Maybe you’ve met Thomas Awiapo, an ambassador for Catholic Relief Services from the African country of Ghana. He’s visited Catholic schools and parishes in every state, some of them twice. He has a story that sticks with you.
His parents died when he was very young. After that, he and his three siblings were left to fend for themselves in their small village in Ghana.
“If we had one meal a day,” Thomas says, “we were lucky.”
I’ve met Thomas several times over the years in my role at Catholic Relief Services. He comes to the United States every Lent to share his story. But despite losing his parents to disease and all three of his siblings to hunger and malnutrition—Thomas’s story always surprises me. It’s not one of resentment, anger, or bitterness. It’s one of hope.
One day, alone and hungry, Thomas smelled food. He took the rumblings of his stomach right up to the door of a school where there was a CRS Rice Bowl-supported food for education program. That meant, if he sat through classes, he got a hot meal.
“I hated school, but I loved the food,” Thomas says. And that snack changed his life. “Today, I’m sitting here, still alive, holding a master’s in public administration. I am blessed with a wife and four children—and none of my four children have ever known hunger.”
We tell stories like Thomas’ throughout Lent—Stories of Hope, we call them. But we can just as easily call them Easter stories. Whether it’s a community of women in Mexico, a family in India, or a young man in El Salvador, each is faced with a challenge—a crisis of faith. Instead of throwing up their hands, they commit to act.
For me, these stories aren’t so different from the Emmaus story.
When the risen Jesus encounters his disciples on the road to Emmaus, it’s quite clear that their journey away from Jerusalem is, in fact, a journey away from hope. They’ve witnessed their friend, their hoped-for savior die. They’ve seen their community scattered. They think their trust in God was misplaced. What is left for them now?
Jesus, of course, turns them around—quite literally. Their encounter with the risen Christ means a renewed encounter with hope. God is not done yet, and darkness and suffering do not have the final word. The disciples reverse direction, heading back to Jerusalem to proclaim the good news of the risen Christ.
Stories like Thomas’ remind us that this Emmaus story continues to unfold in our own time. Some 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty, and 805 million don’t have enough food to eat. We need only turn on the nightly news to know that war and violence plague our communities—both at home and abroad. Where should we place our hope when the challenges seem insurmountable? It’s tempting to throw up our hands in despair.
Yet, this is the story of Resurrection. We encounter Christ daily in the faces of our neighbors, of those we meet in our work, our home, on our streets. Thomas reminds us that these encounters need not be enormous acts of philanthropy or world-saving initiatives—sometimes all it takes is a little snack, a small gesture to affirm our common humanity.
We encounter Christ, too, within ourselves. By probing the depths of our own inner life, we come in contact with the God who desires that we live in community, that we look out for one another. And in these encounters, we have reason to hope. Because God is not done yet—and so long as we have strength to continue the work of building a culture of encounter, of responding to our Gospel call, neither are we.
As we begin this Easter season, let us commit ourselves to sharing Easter hope and joy with all those we encounter.
If you’d like to support programs that help people overcome poverty like the school Thomas attended, donate to CRS Rice Bowl.