By Jay Nies
Draped in purple, Dan Lester waded into the St. Thomas More Newman Center’s baptismal font, where Dominican Father Thomas Saucier poured the water over him three times in the shape of a cross.
Ashlie Lester then handed her husband their 2-month-old son, and the priest baptized him, too.
“It was so wonderful and so moving,” said Mr. Lester, who was received into the Church in 2010 and became executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNM) in 2016.
“Outside of marrying Ashlie and having our children, becoming Catholic is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given,” he said.
The Church’s social teachings, along with the beauty of the Mass and the authenticity of Mrs. Lester’s day-to-day witness opened him up to the possibility.
“She is a cradle Catholic,” Mr. Lester noted. “She just asked me to be open to her faith and how much it means to her.”
They met each other in an isolated locale in Utah.
Each weekend during the summer, a traveling priest came to town, and Mr. Lester joined his future wife at the Lord’s Sacrifice.
The rest of the year, they drove for about an hour over a mountain road to get to Mass, regardless of the weather.
“It was important to her, so it was important to me,” he said.
He also began reading-up on what the Church teaches. The social teachings — rooted in the God-given dignity of every human being — particularly resonated with him.
The couple went through marriage prep, got married in 2008 and moved to Columbia.
They found out two years later that they were having their first child.
Mr. Lester “knew it was time” to become Catholic.
“It wasn’t an intellectual knowing; it was a knowing in my heart that it was the right time and the right thing to do,” he said.
He came into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
He had been counseling and advocating for people with emotional and behavioral issues for 13 years when he learned last year that CCCNM was looking for an executive director to succeed Michael Van Gundy.
Mr. Lester knew that he needed to apply.
A good match
CCCNM is a separate corporation that receives partial funding from and is integrally connected to the Jefferson City diocese.
It is one of 164 Catholic Charities affiliates throughout the United States.
It is the social services agency of the Local Church, working to address persistently unmet and under-met human needs in these 38 counties, through strategic partnerships with key community resources.
It helps facilitate ministry to people in jails and prisons; provides limited emergency assistance to people in need; and supports parish nursing ministry and disaster response and emergency preparedness services.
CCCNM’s largest ministry is Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS), which with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services helps people who have been forced to leave their homelands begin a new life in this country.
In searching for an executive director, the CCCNM board of directors was impressed with Mr. Lester’s range of experience in leading people, providing and managing services, and forging partnerships with other agencies.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Indiana in Bloomington, and master’s degrees in social work and public health from the University of Missouri in Columbia.
For five years, he provided direct clinical services to at-risk teenagers at Aspen Achievement Academy in Loa, Utah.
That’s where he discovered his gift for helping young people escape from the cycles of self-destructive behavior.
In Columbia, he served as a community support specialist supervisor and director of clinical services at Burrell Behavioral Health, helping diagnose and treat patients with severe mental illness, along with training the people who help them.
There, he encountered people every day who were suffering not only from emotional and behavioral issues, but also from the effects of grinding poverty.
“That was a real eye-opener for me, to be exposed to so many people with chronic illness who are chronically poor,” he said.
He also worked as a community support specialist at Burrell, as a Connecting for Baby retreat facilitator through the University of Missouri Extension, and as an adjunct instructor of human services/sociology and American social policy at Columbia College in Columbia.
Upon the CCCNM board’s unanimous recommendation, Bishop John R. Gaydos appointed him executive director, effective Oct. 16, 2016.
Mr. Lester feels blessed to be able to integrate his faith and his work so closely.
“I get to feel good getting up each morning — not only because the work I get to do is very good, I’m also getting to answer a higher calling,” he said.
Plus, he gets to branch out into broader avenues of helping people.
“One of the things that drew me to Catholic Charities was the ability to be involved in so many different kinds of social services,” he said.
A social worker’s mission field ranges “from charities to nursing homes to the state legislature to prisons to homeless shelters and back to mental health,” he said.
He noted that the challenges of helping people who are poor or otherwise marginalized are complicated and often exhausting.
“The folks who I’ve seen be successful in the field —there’s usually something more to it for them than just the feeling that ‘this is the right thing to do,’” he said.
That “something more” is a connection to spirituality and the transcendent.
For Mr. Lester, the connection is to God, in Whose name Catholic Charities serves.
“At the end of the day, we are a ministry of the Church and an agent of Jesus Christ,” he said. “That’s an important distinction.”
So much to build on
Mr. Lester arrived at CCCNM after most of the work of establishing it had been accomplished.
