Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Les Restaurants du Coeur

Setting: Rue Montparnasse around 9:15 pm. The sun still sits high in the sky, but a cool breeze runs through the streets as vendors leave their boutiques and grocery stores. The cafes are just starting to light up, while people chat quietly over wine and cheese plates. I cross the street diagonally when I see the ATM I desperately need to visit after four days of being without a single Euro. I see a few people standing in line, patiently clutching their debit cards like they would clutch a new born, casting sideways glances every few seconds at the homeless man sitting on the windowsill nearly five feet from the ATM.

He must be about 45 years old with long wirey hair that stands on end, mostly a dark grey color with some shades of salt and pepper. His beard is basically the same, long and wirey with a blend of darker grey shades. He's wearing old nikes that are starting to tear at the toes, a pair of ripped light blue jeans and a navy blue jacket you would most likely wear at the end of winter or early spring. Normally I would probably behave just as the others in front of me were behaving-- a little fearful that he would beg for money or approach me while at the machine, with no where to run. But tonight I notice something else. A group of people hopping out of a small mini-van and approaching the man. A tiny bumpersticker on the back of the van's window reads: Les Restaurants du Coeur.

I'm a little confused, so I take my time walking up to the ATM so I can try to watch the scene unfold. Were they intervening psychologists helping the homeless? Were they escorting people to a soup kitchen? Or were they just counselors? No, none of the above. They were just four or five people standing around the homeless man carrying on a conversation. They asked him about his life, if he had any family, and what he liked to do with his time. But then I noticed a plastic bag sitting next the man on the windowsill. The bag had a label identical to the bumpersticker on the van. My answer had arrived: the group was delivering food to the needy.

I should have realized when I saw the van park abruptly, turn on its hazards and the group hop out to greet him. But by this point I am so amazed that a group of people have stopped what they were doing to give this man a meal. All I can think about is driving around Miami with two extra pizzas from the SAAC Meeting, looking for a needy-person to give them to. And then I think about how touched the woman we found on US-1 was to receive such a big meal from a passing car. And even though we didn't even stop to chat, I remember seeing her eyes lit up and a smile beginning to form as she thanked us and yelled "God Bless You!".

I was moved to see that an organization exists in France doing just what I've always wanted to do, change the world one heart at a time. Maybe the man receiving the food was used to such a service by now, or maybe it really did touch him that someone was reaching out to a man who was just down on his luck.

When I returned to the apartment, still wearing a grin the size of Texas, I plopped down on my bed and opened up my two best online friends, Google & Wikipedia. I found out the organization began in 1985 by a comedian by the name of Coluche and it now consists of one national organization and over 100 other specialized departments. Everyone is a volunteer and the organization accepts donations for buying food and delivering it to the needy. The volunteers are not only trained for interactions with the people, but they are trained to welcome people who may or may not be ready for help, performing culturally productive activties to reintroduce people into the community, and even managing one of the travelling restaurants. The donors, both big and small, are also given a tax break. Currently the service project has spread to Belgium and Germany where it has been growing for a few years.

Two hours later I am still amazed at how giving some people can be. For me, I would rather give someone a sandwich or a cup of hot soup, than to just drop my cold pennies into their cup. I know money rules the world, but you don't invite friends over to give them money to go to McDonalds for a snack wrap. You invite them over to give them something more, some kind of nourishment. And its not just a physical nourishment, it's an act of consciously giving to someone and in my eyes that is much more meaningful.

So no, I don't drop pennies into beggars' hats. I cross the street, buy a few croissants for the same amount of change I would've dropped in a cup, and dodge traffic once again. Then I squat down or do whatever I need to do to be at their eye level, and let them know I'm there for human interaction. To let them know they don't need to bow their heads in shame because they live on a street while I live in a house, and drive a car. For that one moment in time I set aside from my own personal agenda, when I'm giving them something they truly need, I want them to know it comes from a human being who empathizes with their situation. My wish is that they see they're not alone on this planet. There is such thing as a human being who truly cares.

And that's why I was so inspired by the company's purpose and how the volunteers interacted so generously with the man. Whether or not he realizes their compassion, I do. And I only hope to be as inspiring for someone else one day.