In two weeks, Cathedral of the Risen Christ parishioner and graduate of Pius X High School Patrick Obrist will board a flight to his second home: Africa.
Mr. Obrist is a Peace Corps veteran who served for a little more than three years on the Ivory Coast and in Madagascar. Last November, he applied for one of around 30 International Development Fellowships with Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
After an arduous interviewing process, Mr. Obrist was recently notified that there was a year-long position for him in Senegal. A tropical country on the Western African coast, Senegal is plagued by chronic unemployment, socioeconomic disparity, drug abuse and other social concerns that are addressed by CRS.
“I’m heading to Baltimore for orientation at CRS headquarters on July 22 and then it’s on to Senegal on July 29,” Mr. Obrist grinned.
There, his role will include project management, translation, regulatory issues, and many other aspects of the organization’s mission to assist communities in developing nations.
Mr. Obrist is eager to get back to Africa again, having returned to the states to earn his master’s degree in international development and social change from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in English and French from the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).
After graduating from UNK, Mr. Obrist intended to teach at the college level. Between the discouraging news of cut-throat competition for few such teaching positions and his older brother Brian’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica, Mr. Obrist decided to join the Peace Corps as well.
It’s just the sort of thing that the three sons of Larry and Lori Obrist would be expected to do.
“My parents are very socially conscious,” Mr. Obrist explained. His dad, a Vietnam veteran, recently retired from Veterans Affairs after 35 years of counseling soldiers returning from military action. His mother is a nurse at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Both have always taken their Catholic calling to practice works of mercy seriously, as servers at Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach and in numerous other ways.
“I got drenched in being socially aware,” Mr. Obrist said with a noticeable measure of gratitude.
He remembers the whole family spending the first part of Thanksgiving and Christmas days serving the hungry and homeless before they went home to enjoy their own family dinner.
As children, he and his brothers were taught that being pro-life means understanding that, as Mr. Obrist put it, “Life doesn’t end with birth.”
His parents encouraged him to remember that the mother and child rescued from abortion often need a great deal of assistance, as do others who suffer from poverty, political oppression and social injustices.
“We are responsible for those people as much as we are for our friends and family,” Mr. Obrist stated.
His first position as a Peace Corps health volunteer for a small village on the Ivory Coast involved supplying HIV/AIDS education, information on pre- and post-natal care, and more. He expanded his contributions by experimenting with raising chickens and goats to increase the animals’ value to the local families.
“Animals are their bank accounts,” Mr. Obrist explained. “They don’t have cash, so if they need something, they sell a goat or chicken.” He was devastated when he was unexpectedly evacuated from the village because of a political coup, without having a chance to say goodbye to most of the people who had befriended him.
Mr. Obrist was able to transfer to Madagascar to finish out his three-year commitment to the Peace Corps as an environmental volunteer. He also made time to provide small business training and the like to the local villagers.
His growing affection and concern for the African people led him to give up any lingering thoughts of becoming an English professor. When his Peace Corps work ended, he focused on international studies, planning to secure a job with an organization that matched his understanding of how best to help the people of developing nations.
CRS was one of those organizations, because rather than creating dependency on regular handouts, CRS focuses on helping communities help themselves with training and the creation of self-sustaining economies.
Mr. Obrist is looking forward to his new job, although he’s a bit apprehensive of what it will be like to be the guy who shows up in the “shiny white Land Cruiser” to check on a project, as opposed to being the fellow with the machete who lives in the village and helps dig latrines, raise goats and chop firewood.
“Hopefully, I won’t feel too disconnected,” he said. He hopes that more young people will practice works of mercy the way he and his brothers were raised to, saying there’s no need to go halfway around the world to do it.
“They should first look in their own communities,” he encouraged. “Flip open the phone book, inquire with the parish priest…. Realize that we have a responsibility because of our prosperity, and that sometimes our prosperity comes at the expense of others.”
He also hopes that adults will follow his own parents’ example by encouraging their children and educating them about what is happening throughout society and the world. Mr. Obrist considers working in service together as a family is another important element that raised his own social consciousness as he was growing up.
“You get so much out of it, it’s mind-boggling,” he said.
The next year will hold both adventure and sacrifice for Mr. Obrist. He lived without the sacraments for much of the time he was in the Peace Corps, simply because they were not available to him in the predominantly Muslim areas where he was stationed. He expects that to be different in Senegal, but he again will be far from his family, girlfriend, and network of friends.
“Technology makes it easier,” he said, referring to computer-to-computer communication with web cams. “And I think if I stay on with CRS, I get a home leave once a year.”
However, Mr. Obrist is less concerned with what he is giving up and more focused on the fact that he will have a job that supports his morals. “This is pro-life,” he declared.
Article submitted by Fr. Kenneth Borowiak from the Southern Nebraska Register