For almost one week leading up to Christmas, St. John the Merciful Table in Zahleh, Lebanon, was transformed into a Santa’s workshop of sorts. Five staff and more than 15 volunteers of all ages worked with the energy and enthusiasm of little elves, from early morning until late at night, to prepare Christmas meals for more than 1,500 people.
Lebanon’s current devastating economic conditions and soaring food prices deprived more families than usual from enjoying a Christmas dinner.
To meet this increased need, staff and volunteers at St. John the Merciful Table bought the necessary ingredients and worked in small teams — washing vegetables, cooking meat and preparing rice in a synchronized way — so that the Christmas meals would be ready on time. Starting at 6 p.m. on Christmas Day, staff and volunteers distributed the meals door-to-door to the marginalized, the elderly, refugees, families in need and those quarantined due to COVID-19.
The Christmas meals were funded in part by CNEWA, which has been supporting the center for the past two years, in cooperation with the Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Zahleh.
St. John the Merciful Table is a charity restaurant, which began by serving hot meals daily to about 500 people. Zahleh is located about 15 miles from the Syrian border and St. John the Merciful Table serves both Syrian refugees and local Lebanese families in need.
However, the center has been serving between 1,200 and 1,500 families daily since Lebanon’s economic crash. This past year, Lebanon’s currency devalued by 80 percent, the unemployment rate has exceeded 50 percent, and more than half of the population is living below the poverty line.
The center is named for St. John the Merciful (c. 552- c. 620), patriarch of Alexandria, known for his gentleness, charity, zeal for fasting and prayer, and great love for others. It is directed by a priest, who is assisted by a small staff and numerous volunteers.
Michel Constantin is CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.