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Japanese Rice Ministry Marks 25 Years of Feeding the Hungry

In 1966, a young, newly ordained priest headed to Japan to serve as a missionary. After 20 years of learning the needs of the people he was serving,William DeBiase, OFM, felt he was inspired by God to start a ministry to feed the homeless of Tokyo.

In November of this year, he returned to Japan to celebrate 25 years of the rice program, which continues to provide nourishment to some 300 people every day  — a success he attributes to the working of God.

TOKYO, Japan — Last month, the Franciscan Chapel Center celebrated the silver anniversary of its rice ministry, previously called the Rice Patrol.

On Nov. 23, the enthusiasm of some 100 volunteers gathered for an ecumenical prayer service was something one could touch. Russell Becker, OFM, director of the Chapel Center, led the service, which included the presentation of three awards — two for dedicated service to parishioners who facilitate scheduling and deliveries, and one to me as the founding father.

I believe if they could have been present for this prayer service, the original 10 people — who 25 years ago said yes to an idea that at the time seemed would never work — would surely have been pleasantly surprised at the once small operation’s continued success.

Beginnings of a Ministry
I must admit that I, too, am very surprised that the Rice Patrol has lasted 25 years. The ministry began by accident and continued for the first few months literally on prayers. Every rule of elementary business was broken — no plan, no resources, no people; there was no thing.

It all began with the chance meeting of two Chapel Center parishioners on a street corner. One mentioned the fact that there were homeless people in a neighborhood park. “Is there anything the church can do to help?” she asked.

That casual remark started a string of events, which can only be attributed to the working of God.

In November of 1986, two people — businessman and parishioner Tom Thompson and I — started to feed 25 homeless people living in a park. We gave them Japanese rice cakes, onigiri, to eat. Every morning one of us would go to a little shop and buy the cakes.

Growth of the Rice Patrol 
It wasn’t too long after this that some people became interested in helping. From two we grew to 10. It took a load off — going out every day at 5:30 a.m. and then putting in a full day of work was often tiring.

ricepatrolThe next step came when we found some 300 homeless people sleeping in a large train station. No longer could we afford to buy the rice cakes, so we needed people to make them.

Once again, the Spirit touched lives; volunteers stepped forward to cook rice and make onigiri, and so “Rice Sunday” began.

Rice Sunday was the first Sunday of the month, when people would bring in donations of rice. Feeding 350 people a day takes a lot of rice but we never ran out.

As time went on, lay people began to take control of the operation, and what had begun as a disorganized endeavor became a well-oiled machine.

The days of having rice but no one to make the cakes or having volunteers but no rice were history. Those were exciting days, but God made it into something even better. From our small two-person operation we had grown into almost 100 volunteers serving 350 homeless.

Bridging Divides
One of the very happy things was that I watched the Rice Patrol become ecumenical.

Folks from Protestant churches heard what we were doing and wanted to help us. Many felt they were too small to do it themselves and did not want to reinvent the wheel, so they joined in with our rice ministry.

We had Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Mormons working side by side. This was not thought of, imagined of or in any way planned at the beginning. No, it was all the work of God. Nearby Catholic high school students even got involved.

And, after 25 years, the rice ministry is more vibrant than ever.

— Fr. William, a resident of Juniper Friary in Philadelphia, concluded his ministry in Japan in 1994. He currently serves at St. Francis Inn and is a member of the Province’s Ministry of the Word. Fr. Bill posts weekly Gospel reflections on his YouTube channel.