“Rick is kind of a systems thinker but with a heart and soul of a counselor,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
“Rick is kind of a systems thinker but with a heart and soul of a counselor,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran.

“You are the engine of the church that organizes love.”

Pope Francis shared this imagery in 2014 as part of a recorded address to staff of the nearly 170 Catholic Charities agencies in the United States. Deacon Rick Birkel, who’d recently been named executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, was moved by the words, and for seven years he’s attempted to honor them.

“Love flows through our work, and to organize it and bring it effectively to vulnerable people, you need capable staff and resources,” said Deacon Birkel. “Yet to know what programs are most important and whom to serve, that goes beyond human knowledge, in my opinion. You must be deeply connected to the Holy Spirit.”

This dual focus — on skillful operations and the Holy Spirit — likely will be at the heart of Deacon Birkel’s legacy at Catholic Charities. The 71-year-old permanent deacon announced he will retire in June 2022. A national search for a new executive director is expected to begin in July, and Deacon Birkel will oversee the change in leadership.

“We are very strong right now,” said Deacon Birkel in a recent wide-ranging interview with the Sentinel. “We have wonderful support from the archbishop, excellent senior staff and board members. It will be hard for me personally to leave the work, but I think it’s a great time for it to happen.”

‘Long-lasting solutions’

Archbishop Alexander Sample noted that over the past seven years, more individuals and families have been impacted by homelessness, natural disasters and policies than in recent history.

“Throughout it all, Deacon Birkel and Catholic Charities have quickly identified these new and growing populations and are focusing on more long-lasting solutions,” said the archbishop. “Under Deacon Birkel’s leadership, Catholic Charities of Oregon has continued to partner with the most vulnerable, regardless of faith, to bring relief, love and hope to people’s lives.”

The archbishop added that the agency’s role is to “share the face of Christ to those in need in western Oregon.”

“I really identify with this,” he said, pointing out that his episcopal motto is “Vultum Christi contemplari” or “To contemplate the face of Christ.”

During Deacon Birkel’s tenure at the nonprofit — the official domestic relief agency of the Catholic Church in the state — the organization has grown to serve approximately 20,000 Oregonians each year, while its annual revenue has increased from $11.4 million a decade ago to approximately $27 million today. It’s become one of the most respected nonprofits in Oregon.

Steve Moore is executive director of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which for years has helped Catholic Charities expand its services.

“Catholic Charities with Rick’s leadership has sought to grow in intentional ways and is very responsive to the needs of community,” he said.

Among the programs launched by Deacon Birkel are the Healthy Housing Initiative, aiming to reduce Portland’s chronic homelessness by 20% in five years; a community of tiny houses for homeless women; the Center for Removal Defense, a response to Trump-era policies that separated families; a long-term disaster relief effort in Southern Oregon in the wake of fires; and a number of affordable housing projects and food access programs. Deacon Birkel also nurtured El Programa Hispano Católico, helping it graduate from a program within the agency to independent nonprofit status.

Diversity and wholeness

Soon after Deacon Birkel arrived in Oregon to head Catholic Charities, he recognized the Catholic community’s diversity — approximately 50% of Catholics in the state are Latino — and that the majority of clients were people of color. However, the agency’s board of directors lacked such diversity.

He set to work making changes. “It was about opening doors and looking at barriers that existed,” he said.

The board now is 56% people of color and more than half are women. Within the 110-person staff, 40% identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color.

Deacon Birkel believes there’s a sense of wholeness that comes with inclusion. “Sometimes as American Catholics we forget we are such a tiny piece of the worldwide church,” he said. “The universal church is diverse, and when we add diversity, we add richness and wholeness.”

Eager collaborator

Deacon Birkel’s 45-year career has spanned roles in human services, nonprofit management, research and education. He holds a doctorate in psychology and master’s in public administration from the University of Virginia.

While Deacon Birkel spent many years at secular organizations, he said it’s been a gift to integrate fully his faith and work.

“It’s the whole package, a holistic way of living my ministry and my work and it’s powerful,” he said.

