Operation Rice Bowl: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

Adventures in Colombia With Lisa Hendey and CRS' Operation Rice Bowl

Two women cut coffee at Fidencio Chamorros coffee plantation in Nariño Department, Colombia. Producers say it is hard to get coffee cutters in this area because many men leave to work at the coca fields that pay better prices then what's offered for coffee and cane work.
Two women cut coffee at Fidencio Chamorros coffee plantation in Nariño Department, Colombia. Producers say it is hard to get coffee cutters in this area because many men leave to work at the coca fields that pay better prices then what's offered for coffee and cane work. (photo: Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for Catholic Relief Services)

“I always ask, 'Can I help you with this?' Then I'm surprised, because I'm tired after fifteen minutes—but these women work in the fields all day long!” Lisa Hendey is talking about her experience accompanying Catholic Relief Services to the coffeelands of Colombia to learn how Operation Rice Bowl helps in impoverished nations around the world.

Lisa, bestselling Catholic author, blogger and founder of the popular website Catholicmom.com, was one of four journalists who traveled January 10-16 to San Juan de Pasto as part of CRS Rice Bowl's 2016 Media Trip. Also exploring the historic city and venturing into the coffee fields of Colombia were Lino Rulli (Sirius XM Radio's “Catholic Guy”), Drew Mariani (Relevant Radio), and Fr. Rafael Capo, director of Hispanic ministry for the SouthEast Pastoral Institute. Accompanying the group was media and public relations veteran Sherry Brownrigg.

Catholic Relief Services had planned an action-packed itinerary for the group, including a look at the coffee-making process and a visit to a refugee camp, where natives escape the conflict and drug trade violence. They also visited a Jesuit-run plantation, where coffee growing and ministry are intertwined, and met with the local bishop and Church officials to hear firsthand how the Catholic Church is helping in the war-torn region.

Lisa blogged about her experience from Colombia; once home on American soil, she'll be writing and speaking about what she learned there. A few days before the historic trip, Lisa took time away from her packing to talk with me about her adventure.

This wasn't Lisa's first trip with Catholic Relief Services. She's joined them twice before, and she recalled her experiences last year in Rwanda. “We report along the way,” Lisa explained, “publishing at least one blog post every day, and probably more than that. But even when I'm not talking about Catholic Relief Services, the experience works its way into my writing. In 'The Grace of Yes,' there's a chapter dealing with reconciliation—and I drew upon my experiences in Rwanda, where we met with those whose lives had been impacted by the country's genocide, studying their peacemaking efforts. And on a personal level, that trip helped me to focus on the importance of confession in my own life and admit that at times, out of my own stubbornness, I've avoided reconciliation with God and with my neighbor.”

I worried, though, that the Colombia trip might pose some hazards which Lisa had not faced in Rwanda. I wondered, in light of political unrest in that nation, did she feel secure? “When I receive these invitations,” Lisa responded, “the first thing I do is talk to [my husband] Greg, ask him how he feels about my traveling. This was the first time he ever expressed any reservations—so we did some research on our own, learning about the zones where our group will be traveling.”

Lisa is not a nervous traveler, and she was confident that her CRS hosts had checked in advance to ensure the group's safety. On last year's trip, two travelers had lost their backpacks; and the CRS team responded expeditiously to report and resolve the problem.

Although it's not required, Lisa prepares for her trip by making small goody bags for the children she'll meet along the way. “When we stop, we meet families,” she said. “Often, they invite us into their homes. My goody bags for their children are a way to thank them for their hospitality.”

One dramatic story that Lisa recounted during the press junket was their meeting with 18-year-old Maria and her family. Maria's story is told in a CRS Rice Bowl video: They fled their home seven years ago after her father received a threat, and they found their way to a refugee camp. Maria now works for CRS in the Borderland Laboratory, approving the coffee to be sold in the market. Maria invited the CRS team to her family's tiny, dirt-floor home for a generous breakfast of empanadas, rice, beans, cheese, omelettes and rich hot chocolate. As they left, Maria handed Fr. Rafael her own CRS Rice Bowl. Despite their poverty, the family had reached deep into their pockets to contribute, to help those who have even less than they.

Lisa's hope for the trip was that her readers might come to better understand the connection between our Lenten fasting and almsgiving, and the work that's being done in the field. Our sacrifices really do have an impact on people's lives. Lisa hoped that like Maria, whose story she told, Catholics will give of their poverty with full confidence in the richness of God's abounding love.

Through the forty days of Lent, the CRS Rice Bowl calendar and mobile app will offer a collection of daily reflections and activities for families. As Lent approaches, the familiar Operation Rice Bowl cardboard banks begin popping up—in the narthex at local Catholic churches and in Catholic schools across America. Catholic Relief Services invites the faithful, as part of their Lenten sacrifice, to drop their spare change into their banks throughout the Lenten season, then return the banks after Easter. Your gifts in any amount will help in relief efforts in Colombia and in countries around the world.