BEIRUT – As Lebanon crumbles under a socio-economic crisis, Lebanese clerics are taking on roles as humanitarian and social workers.
“We cannot be a true priest, a true presence of Jesus Christ, without helping the people. Otherwise, we are just a functionary of the church,” Maronite Father Hani Tawk told Catholic News Service.
“We are missionaries, because we see Our Lord Jesus Christ in the face of every family, every person we meet,” said Tawk, a member of the informal Church for Lebanon group, which includes 15 priests and a nun from three Catholic rites. : Maronite, Latin and Melkite.
“We made this decision to be with people, to help them, to support them and to seek justice,” Tawk said.
The roots of their union stem from the October 2019 mass uprising in Lebanon against a corrupt government; during this time, some of the priests got to know each other on the street.
Gradually, they began to meet. As the Lebanese economy began to deteriorate, individual and collective awareness initiatives began.
Jesuit Father Gabriel Khairallah, with a team of volunteers that includes the Catholic Youth Circle, organized the distribution of hot meals and food boxes and established a health clinic and dispensary.
What started as 25 hot meals a day in 2019 has now grown to 260 a day. And from 30 weekly food boxes in 2019, the initiative now delivers around 300 per week.
This increase reflects the emergence of the “new poor” in Lebanon, Khairallah said.
Since 2019, the Lebanese currency has devalued by more than 90% and food prices have increased by more than 1,870%. Poverty is now a reality for almost 80% of the population, in what was considered a middle-income country.
“More and more people are in need,” Khairallah said.
“They have lost their purchasing power. People cannot afford the bare necessities. It hurts so much to see the loss of dignity of the people,” Khairallah said.
“I see that my mission as a priest now is also to console, to listen to people,” as they share their burdens, the Jesuit noted, adding that many Lebanese religious are trying to develop ministries of listening and advice.
“People feel that the church is the place where they can be helped and where they can share their pain,” Maronite Father Tony Lattouf, a member of the group and pastor of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption church, told Rabweh, a former middle class area in the north. from Beirut.
As living conditions in Lebanon deteriorate, parishes face challenges in helping families with a myriad of needs: help with rent and school fees, food, medicine and hospital costs.
Lattouf attests to blessings despite the frustrations experienced by the religious.
“Sometimes we feel like we can’t handle everything. But we still believe that God’s presence is with us, that he will take care of things,” Lattouf told CNS.
The explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 has further strengthened the unity of the informal group, and members continue to help the families of victims and those affected by the explosion as well as advocating for justice.
There is still no justice or accountability for the disaster, which has killed more than 219 people, injured more than 7,000 and displaced more than 300,000.
After the explosion, Tawk established Mary’s Kitchen in a small garage in a neighborhood about 500 feet from the harbor. As more and more people fall into poverty, the initiative has grown and is now preparing 900 hot meals a day for four distribution areas in Beirut.
The walls of Mary’s Kitchen are adorned with photos of those who lost their lives in the explosion. “It’s not just a kitchen,” Tawk said. “It is a place of conviviality, fraternity, a place of listening.
The 15 priests and nuns of the Church for Lebanon gather for weekly meetings.
“We discuss political issues, social issues and how we can be a sanctified presence among the people,” Tawk explained.
Despite the different religious traditions of their Catholic rites and their different political opinions, the group is united by a common goal of helping the suffering population of Lebanon.
“We are going through a very miserable situation. But we believe there is light at the end of this tunnel. We believe in resurrection,” Tawk said.