Moore, of M.J. Murdock, praised the deacon for his humility and faith. “He’s always seeking to serve and to learn more,” he said. Moore added that the deacon doesn’t see Catholic Charities as operating in a vacuum “but as part of a larger ecosystem trying to serve the community.”

Catholic Charities of Oregon regularly works with federal and local agencies, city governments, and parishes. It recently partnered with local parishes to distribute food boxes to those in need during the pandemic.

One ongoing partner is Multnomah County, and Sharon Meieran, a county commissioner, vividly recalls meeting Deacon Birkel in 2017.

“Immediately I saw him as such a thoughtful person,” said Meieran, a medical doctor who’s worked to address homelessness and barriers to health care. “Rick is kind of a systems thinker but with a heart and soul of a counselor.”

"Society changes, and we can never become an organization that only serves this person or that person,” said Deacon Birkel. “We have to be constantly listening and be in touch with people on the margins, because that’s where God is calling us."

The wisdom behind the work

Deacon Birkel, exhibiting the contemplative mind Meieran described, shared some of the perspectives that have informed his leadership.

Catholic Charities should be designed “to always focus on the most vulnerable people in our community, and that’s why programs necessarily change over the years,” he said. “Society changes, and we can never become an organization that only serves this person or that person. We have to be constantly listening and be in touch with people on the margins, because that’s where God is calling us.”

He said the agency also needs to “focus on encounter.”

“That begins with us recognizing our own woundedness. We are not looking for staff who are perfect; often those who have experienced suffering and recognize their own wounds are the best healers.”

Deacon Birkel has witnessed how Catholic Charities’ work sparks resilience in people.

“Resilience is real, and it’s embedded in our species,” he said. “But the way it works is we need affirmation of another person to trigger that resilience. When someone acknowledges us, embraces us or encounters us, that feeds our resilience and our ability to grow and overcome.”

The deacon also recognizes the necessity of capability and resources.

“We are not the largest nonprofit in the region, but we are robust,” he said. “We are bigger and more capable than we were a decade ago, and that allows us to scale up or down to respond to suffering.”

That proved especially helpful as the pandemic and then fires arrived in Oregon.

“Disasters have a way of seeking out the most vulnerable and doing the most damage to those folks,” said Deacon Birkel, who oversaw a variety of responses to both crises. He hired the nonprofit’s first director of disaster services and ramped up food access and delivery programs. And Catholic Charities distributed more than $5 million last year for struggling families and individuals.

Innovating to combat homelessness

Long before the recent disasters, Oregon faced some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Deacon Birkel has helped Catholic Charities creatively tackle the challenge with Catholic social teaching as a guide.

“At the heart of this teaching is subsidiarity, the idea local communities have a responsibility to address local needs,” he said. So, for example, when residents of Portland’s Kenton neighborhood wanted to assist homeless individuals living on their streets, Catholic Charities jumped in to support the effort.

The result was Kenton Women’s Village, a community of tiny homes with wrap-around services for homeless women. Since it was established in 2016, 41 women have found permanent housing.

The City of Portland is in the process of altering its rules for homeless shelters and homeless camps to make it easier to build permanent shelters in neighborhoods, and Kenton is viewed as a model for this effort.

‘Thrive in the years ahead’

In the 14 months prior to his retirement, Deacon Birkel will work to keep the organization running smoothly, offer input on hiring his successor and help the new head transition into the role.

Originally he’d planned to retire at 70, but then there was 2020. “It became clear it was not a good time,” he said.

Last year the deacon and his wife of 46 years, Kathy, contracted COVID-19 and had severe symptoms for 10 days. It gave Deacon Birkel a new sense of urgency about retirement and sharing time with family. He plans to spend the first couple years traveling to see his three daughters and five grandchildren.

Kathy Swift, Catholic Charities board chair and a member of St. Ignatius Parish in Portland, is helping lead the search for the next executive director.

Swift said Deacon Birkel will be missed deeply by staff and acknowledged that change is always a little scary. But she believes Catholic Charities is handling the transition thoughtfully.

“That’s really a reflection on Rick and his leadership,” she said. “It will be a part of his legacy — that we will be well-equipped to continue to grow and thrive in the years ahead.”

katies@catholicsentinel.org