Mr. Van Gundy, the previous executive director; Barbara Ross, who served as director of social services until retiring on Dec. 31; and Lorna Tran, director of Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS), had worked for the diocese for many years before Bishop Gaydos established CCCNM in 2011.
They worked with the board of directors to plan for providing an array of charitable services to people throughout the diocese.
“It’s been great to walk into a solid, fully-formed agency,” Mr. Lester said. “We’re so grateful for everything they put into place. Without them, we’d be at square-one right now.”
Roads to solidarity
Mr. Lester noted that the diocese started resettling refugees during the Vietnam War.
“So we have a long history of doing that work, and it’s grown exponentially over the years,” he said.
RIS has 13 full-time and two part-time staff members in Columbia and Jefferson City.
Mr. Lester lauded Ms. Tran and the staff for growing RIS into something everyone can be proud of.
Part of what makes it so effective are its connections with government and private service agencies and numerous faith communities.
Mr. Lester is determined to build-up similar partnerships throughout the diocese in order to help more people get the assistance they need.
“One of our challenges comes from Bishop Gaydos, and that is to address the issues of the hidden poor in the diocese,” he said.
One way to help is through CCCNM’s new Targeted Impact Program, which is offering grants to local agencies and parish social concerns commissions that help the underserved in their communities.
“It’s just a recognition on our part that we can’t do all of this alone,” Mr. Lester said. “Being in solidarity for us can mean being in solidarity with other agencies.”
The program’s straightforward application process is designed to move resources quickly while putting Catholic Charities staff in touch with people who know what the needs are and how to respond to them.
Over time, this process will reveal ways for Catholic Charities to become even more engaged in the communities.
Mr. Lester has also been working with Enrique Castro, diocesan coordinator for Hispanic and Cross-Cultural Ministries, to find new ways to serve the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Hispanic/Latino people in Central and Northeastern Missouri.
For instance, CCCNM will work to help people who are eligible apply for proper immigration status.
Catholic Charities may also be able to help these growing communities in the areas of housing and behavioral health.
Also, Mr. Lester has taken notice of a program started by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
“They have a mobile resource bus that connects with local parishes and other social-service providers throughout the diocese,” he said. “They send a case manager out with that bus a few days a week to the more isolated areas, and people come to them.”
They distribute food and clothing and gather information about what other kinds of assistance are needed.
He noted that the area being served is demographically similar to this diocese.
“I’m positive that there are resources throughout our diocese, and so many people in our parishes who want to help those who are less fortunate and struggling,” he said.
“And I think one of our roles as Catholic Charities will be to try to connect those folks together with people who need the help.”
He noted that Catholic Charities tries to balance addressing people’s immediate needs with working toward long-term solutions.
He said advocacy will always play a role, as the state’s four Catholic Charities affiliates work with the Missouri Catholic Conference to promote laws and policies that lift some of the burden from the poor.
“I believe we can do a tremendous amount of good just by being part of those conversations,” he said.
The main thing
Mr. Lester is committed to emphasizing the “Catholic” in Catholic Charities.
He meets regularly with Sister Kathleen Wegman SSND, chancellor for the diocese, for ongoing formation and to discuss Scripture and many of the great teaching documents of the Church.
“It’s such a gift in an increasingly secularized world to have a work environment where your faith is as valued as your resume,” he said.
He noted that CCCNM enjoys support from a dedicated core of donors and volunteers who are sold on its mission.
“We do receive funding from contracting with various state and federal agencies,” he noted, “and in some cases, those funds come with restrictions.”
Government money will always have to be part of the equation, but “having a reliable source of unrestricted funding is essential for us to maintain our Catholic identity in the way we provide services,” he said.
Most of the donations come during CCCNM’s annual Lenten Appeal.
Jake Seifert, CCCNM’s recently promoted director of mission advancement, is working on creative ways to get the word out and expand the donor base.
The agency is also working on recruiting more volunteers.
“We now have a volunteer coordinator in Columbia, and the number of our volunteers for refugee resettlement has grown exponentially,” said Mr. Lester.
Fidelity and openness
Mr. Lester hopes people will pray for him to keep God at the center of his work and always recognize Christ in the people who are marginalized and vulnerable.
He believes people can help God answer those prayers by being attentive to His voice in everyday decisions and stepping-up whenever opportunities rise.
“We’re so much more effective when we’re open to God working in us and when we get out and meet folks face-to-face who are having a tough time,” said Mr. Lester.
He noted that a collection of documents on Catholic social teaching has been posted on CCCNM’s newly updated website, www.cccnmo.org.
People can also stay in touch through CCCNM’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.