WASHINGTON — Johnny Young, having spent a career in the U.S. Foreign Service before taking the post as director of the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services in 2007, understands the value of diplomacy.
In seven-and-a-half years heading MRS, Young was not a headline-maker, but he worked on behalf of his clients: not only the bishops, but the thousands upon thousands of refugees and displaced people who were entrusted to his care.
And in understanding the definition of diplomacy, it isn't all about making nice just to keep up appearances. It means sticking up for what your boss represents.
"The delicate part of my job is has been in trying to work out with the federal government, with our church's help, to allow us to continue to do the work that we do, and not require us to violate what we believe in our Catholic teachings," Young told Catholic News Service in an interview Feb. 24, his last full day in the office before an expected return one day in early March for a retirement party.
Young was referring to the Obama administration's denial of a contract with MRS to help victims of human trafficking because MRS would not offer what the administration called "the full range of reproductive health services," which included access to abortion.
The denial "stung quite a bit. We were to be the only organization providing assistance to foreign victims of human trafficking," Young said. "We were the second highest of the evaluations of the bid (by the firm doing the evaluation at the government's behest). But we refused to provide the services called for by the federal government."
He added, "It was quite a large contract -- $36 million. The hardest part was to tell colleagues who had done a very good job that it was the end of their time with the (U.S. bishops') conference."
MRS is still doing some work on the human trafficking front, but is no longer involved in direct aid to victims and instead is focused on outreach and training people on how to spot traffickers in their own communities. "We've laid the foundation to grow this program," Young said. And as for the administration, he noted, "We're still working" to resolve a seemingly intractable problem.
Young lamented the lack of congressional action on immigration law reform. "I think it's very unfortunate that we're in this mess that we're in. Congress had had more than enough time to work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The church has been working on it," he said, but thanks to Congress, "that time has been squandered."
Instead, the bishops "began to take the position that the president should exercise his executive authority," Young added -- even if only temporarily so -- for those people "living in limbo."
One recent group added to that number came last year, when "we had the tremendous arrival of Central American children coming into the United States to escape gangs, drugs, government corruption," Young said. MRS placed the children with U.S.-based relatives or in home situations, he added, "so they have a decent chance at a kind of life."
Young deflected credit for MRS' accomplishments during his tenure, saying no one person should get the praise in a collaborative environment. But two achievements that gratified him were advocating for the United States to let Iraqi and Congolese refugees into the country. Iraq is now the top source of refugee resettlement in the United States.
Challenges remain, and will remain so as long as there are refugees. MRS has advocated that the United States take in refugees from Syria's fractious civil war. "We've asked the bishops to speak out on the issue, and some of them have," Young said.
Funding is an ongoing issue, he added. "We have managed to weather some of the changes that have come our way. This is a Congress that is not particularly generous," Young said. "Ninety percent of our funding comes from the federal government. If we don't get it, we're sunk -- unless the bishops are prepared to come up with 90 million bucks." He chuckled, "I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it's improbable."
Young, a former ambassador to Sierra Leone, Bahrain and Togo, said racial discrimination led him to a career in the Foreign Service. "I thought the United States had changed enough for a black man," he said, but he found he was turned away when applying for jobs at the foreign outposts of U.S.-based companies. He landed a job with the Foreign Service in 1967 and never looked back.
While in Sierra Leone, Young worked with Liberian refugees. "I could see firsthand what it means to be a refugee," he said.
Young reminded Catholics of the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger.
"There is an underlying biblical ideal to this. It's a basic obligation of our faith," he said. "We do this because we are Catholic. ... Because of what our Holy Father himself has said in terms of our response to refugees and migrants," he added, "we should follow his lead."
In retirement from MRS, Young, 75, will devote more time serving on the board of the Council on International Educational Exchange, which he joined in November. The organization provides cultural and educational opportunities for Americans abroad and foreigners coming to the United States. "It's been around since 1947. It's almost as old as I am," he laughed softly, "but not quite."
No successor has been named to the MRS post, but Young said he would encourage the successful applicant to follow a custom he started even before his ambassadorial days of having candy outside his office door. "In fact," he said, "I'll even buy 'em an initial bag of Peppermint Patties."