By Judy Swazey
Thomas Awiapo of Ghana recently spoke to more than 3,700 people at schools and parishes in the Diocese San José about how CRS Rice Bowl changed his life. On February 20 and 21, Thomas shared his inspiring story at all the weekend masses at Saint John Vianney Church.
Father Steve Brown, pastor of Saint John Vianney, said that Thomas shared a very powerful message. The impact of Thomas’ message was evident when parishioners, who had already received over 700 Rice Bowls at the beginning of Lent, made many requests for more Rice Bowls after Thomas spoke. His story helped parishioners see the impact that Rice Bowl can have in changing lives.
As a young child, Thomas and his three brothers were orphaned and struggled to find enough food to eat. His youngest two brothers died of malnutrition and his older brother left their village, never to be seen again. Catholic Relief Services built a school in his village and offered a small meal each day for the students. As a result of that little meal, Thomas survived and received an education, which eventually included scholarships to attend college. He says that little meal changed his life.
Although the story of Thomas’ childhood is tragic, he characterizes it as a story of hope and his joyful, faith-filled presence attests to that.
Thomas also shared his story with students at Bellarmine College Preparatory, Saint John Vianney and Saint Simon schools on February 19 and 22, ending with an evening prayer service at Saint Lawrence Church.
When he spoke at Saint John Vianney School, Thomas advised the students to not take for granted all the things they have, such as parents, siblings, and an education. He said that to be educated is to be liberated, and to give back.
After Thomas spoke at Bellarmine, various students described his talk as very “engaging,” “inspiring” and “upbeat”. He asked them questions and joked with them. Many were amazed to hear that Thomas, along with many trauma survivors throughout the world, did not know the date of his birth. However, rather than dwelling on the tragic when the students asked how he celebrates his birthday, Thomas said that he celebrates every day as a gift, because he is alive.
At his last appearance on Monday evening at Saint Lawrence Church, Thomas showed the group how to assemble a Rice Bowl and reflected that, by putting together and using the Rice Bowl, we are helping people throughout the world to put together their lives.
He ended by saying that there were many crooked lines in his life, but God was able to write straight on those crooked lines, using people and Catholic Relief Services, and he just wanted to thank people for allowing themselves to be used as God’s instruments of love, mercy and compassion.