What led me to this moment – reflections from CWS’s new President and CEO

Rick Santos | January 19, 2021

Professional photograph of Rick Santos

CWS President and CEO, Rick Santos

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to lead Church World Service at this moment in its history. With CWS’s 75 years of making a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our world, roots in churches and communities in the United States and across the globe, and a commitment to justice, there is no better job for me.

My overseas career started in 1987 when I served as a Presbyterian Volunteer in Mission in Thailand. I spent three years teaching English, learning about the Thai-Christian Church, experiencing Buddhist culture and making many friends. I also met many people who worked with refugees and in international relief and development, including Jack Dunford and Skip Dangers from CWS. I literally remember having coffee with Skip and thinking, “this is what I want to do with my life.”

More recently, the last nine years of my career were spent as the CEO of a faith-based public health organization called IMA World Health. I learned a lot about the tremendous challenges that organizations face when they work in difficult places and with some of the most vulnerable and poorest people in the world. Time and time again, I saw the value of working through local partners to create impactful and sustainable solutions. CWS, of course, prioritizes local partnerships across our programs to ensure that they are the best fit for participants.

Early on in my time with IMA, I was actually a recipient of emergency response support myself. In January 2010, I was in Haiti attending a national meeting to discuss a strategy for eliminating some neglected tropical diseases from the country. At the end of the first day, I was caught in the largest earthquake in Haiti in over 100 years. It was one of the worst disasters this century, killing an estimated 250,000 people and injuring hundreds of thousands more. I was buried under tons of rubble for over three nights, with little hope of rescue. Without this group of dedicated and committed people who do this work, I would not be here today.

As I look to the future of Church World Service, I see tremendous opportunity to expand our work with refugees and displaced people while also tackling the challenges that force people from their homes. CWS relief and development programs—and our commitment to partnering with trusted local experts—can serve as a model of innovation and sustainability. From farmer training hubs in Central America’s dry corridor to flood-resistant toilets in Myanmar to literacy programs for Roma women in Serbia, CWS programs include tailored and culturally appropriate ways to meet urgent needs. As we build on the methodology and expertise we already have in place, I see the CWS family reaching millions of lives around the world in the coming years. I see bonds of understanding and friendship forming between the communities who participate in CWS programs worldwide and congregations, CROP Hunger Walkers, advocates and supporters in the United States. And I see CWS continuing to be faithful to God’s call to “serve the least of these” through its work.