Digging Deeper Into Lent

CRS Rice Bowl Program Provides Practical and Spiritual Aid

BALTIMORE — “For me, a little snack in school was Jesus Christ. That was God, for me.”

Thomas Awiapo recounted how a “little snack,” made possible through Catholic Relief Services (CRS)’ Rice Bowl, saved his life in Ghana. He was orphaned through starvation — a pagan child “with little hope for survival,” he told the Register — but his life took a turn when the smell of food enticed him to a Catholic school, where he was offered “a snack and hot food” if he stayed in class.

“If that little snack and that hot meal were not fixed in that school by Catholic Relief Services, I would not have gone there in search of food,” he said.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of CRS’ annual Rice Bowl, and Awiapo — one of the first beneficiaries from Catholics’ generosity to Rice Bowl — has been going on a tour through U.S. dioceses to give his thanks to Catholics for the difference that they made in his life and the lives of so many others, including his classmates, who are teachers, nurses, doctors and bishops who had a new chance at life because of programs offered through CRS.

Today, Awiapo is a Catholic, with a wife and four children, and has earned a master’s degree in public administration, because of the “real love and compassion” he experienced from the Church that began with “a little snack.”

“It gives me joy to come back and look at people in their faces and say, ‘Yes, you are making a difference; you are saving lives. Look at me: I’m a living testimony of what all your sacrifices for CRS Rice Bowl can do,’” explained the Ghanan.

Since its beginning in 1975, millions of Catholics have contributed $250 million in alms to Rice Bowl, which assists the Church in the United States and abroad to uplift the poor and feed the hungry all over the world.

CRS has brought a 21st-century update to its iconic cardboard rice bowl and its drive to encourage Catholics to donate $1 for each of the 40 days of Lent. The program has a “CRS Rice Bowl” app, two new video series and prayer cards designed to enrich Catholics’ faith during Lent.

“We want it to be more than a little box, but, instead, a way for people to really engage in our Lenten spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving,” said Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice president of CRS’ U.S. operations.

Rosenhauer said the Rice Bowl donations will go principally to help CRS’ hunger and agricultural programs in Lebanon, Tanzania, Nicaragua, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Video Series

The CRS Global Kitchen video series features Father Leo Patalinghug, host of GraceBeforeMeals.com, cooking five meatless recipes from those five countries.

Another video series, called What Is Lent?, features eight prominent Catholic leaders: Theology of the Body Institute’s co-founder, Christopher WestCardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine; Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles; CRS President Carolyn Woo; CRS chairman of the board, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City; Kerry Weber, America managing editor and author of Mercy in the City; and Catholic novelist Ron Hanson.

The videos invite Catholics into a deeper practice of the faith during Lent by discussing prayer, fasting, almsgiving and solidarity and how they relate to each other as they prepare for Good Friday and Easter.

“I hope that people see that all of these practices flow out of a relationship with Jesus,” said Father Martin. He told the Register that he appreciates that this Rice Bowl campaign teaches Catholics how to see “the three main practices of Lent (prayer, fasting and almsgiving)” as part of a whole, not as separate things. 

“Spending time in prayer reminds us of the person who asks us to do this and for whom we are doing it,” he said.

“In prayer, we enter into a one-on-one relationship with him. In almsgiving, we not only carry out his wishes, but we help Christ himself, who is present in our fellow human beings,” the Jesuit priest added. “And in fasting, we are able not only to remind ourselves that our bodies can’t always be in control, but we are able, in a very practical way, to set aside funds to help the poor.”


Spiritual and Practical

Matthew Bunson, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and author of the Encyclopedia of Church History, said he saw firsthand in Tanzania how CRS is putting into practice the Church’s teaching of “subsidiarity” — empowering people at the local level — made possible through the Church’s practice of “solidarity.”

“It has a very real practical effect, and, again, you’re participating potentially in a very powerful way spiritually,” he said, noting that Catholics have an opportunity to transform their fasting from consuming treats such as ice cream into almsgiving to help others in need.

He said CRS is helping local farmers establish a chain of soy crops that will be sold to a local company, which will then turn the harvest into a variety of products.

But the other aspect that impresses the theologian is the “edifying faith” of the CRS and local Caritas teams at work.

“They are really quite remarkably committed to the teachings of the faith,” he said, noting that local priests accompany the CRS and Caritas teams into villages.

“There is a very real connection between correct Church authority and the implementation of what CRS and others are trying to accomplish,” he said.

Rosenhauer, CRS’ executive vice president, said the organization seeks to address people’s immediate hunger needs overseas, but also “help them become self-sufficient.”

Their programs help farmers learn new techniques that allow them to increase their production yields and ultimately earn more money to enable their children to go to school and have better lives.

“The ripple effect of the hunger programs is quite dramatic,” Rosenhauer said.


Local Assistance

The Rice Bowl campaign, however, also helps local poor and hungry in the U.S. as well. Rosenhauer said 25% of Rice Bowl proceeds stay with the sponsoring dioceses to serve local needs, such as food pantries.

“It really is a win-win: People in the local diocese right nearby are helped by it, and people around the world, who don’t have nearby neighbors to help them, are helped by it.”

The Rice Bowl, Rosenhauer said, provides Catholics in the United States the ability to “be the neighbors who Christ calls us to be,” because “we have that capacity, and the people who are nearby [in these impoverished regions] do not.

“Our faith calls us to bring Christ’s love into the world, and as a community of faith, that is precisely what we’re called to do together.”