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Rice Bowl beneficiary: Hunger is world’s ‘greatest evil’

March 6, 2015
Christina Gray

Ghana-born orphan Thomas Awaipo wasn’t looking for an education when he got up each morning and walked five miles to school in the African heat; he was looking for something to eat.

The Global Solidarity Program Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services told Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory students at a social justice assembly on March 2 that he and his three brothers were on their own after losing both parents when he was about 10 (he said like many in his village, he does not actually know the date or even the year he was born).

Hunger and thirst drove them to walk for miles in search of water which they “competed with the animals for,” despite the fact it carried waterborne diseases. Two brothers died, one in his arms.

“If you ask me what the greatest evil in the world is, it is a child going to bed hungry,” Awaipo said to the all-school crowed gathered in the school auditorium for “Act to End World Hunger.”

The social justice assembly was planned by the school’s Community Life Team with students organizing the format, introduction and comments. Sometimes students recommend speakers, which in the past have included Sister Helen Prejean (author of “Dead Man Walking”) and Father Greg Boyle (author of “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion”).

According to Catholic Relief Services, hunger causes the death of about 5 million children each year, more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Students Gino Gresh and Mairead Ahlbach opened the assembly invoking Pope Francis and St. Vincent de Paul, one of the school’s spiritual founders.

“The scandal that millions of people suffer from hunger must not paralyze us, but push each and every one of us to act to eliminate this injustice,” said the pope. “Who will excuse us before God for the loss of such a great number of people, who could be saved by the slight assistance we could give them,” said the saint.

Awaipo’s visit to Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco was part of a cross-country tour this Lent to talk to Catholic parishes and school about CRS’ Operation Rice Bowl program, a Catholic response to famine in Africa that started 40 years ago.

The program of “prayer, fasting and almsgiving” is designed to spread awareness of the tragedy of world hunger and to raise funds for food programs in developing countries and in the U.S. Donations, or Lenten “sacrifices,” are collected by individuals in small cardboard “bowls” and returned to CRS at Easter.

Operation Rice Bowl helped Awaipo escape the fate of his brothers. CRS built a school in Wiaga, his village in northern Ghana, and his empty belly and the school’s feeding program (funded by Operation Rice Bowl) lured him to the classroom each day.

Smiling, he said “he was tricked” into going to school knowing that he would get a snack there.

“Who is God for me? I would tell you it was that little snack,” he said. “That is the power of a little snack in the story of a young child. That is justice.”

Eventually Awaipo learned that “education is liberation” and earned a scholarship to college and eventually a master’s in public administration in the United States.

Wanting to return what he had received through “God’s pure grace,” Awaipo returned to Ghana and took a job with Catholic Relief Services training community leaders. Though he said he was “this close” to becoming a priest, he met a young woman while in seminary who changed his mind. They married and have four children.

“Today I stand before you,” he said. “I’m still alive, very happily and joyfully alive, and my children have never known hunger.”

“I am so happy I can look into your eyes today and say thank you,” he told the students, urging them to use their blessings to “pay it forward” to help end world hunger, starting with Operation Rice Bowl.

“You may call it the Rice Bowl, I call it the Gospel of love,” he told them.

At the close of the assembly, school officials gave Awaipo a green Sacred Heart Cathedral hat and sweatshirt while students waited to take iPhone photos with him.

As part of the school’s Lenten almsgiving, Sacred Heart Cathedral will collect money to support Operation Rice Bowl and its twin school in Eritrea, East Africa.

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