr. Carolyn Woo. Dr. Woo was the former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, where I am studying my fourth and final year of Finance.

Sunday night, my former theology professor and spiritual mentor who is very aware and supportive of my dream of working for CRS, invited me to dinner with Dr. Woo.

When my professor and I pulled up to Dr. Woo's house, my heart was bursting with excitement. Most kids my age get giddy when they meet their favorite bands or actors. For me, it's people like Dr. Woo. People who actually care about the world around them. People who have devoted their careers and their lives to the poor and suffering. Henri Nouwen writes that "compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there...compassion is the one who keeps going to the most forgotten corners of the world, and who cannot rest as long as there are still human beings with tears in their eyes." Dr. Woo is one such person who lives out Nouwen's description of compassion.

For many years now, Dr. Woo has been my inspiration for living out Nouwen's description of compassion. I attempted to live out this compassion when I lived and worked with the homeless just outside Aurora, IL, in the summer of 2013. I also attempted to live out this compassion when I spent two months in Nkozi, Uganda, in the summer of 2014 working with the world's "poorest of the poor," as Mother Teresa would say. (Sidenote: many of you know about the research I completed in Uganda last summer through Catholic Relief Services, and it was fascinating getting to discuss that with Dr. Woo as well.)

Yet in the moment I stepped out of my theology professor's car Sunday evening, walked up to Dr. Woo's front door, shook her hand, and saw her face-to-face for the very first time, any of my attempts at compassion the past few summers seemed to fade completely.

In that moment I realized I was standing in the presence of someone whose whole life and being was devoted to compassion, whereas I had only spent a few random months of my life trying to piece together what exactly it means to live compassionately.

Not surprisingly, my dinner with Dr. Woo ended up being one of the greatest evenings of my life. It was truly a dream come true. I was fascinated with Dr. Woo's immense compassion and humility - she cooked the entire meal from scratch for myself and the 10 other guests present. As if that wasn't enough, when the meal came to an end, she took the flowers on her own dining room table out of their vases and gave flowers to each female present as a parting gift. My theology professor remarked that Dr. Woo does that every time she has guests over.

What compassion. What humility. Here we have the CEO of what is arguably one of the most successful, most efficient non-profits on the planet, and she spends the entire meal asking about everyone else's lives instead of boasting about her own life and her endless accomplishments. Each of us went around the table and talked about ourselves for 5-10 minutes, our background, our studies, our hopes and dreams in life, what causes we care about, etc. Dr. Woo sat humbly and quietly in the corner, taking in every word.

At the meal I was accompanied by 10 other individuals, some Notre Dame undergraduates like myself, some masters/PhD students in theology, and a few other very interesting guests with their own histories and stories. Two of these guests just arrived from Syria 9 days ago - this is their first 9 days on American soil. Another one of these guests was the bishop of a country in the Middle East, and he actually was captured by Al-Qaeda for a few years. Needless to say, the dinner conversation was incredibly thought-provoking and revolved mainly around poverty and suffering in the Middle East, especially Syria, and our response as Catholics/Christians to global issues affecting human dignity such as these.

The dinner was incredible. It truly was one of those moments where life seemed to take on a greater meaning than before. We were talking about such heavy topics, such important global issues, yet I was surrounded by 11 other people who actually cared - that's what made the meal so meaningful. And finding someone who actually cares about poverty and suffering these days seems to be getting only more difficult as time goes on.

I hope to be posting more in the coming weeks with further takeaways from this incredibly fascinating dinner conversation. Stay tuned!

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