The Rev. Monsignor Robert J. Coll is pleased to report that seven million American families are going to bed hungry—one night each week during Lent. Catholics, Protestants, Jews—all are participants in “Operation Rice Bowl,” a ritual of prayer, sharing and sacrifice that Coll, 45, and seven other Allentown, Pa. religious leaders began locally last year. This year, under Coil’s chairmanship, Operation Rice Bowl expanded nationwide.
The substitution of soup, macaroni or salad for the usual evening meal may not seem an extreme sacrifice. But by asking usually well-stuffed Americans to be “hungry enough to hurt,” as Coll puts it, he hopes they will know what “five hundred million of our fellow human beings feel like seven days a week.”
Participating families are encouraged to place the money saved by the “sacrificial meal” into a symbolic cardboard rice bowl. Of the anticipated $20 million that will be raised, three-fourths will go to international relief agencies and the remainder to the poor in the contributing areas. Not one penny is diverted to administration or overhead.
In February, Monsignor Coll extended his sharing ministry to Allentown parochial schools. Students were urged to substitute water for their usual soda or milk at one lunch a week.
Coll was born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, and considered the priesthood when he was an altar boy but did not go directly into the seminary. He studied accounting at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia before choosing his “real vocation” in his junior year. “I did all my doubting before I entered the seminary,” he says. “The moment I entered I was home free.”
Coll feels his own spiritual understanding has been deepened by travel through strife-torn and malnourished parts of the world—notably the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. “I saw where our money went. I watched the food actually being distributed,” says Coll.
Travel reinforced his idea that the world was not limitless and could not afford national autonomy. “I grew up in a world of independent states. The American dream was to be independent. The new vision we need is of a locked and limited experience. We need to develop interdependence, not independence.”