No Bills, No Tips at Mercy Restaurant
Every afternoon, Asma Khalil and her three children — refugees from Syria — walk a half-hour from their one-room dwelling through the tangled streets and alleyways of Bourj Hammoud, a crowded suburb of Beirut, to reach their destination: the Joy of Heaven.
There, they receive much-needed nourishment and hospitality at a restaurant for the poor and needy, where the only payment required is a “thank you”. It is just one of many initiatives of the Lebanese charity by the same name.
From a compact open kitchen in a 5m2 space, with “terrace” dining street-side and a tiny dining room upstairs for wintertime, the Joy of Heaven serves about 200 people a day.
Its location offers a distinctive ambiance, typical of the Bourj Hammoud neighbourhood: a constant chorus of hooting and screeching brakes of mopeds from streets snarled with traffic, and a maze of electrical wires overhead.
Patrons typically arrive even before lunch is served, pitching in to help Joy of Heaven volunteers set up tables. In no time, all the seats are filled.
“Even though I don’t know what the future will be for us, I know this is a place where we can always get a good meal,” Ms Khalil said. The Muslim woman and her family, all refugees, have been in Lebanon for nearly four years.
Such outreach to the needy exemplifies the mission of the Joy of Heaven (Bonheur Du Ciel) charity, founded in 2002 by Fr Majdi al-Allawi, who was born a Shiite Muslim and converted to Christianity when he was a teenager.
Between washing dishes and greeting guests at the Joy of Heaven restaurant, the 47-year-old Maronite Catholic priest said: “Especially in this Year of Mercy, whatever we do, it is not us who is doing it. It is Jesus.” Citing Pope Francis’ direction against indifference, Fr Majdi emphasised: “You cannot just say to a hungry person, ‘I will pray for you.’ How you would like people to treat you, treat them the same way.”
As with all the charity’s projects, the Joy of Heaven serves everyone, regardless of religion or nationality.
“Fr Majdi taught us that each person who comes in, this is the face of God,” Sola Haber, 38, a Maronite Catholic volunteer from Beirut, explained as she began cooking before the lunch crowd arrived. “Our goal is to give happiness to the people, not only to serve them food.”
Ms Haber attributes her experience at the Joy of Heaven for helping her to heal from the grief that consumed her when her daughter died three years ago at the age of 15.
“When I started volunteering at the Joy of Heaven, I changed dramatically, and I believe at least 70% of my healing came from this organisation,” Ms Haber said.
“Fr Majdi was a great support for me. Just seeing him dedicating himself to help the poor was a big morale booster. So I learned to give so I can heal. Being with less fortunate people, seeing the appreciation in their eyes and the smile on their faces was, in itself, a healing process for me,” she said.— By Doreen Abi Raad, CNS