Cooking up compassion

Cathy Voxland, an avid home cook from Newnan, Georgia, knows how to whip up a chicken and mushroom casserole for a church luncheon or put on a spread of “gooey desserts.” But during Lent, Voxland presides weekly over a kitchen of volunteers at St. George Parish, making dishes like a collard green, tomato, and peanut stew from Angola, sour soup from Cambodia, and lentil dishes from Pakistan. Her inspiration? Operation Rice Bowl (ORB), a Lenten program established by Catholic Relief Services.

“The theme of Operation Rice Bowl is ‘pray, fast, learn,’ says Steve Swope, a deacon at St. George, which he describes as a working class parish of some 700 families southwest of Atlanta. “We pray for those who are hungry, we eat a spare meal such as people in a developing country might eat, and we learn about their circumstances,” he says. They also donate; the parish raised $7,000 last year. It is a recipe, he says, for both a visceral and spiritual understanding of people’s suffering.

On Friday nights during Lent, Voxland and seven other volunteers get together to prepare the ORB recipes. Parishioners gather to eat and to talk about hunger in faraway places as well as hunger close by. Portions are small. There is no salt and pepper on the table. Beverages are limited to water and coffee. “The food is always satisfying and tasty,” says Voxland. But, she says, the ORB message comes through when “we stop to think that we eat three times a day — at least! — and this may be a person’s only meal. Plus, they may eat the same thing every day. We realize how blessed we are to have access to food, clean water. It’s humbling.”

Operation Rice Bowl began in 1975 with an ecumenical group of religious leaders in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who were responding to a drought in Africa, according to program adviser (and Deacon Swope’s daughter) Jennifer Swope. A year later, the program fell under the aegis of the Baltimore based Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. Now, Swope estimates, some 13,500 faith communities around the nation participate in Operation Rice Bowl every year to help those in need in their own community and around the world. The program combines fasting, praying, learning, and giving concrete assistance to those who are hungry. Last year, she says, participants raised about $8 million, 75 percent of which went to relief efforts overseas. The remainder was designated for domestic relief.

The mission of Catholic Relief Services is to alleviate human suffering, foster justice and charity, and enhance the development of people all over the world. Swope says the group works in five main areas: agriculture, microfinance, health, education, and HIV/AIDS. Money raised by the relief agency through Operation Rice Bowl and other efforts are used to target problems in these areas.

But Operation Rice Bowl is not just a fund-raising program, Swope stresses. “It’s about praying and learning,” she says. “It’s about understanding the challenges that face people in developing countries, or in our own backyard.”

Different faith communities use Operation Rice Bowl in different ways. At St. Matthew’s Parish in Baltimore, for example, Father Joseph Muth says that on the Sunday before Lent, the paper donation boxes — folded, origamistyle, to look like rice bowls — will be lined up on the altar rail. The congregation will dedicate prayers to the hungry, and then those who wish to may take a rice bowl home, he says. At the end of Lent, the rice bowls are returned, with donations for Catholic Relief Services. Some participants might give up a specific food or amusement and put the money in the paper rice bowl; others may simply donate. On Holy Thursday, the parish will hold a simple meal featuring meatless recipes from around the world, courtesy of Operation Rice Bowl.

“It’s a wonderful way to acknowledge our connection to the rest of the world,” says Muth. Not that that is difficult for his parish, in which the 812 member families represent 42 different countries. “It’s a concrete tool for the kids, a statement about the interconnection of learning, praying, and sacrificing.”


At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart School in Baltimore, fourth grade teacher Rosita Jackson says that the primary benefit of using Operation Rice Bowl in the school is to involve the children in “corporal and spiritual works to aid the hungry.” But she says the program offers the extra benefit of incorporating meaningful geography lessons. “Operation Rice Bowl gives us the personal stories of people struggling all over the world,” she says. “It makes those people and those far-off places seem more real to the children.”

Through ORB materials, the children can learn about women like Amal, a mother of six in Egypt who has started a home bakery to augment her family’s income; orphans like Sophia Nyoni of Tanzania, whose parents both died of AIDS; and Al Hassan Harouna of northern Ghana, who teaches in the village school where he once studied.

“It gives a face to suffering,” says Jackson. Among her fourth-graders, a popular way of participating is to sacrifice allowances to the rice bowl. “The children are very proud to bring in their rice bowls at the end of Lent,” she says.

Parishes like St. George’s share meals, after which they pray the Stations of the Cross. “The simple act of sitting together around a table builds community,” says Jennifer Swope of her parents’ parish. “People come together in their own parish while showing solidarity with others far away.” Some parishes host “hunger banquets,” in which 10 percent of attendees (representing the richest inhabitants of the developed world) are randomly selected to dine on a full meal served on linen and china, 30 percent are served a small serving of rice and vegetables on paper plates (developed world level 2), and 60 percent must make do with rice and water, eaten without utensils while sitting on the floor (the developing world); a graphic illustration of the imbalances in global food distribution.

Individuals can also take part. Marie Marquardt, a mother of three small children in Atlanta, began the Operation Rice Bowl program in one parish but has since moved to another, which did not — as of the time this issue went to press — use the program. “At dinner during Lent, we read something about a developing country or say a special prayer. On Fridays, we give up meat — we’re big meat eaters, so the kids notice — and we put a little more money into our rice bowl,” she says.

Operation Rice Bowl offers a myriad of tools for churches, schools, and individuals, including notices and prayers for insertion in the church bulletin, placemats, and a calendar with a daily for the six weeks of Lent. For example, on one date, the calendar suggests that participants pray the Lenten prayer (see page 89), fast in solidarity for those who are hungry by eating a simple meal, and put the money saved into the rice bowl. Another suggests that participants “fast” from e-mail, cell phones, or other electronic devices, and make time to have face-to-face conversations with family and friends.

“I think people just get beaten down hearing about suffering and feeling powerless,” says Jennifer Swope. “But Operation Rice Bowl says, ‘Don’t give up, give more. You can do something concrete, even if it’s something small.’ That’s a message that’s important to people.”  CD


For more information about Operation Rice Bowl or Catholic Relief Services, visit them on the Web by clicking here. 

Oh loving Lord, during the Lenten season I lift up my voice to You. Instill in my heart the desire to hear your voice in the voices of the poor, your people. May I find in their example the path to my conversion. Bless my prayers, fasting, learning, and giving in this season of grace. May these actions answer the call to transform our world. Amen.

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