While the United States is one of the world's wealthiest countries, poverty here is very real. According to Catholic Charities USA, 37.3 million people in the United States were living below the official poverty level of $20,614 for a family of four in 2007. That's more people than the combined populations of Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kentucky, Lousiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, New Hampshire and Idaho. To be poor in the United States is to have children who go to bed hungry. It's to do without medical treatment or dental care or counseling because there is no insurance. It's to live in substandard housing or no house at all and to face exposures to toxins in one's water and paint and soil. It's to fear for safety and live near conflict. And often, it is to be invisible. But Jesus came to make what is unseen, seen. This kind of vision is one of the greatest gifts of Easter.
Lenten Observance of prayer, fasting, learning and giving:
What a strange day is Palm Sunday? It begins with palm fronds and praises and church processions hailing the King of Glory. It winds up with the passion—in which we who waved palms call out "crucify him," as our part of the narrative from Luke. Who are we in these stories? Are we the weeping women? The hiding disciples? The ones crying out for the death sentence?
As we walk into Holy Week, we'll step even more deeply into these stories. Let them resonate with the stories around you. Each day in your prayer, recall one of the people whose story you learned this Lent through Operation Rice Bowl: Renang Moleko, the AIDS orphan tending his garden in Lesotho; Victoria Velasquez, learning sustainable agriculture in Bolivia; girls in Afghanistan receiving an education for the first time at community-run schools; Maria Asuncion Cuadra, running her fresh drink stand in Nicaragua; Ato Teklu Hadgu, helping to make his village in Ethiopia resilient during drought. Hold them up in prayer, for their struggle and for their Easter hope to rise from poverty into a new life.
Fasting is built into Holy Week. Each day we are challenged to abstain from our regular schedule and to find time for rituals that awaken all the senses to the sacrifice of our incarnate God. The taste of bread and wine, the sound of a crack in the night, the feel of lips touching a cross, the smell of smoke from the burning brazier, the sight of flickering candles and the press of darkness—all await us. By setting aside some of our appetites this Lent, we have tried to become more aware of that which often lies hidden beyond our hungers: the very presence of God. As the Triduum gives way to Easter joy, how will you keep your senses tuned to the God of the poor?
At 94, Norm is a regular guest at Faith Café, a restaurant that serves the homeless and hungry in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. "The food is so good and the people so kind that I come back every week," says Norm, who has been visiting the café since it opened in 2005. He is among 80 to 100 guests who gather there every Sunday night to be seated at brightly colored tables with handmade placemats and vases of flowers. Volunteers take their orders and serve their meals. Guests are invited to take canned goods and produce from local gardens home with them. The Faith Café, which is partially funded with Operation Rice Bowl contributions, is a place where Norm is treated with respect.
"The volunteers who serve the meals know that I don't like dressing on my salad, and they know which cookies are my favorite," he says. "I have two special women that I call my angels. They like to listen to my stories and they treat me like a king."
Paying attention. Listening to stories. Treating a man in poverty like a king. This is what is meant by the call to uphold the dignity and equality of the human person.
As Easter nears, it's time to drop the last few contributions into the Rice Bowl, total up the amount and send it in to your parish or school. Remember that 75 percent of your contribution will be used to fund hunger programs throughout the world, while 25 percent of the money will stay in your home diocese to serve the poor there. But the giving need not stop with Easter. After emptying your Rice Bowl, why not continue to drop change in it throughout the year? Let it be a constant reminder that the poor are with us always, as contributing members of our communities, as brothers as sisters to us, as the face of Christ in the world.