For the 75 people who showed up to share a bowl of rice with a spoonful of veges, it was more like fasting or a serious diet than a banquet. The idea, of course, was to make us aware of the plight of millions of poor people all over the world, many of whom would have been lucky to enjoy such a meal. This would be especially true in Bangladesh, a country two-thirds the size of New Zealand, where approximately 85 million out of a total of over 140 million people live below the poverty line.
Our banquet guests made donations that were to help Caritas Bangladesh with its Integrated Community Development Projects (ICDPs). There are six such programmes and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference sponsors them through their organisation for Social Welfare and Human Development.
There is no doubt that the need is great, and that is especially true for the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh, like the Garo community. Our guest speaker, Michael Mrong, is a member of this community in northern Bangladesh and Caritas’s programme coordinator for one of the ICDPs. He is here in New Zealand to talk about the plight of his people and to thank us for our help. His was not a pleasant tale and the statistics about malnutrition, lack of education, political oppression, overpopulation and the loss of his culture, were illustrated in human terms by the stories of two young people who Caritas was helping.
Michael’s presentation came at the end of the meal and was followed by a song about poverty composed by Kaisa Beech. Her mother and our Caritas representative, Lisa Beech, drove up from Wellington to be with us on the night. It was a community effort, however, that involved not just the organisers, Ellen Fowles, May Young and Joan Harrow, but many others. Graeme Siddle welcomed the guests and Bishop Owen Dolan offered the prayer for our food and all our blessings. Both of our parish priests, Fr Brian Walsh and Fr Tom Sherry, were also in attendance. Members of the Social Justice group greeted people as they arrived, and helped with the serving. Other parishioners and a continuous flow of St Peter’s College students helped to set up the hall, served glasses of water and cleaned up the hall afterwards.
The parishioners who attended were in good spirits and made generous donations to Caritas. On reflection it was a community-building experience, where people who see one another in passing at a Sunday Mass, had time to socialise with one another over a glass of water or a cuppa. What a wonderful thing it would be if the Poverty Banquet became a regular feature of the Lenten season not only for our parish but also for the whole region. Ellen Fowles, the banquet organiser, has recommended it to the St Patrick’s Parish Council. I don’t believe there could be a more fitting Lenten celebration than one where people fast, pray together and give alms for the poor.
Paul Green is a parishioner at St Patrick’s Parish, Palmerston North, and a member of the social justice group.