It Isn’t Just About Food

by Paul Moore

In 2007, when MH Belgium moved to Resteigne, a small village in the foothills of the Ardenne Mountains, we were asked by a delegate of local people to launch a food bank for the poor in the area. We said yes, and immediately took on a work in which Madonna House has lots of experience.

Madonna House founded and operated the first food bank in Canada (in Edmonton), and we ourselves had worked in this program in our former house in Belgium.

At the present time, MH Belgium is serving in this way some 24 families living in the four villages constituting the municipality of Tellin: Resteigne, Tellin, Bure, and Grupont. This rural area has few grocery stores and even less public transit. A third of the families we serve have no access to a car, and more than half of them live in public housing projects or in dilapidated buildings.

Among these families include many who are what the Belgians call “recomposed”: one in which the father is in prison, another which has tried several times to obtain refugee status, another in which the mother is deaf and dumb, and the son is an active drug addict with young children.

Other people have separated from their spouses. When we ask about the number of persons in the household, we are met with hesitation and vague answers.

Most of these families have been 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 spousal involvement with someone from one of the other families.

Before the pandemic, we were inviting anyone who came to our house for coffee. On the days in which we had food parcels available, there was a steady stream of visitors. They spoke about everything and nothing. We heard about their housing projects, disputes with their neighbors or with the municipality, and about the joys of living together. Some families revealed to us their worst fears, even difficulties with their spouses.

Moreover, within the safe space of our conference room, families would exchange news with each other. With some we developed a friendship.

Unfortunately, with the onset of restrictions because of the Covid virus, the interaction between the people of our house and the families has become more distant. We could no longer invite people inside, and we could not enter their homes either. Meetings occurred only at the door, in the parking lot, or in front of their cars. But we always make an effort to catch up on the news.

To a man who is the father of children from several unions, we ask, “And how is Pierre doing? Is he still living with your ex-wife? Is he still at school? Young children today really need their fathers, you know.”

To a woman whose son is mentally ill, “And your son, Olivier? Is he still taking his medication? Has he been able to stop drinking? It must be hard to encourage him to stay the course without being overbearing.”

People are happy to share with us a bit of their personal lives and they seem to be quite open to our words. They are aware of the fact that we are a community of the Catholic Church and that the five of us staff in the house are committed therein.

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 St. Nicholas cookies, and even to have us pray for their spouses or children in distress. At least once we organized public prayers after the death of an elderly woman whose family lacked the financial and spiritual resources to give her a proper burial.

But not all the families to whom we give food are that materially poor. Some have other sources of food, and in these cases, the packages we give are more on the level of symbolism than anything else.

We cannot ignore the fact that some of the families own late-model cars or huge-screen televisions. But we avoid asking questions that may feel intrusive or could wound their dignity. If someone asks us for a parcel, we presume there is a real need. Poverty here in Belgium does not appear to be strictly economic but is more spiritual. Loneliness, family feuds, the loss of direction in life—not simply a lack of money—often constitute the common aspects of poverty.

Twice every month we drive to a warehouse in Rochefort, 18 km away, to pick up our allotment from the food bank there. A volunteer accompanies us using his own vehicle. Once we are back home, our friend and the five of us meet in a deconsecrated chapel in our house to divide up the goods into the 24 boxes placed on chairs in the form of a half circle.

Into these boxes also go food from other sources: fruits and vegetables from an organic farmer in the area (thanks to a program subsidizing local agriculture) and from a local food chain that allows us to pick up food that is expiring.

A community of religious sisters passes on to us prepared foods they have not been able to consume, and Madonna House also receives monetary donations from friends, which we use to purchase items that increase the nutritive value of the food parcels.

Within an hour of portioning out the food, we distribute the parcels by car to the families who do not have transportation. Once these families have been served, we call the remaining ones (hoping that their cell phones are working) to let them know they can pick up their parcels between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. We also deliver these products a few times a week to the largest families.

For our Madonna House family the provision of food parcels is a way to encounter 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 (6th century), said that it is the poor who are our masters, 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 food (Mat 25: 34-35).