Q&A: Beth White reflects on a life of giving through Catholic Charities

People who have lost their jobs and homes. Children who want to visit their parents in prison. Refugees fleeing war or religious persecution and in need of food, shelter and medical care.

If you’ve been in crisis, you may have gotten a hand from Beth White, who is leaving her post as associate director of Catholic Charities of Sacramento after 12 years to become pastoral associate at Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Carmichael.

“I consider her in the same league as Mother Teresa, living the gospel here in Sacramento, serving the downtown poor, refugees, immigrants and others in her Catholic Charities work,” said the Rev. Michael Kiernan of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. “She drives the annual Catholic Appeal so that people of any or no faith may be served throughout the Diocese of Sacramento and enriched to do great work themselves.”

White, 66, holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from UC Irvine and a master’s degree in library science from UC Berkeley. During a recent interview, she reflected on her life and the people she has met through programs she has managed, including the Downtown Senior Outreach Program, Immigration Services and Adopt-A-Family for Christmas.

How did you get on the path of social service?

I was born Catholic; this is in my bones. We all have gifts we’ve been given and we’re just going to put those gifts to use growing in faith and take those gifts beyond our doors to those who may need our help.

I became a youth minister in 1987, working with high school kids, and added more and more ministries, including a Hispanic ministry. To introduce them to the idea of being Catholic beyond their walls, I took 15 to 20 kids to Oaxaca, Mexico, for two weeks a year to work with the Maryknoll Sisters.

The first year, I took my 13-year-old daughter and she said, “Why did we come here?” I said, “Just tell your friends this is a crazy idea your mother had.” Two days later she said, “We have to bring other young people here.”

We would go up into the hills to work with young people with developmental disabilities and people who were just poor in homes where the floor was dirt, everyone was living in one room. One young man had his mind set. He was going to be a high-powered attorney making a lot of money. After he saw the impact he could have on these indigenous kids with little math worksheets and board games, that young man is now a teacher.

What do you tell young people about what it means to be Catholic?

You can’t be truly Catholic unless you are taking the faith to the streets and just assisting anybody who needs our help to the best of our ability. It doesn’t mean having to go to the food bank. It could be your grandmother who can’t get out of her home anymore and needs a visit; it can be a student who’s being bullied and needs friends. Young people are innately interested in helping. We have the example of Jesus who reached out to anybody and never asked questions – who they were, did they deserve to be helped – and always left the person with dignity.

When people are in crisis, how can we help?

Give them a chance to tell their story. Even if I couldn’t help them, they would always say, “Thank you for listening.” It gave them some hope: “Somebody out there cares enough to listen and maybe give me some hints about what else I can do or where I could look.”

Since 2001 you’ve been associate director of Catholic Charities of Sacramento. Whom does the agency help?

It’s families with young children, English- and Spanish-speaking; people being evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay the rent; people who had their utilities shut off; people sending their kids to school without school supplies or a hot meal in the morning; people whose unemployment has run out; people who are undocumented; people in the process of becoming citizens ... and refugees – a big wave of Hmong and Vietnamese, refugees from the former Soviet Union, people coming out of Iran fleeing religious persecution, and people now coming out of Iraq and several from Africa.

You’ve interacted with thousands of people. What impact have you had?

I recall one woman sitting in a waiting room at Centro Guadalupe, one of our programs, stitching up holes in her children’s shoes. She came in because she was on the verge of being evicted. There are women able to escape domestic violence whose spouses threatened to have them deported. The kids who get on the bus to visit their mother once a year on the Friday before Mother’s Day because she’s in prison – you see them sitting on her lap, or just sitting close.

A young Mien woman who was born in a refugee camp and went to Wellspring Women’s Center, which the annual Catholic Appeal helps fund, with her mom. She went on to get a scholarship to college and a master’s degree and has been working with humanitarian organizations to assist refugees worldwide.

Reaching out to people in difficult circumstances is like planting seeds: You don’t know how these people are going to flourish. You do get more than you give, but you can’t go into it expecting anything. You have no idea of your impact on a person’s life just by listening to them.