It’s not all about Paul Moore’s food
04 Oct It’s not all about food
by Paul Moore
in staff authors
In 2007, when MH Belgium moved to Resteigne, a small village at the foot of the Ardennes mountains, a delegate from the local population asked us to start a food bank for the poor in the region. We said yes, and immediately took on a job that Madonna House has a lot of experience in.
Madonna House founded and operated the first food bank in Canada (in Edmonton), and we ourselves had worked in this program in our old house in Belgium.
At present, MH Belgium thus serves some 24 families living in the four villages making up the commune of Tellin: Resteigne, Tellin, Bure and Grupont. This rural region has few grocery stores and even less public transit. A third of the families we serve do not have access to a car, and more than half of them live in low-cost housing or in dilapidated buildings.
Among these families are many of those that the Belgians call “recomposed”: one whose father is in prison, another who has tried on several occasions to obtain refugee status, another whose mother is deaf-mute, and the son is an active drug addict with young children.
Other people have separated from their spouses. When we ask questions about the number of people in the household, we encounter hesitation and vague answers.
Most of these families were raised in poverty and their domestic life is, for the most part, unstable, and it is not uncommon for one of the parents to have a conjugal relationship with someone from one of the other families. .
Before the pandemic, we invited everyone who came to our house for coffee. On the days when we had food packages available there was a constant flow of visitors. They talked about everything and nothing. We heard about their housing projects, the disputes with their neighbors or with the municipality, and the joys of living together. Some families have told us about their worst fears and even difficulties with their spouses.
In addition, in the secure space of our conference room, families exchanged news with each other. With some, we have developed a friendship.
Unfortunately, with the start of restrictions due to the Covid virus, the interaction between the people in our home and families has become more distant. We could no longer invite people inside, nor could we enter their homes. Meetings only took place at the door, in the parking lot or in front of their cars. But we always try to keep up with the news.
A man who is the father of children from several unions, we ask: “And how is Peter?” Is he still living with your ex-wife? Is he still in school? Young kids today really need their fathers, you know.
To a woman whose son is mentally ill: “What about your son, Olivier? Is he still taking his medication? Was he able to stop drinking? It must be difficult to encourage him to stay the course without being bossy.
People are happy to share a bit of their personal life with us and they seem quite open to our words. They are aware of the fact that we are a community of the Catholic Church and that we five members of the staff of the house are committed to it.
It is a rare occasion that they speak explicitly about God or religion but they are more than happy to receive our Christmas cards, to share our Saint Nicholas cookies, and even to have us pray for their spouses or children in distress. At least once, we have held public prayers after the death of an elderly woman whose family did not have the financial and spiritual resources to give her a proper burial.
But not all the families to whom we give food are materially poor. Some have other sources of food, and in these cases the packaging we offer is more symbolic than anything else.
We cannot ignore the fact that some families own latest generation cars or giant screen televisions. But we avoid asking questions that may seem intrusive or that could hurt their dignity. If someone asks us for a package, we assume there is a real need. Poverty here in Belgium does not appear strictly economic but is more spiritual. Loneliness, family quarrels, loss of meaning in life – not just a lack of money – are often common aspects of poverty.
Twice a month, we go to a warehouse in Rochefort, 18 km away, to collect our lot from the food bank. A volunteer accompanies us with his own vehicle. Back home, our friend and the five of us meet in a disused chapel in our house to divide the goods into the 24 boxes placed on chairs in the shape of a semicircle.
These boxes also include food from other sources: fruits and vegetables from an organic farmer in the region (thanks to a subsidy program for local agriculture) and a local food chain that allows us to collect expired food.
A community of nuns provide us with prepared foods that they were unable to consume, and Madonna House also receives monetary donations from friends, which we use to purchase items that increase the nutritional value of the food packages.
Within an hour of portioning the food, we distribute the parcels by car to families who do not have transportation. Once these families are served, we call the others (hoping their cell phones are working) to let them know that they can pick up their packages between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. We also deliver these products a few times a week to larger families.
For our Madonna House family, distributing food parcels is a way to meet the person of Jesus Christ in the poor. It is a great privilege to serve the poor. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Saint John the Compassionate (6e century), said that it is the poor who are our teachers, that it is they who teach us what is important in life. We learn from the little ones and we are happy to be among them.
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me to eat (Mat 25: 34-35).