by Christiana Stich

“I don’t have to ask what hell is like—it’s there before my very eyes. The person takes the rice cake, and our fingers touch only briefly. They are so grateful, thanking me with traditional nodding and saying, ‘arigato, arigato.”‘

‘The cardboard city of the homeless is sad, but the eyes and faces of these forgotten human beings lit up with smiles, and a warmth broke out in the brisk wind…”

“I must admit I was a little afraid at first…I didn’t save the world from starvation that day, but I did my best at my little role.”

These are comments made by some of the volunteers from the Franciscan Chapel Center involved in delivering rice cakes to Tokyo’s homeless. John Nester is in charge of the Shinjuku delivery which begins every day at 4:30 a.m., while the city sleeps. They distribute about 200 rice cakes to the homeless in Nishiguchi at JR Shinjuku Station.

‘The homeless must leave the station before the first train starts to move,” said one volunteer. “They are gentle and well behaved, and some are physically weak. Sadly, many of them cannot withstand the cold of winter and die.”

Another group, under the supervision of Nigel Jones, makes the night shift delivery of 100 rice cakes by 8:30 to the homeless in Sumida River Park in Asakusa. Volunteers are of various ages; men and women, and even teenagers and children help with the deliveries.

Father Lucien Mulhern, O.F.M., is the parish priest at the Franciscan Chapel Center, and is often asked why they run the program. “Why do we want to help these people who are supposedly lazy, shiftless and don’t want to work?” is a typical question.

The answer is because the need is there, and someone has to do it. “We’re just following Christ’s instructions to be our brother’s keeper,” says Father Mulhern. “When I was hungry, you fed me. And we believe we see Christ in every one of these helpless, homeless people.

‘It’s easy to have the wrong impression of the homeless, but nothing could be further from the truth. Who would enjoy sleeping in cardboard boxes covered with newspapers for blankets, or remaining in the same clothes for months at a time? The homeless dig in trash and garbage for food, become sick or diseased and are not able to receive care.”

John Nester says of the situation he sees in the morning, “They live a life where a bath is only a memory, and they must be continuously on the move, as no one will let them stay in one spot for more than a few hours.

Father Lucien feels “there is a wonderfulness about the program and a profound change takes place in almost everyone who makes this experience. The need is so obvious to anyone who goes out. Some of them stand in line for four hours just to get a single rice cake. You must be pretty desperate to do that.

“We used to be able to give them two rice cakes, but the numbers have grown so much that now we can only give out one to each person. But they are so appreciative; there is no aggressiveness from them.”

Recently, the Chapel Center’s Rice Patrol was selected to receive the Soroptimist Domestic Service Award of 1994 by the Soroptomist Japan Foundation in recognition of its work with the homeless. It was selected over five other worthy projects, and the ¥500,000 award will be spent to replace old, worn-out equipment being used for cooking and making the rice cakes.

The program was begun seven years ago by Father William De Bias, the former parish priest. He would go out alone to deliver the rice cakes after making them himself. The program now includes more than 100 people who cook and prepare the rice cakes and deliver them each day. Other churches in Tokyo are also involved in similar programs with the homeless.

“We are pleased to receive this award, although Father William is not in Tokyo to share it with us. He felt there was a need to help our homeless sisters and brothers, and a further need to raise the awareness level of the Tokyo city officials and Japanese families of this growing need,” Father Lucien commented.

It takes more than 125 kilos of rice each week to support the program, and all of it is donated by parishioners. Somehow there is always enough rice, but Father Lucien tells the story of times when the rice coffers were almost empty, and an appeal was made at Mass. Within 10 minutes there was more rice than needed for the next day’s rice cakes.

A volunteer’s first reaction is often fear, but this quickly goes away when they see and feel the gratitude from the homeless. The experience changes lives and some of the foreigners from the parish have gone back to the U.S. and begun similar programs.

Christmas is a time when people tend to give more thought to the importance of giving and helping each other. But the homeless are there in Shinjuku and Asakusa every morning and night. Through its efforts, the Rice Patrol at the Franciscan Chapel Center is trying to make their lives just a bit easier.

For more information about the program, contact the Franciscan Chapel Center, 4-2-37 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106; tel. 3401-2141, or visit their website