BEIRUT (CNS) — 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 50-square-foot 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 neighborhood: a constant chorus of honking horns 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.
“I love coming here because my children are happy here. We come every day,” Khalil told Catholic News Service as she enjoyed her plate of okra stew served on a bed of rice with a salad.
“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,” Khalil told CNS. The Muslim woman and her family, all refugees, have been in Lebanon for nearly four years.
Khalil’s two sons and daughter, ranging in age from 6 to 10, left their mother’s side as soon as they finished eating. Observing them playing and chatting with the Joy of Heaven volunteers who affectionately doted upon the children, she said, “They are like our second family.”
Such outreach to the needy exemplifies the mission of the Joy of Heaven (“Bonheur Du Ciel”) charity, founded in 2002 by Father 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 told CNS: “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, Father Majdi emphasized, “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.”
When he visits the restaurant, Father Majdi is in constant motion, whether washing dishes, blessing people or unloading donated deliveries of food from individuals and businesses. As with all the charity’s projects, the Joy of Heaven serves everyone, regardless of religion or nationality.
“Father 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, the aroma of sauteed onions wafting out into the street. “Our goal is to give happiness to the people, not only to serve them food.”
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.
“Losing a child is the most difficult thing to go through. But when I started volunteering at the Joy of Heaven, I changed dramatically, and I believe at least 70 percent of my healing came from this organization,” Haber said.
“Father 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.
One-third of Lebanese live below the poverty line. The existing population of about 4 million — of whom approximately 40 percent are Christian — has swelled by the presence of nearly 2 million Syrian refugees.
The Joy of Heaven projects include two drug rehabilitation centers, with a focus on healing through prayer; a center for delinquent children; a safehouse for abused women; a home for the disabled; a home for the homeless; an orphanage; a club for the elderly and even a hair salon. In October, it opened a school named for St. Teresa of Kolkata.
At the restaurant, charity prevails, even among the customers.
A guest stands up and offers his seat to a man who arrives on crutches. But the amputee humbly declines by bowing his head and pressing his hand to his chest and, instead, takes a place leaning against a concrete roadblock with some other latecomers to be served lunch.
Mohammad, 13, upon noticing the arrival of one of his friends, assumes the role of waiter and serves the newcomer, still seated on his bicycle, then rushes back to the kitchen counter to get a second serving for himself. The two Syrian boys are daily customers of the Joy of Heaven, a welcome break from their jobs in bakeries.
Hrant Atashian, an 85-year-old Armenian Orthodox widower whose children live abroad, has been coming daily to the restaurant since the beginning of the summer. “Father Majdi is giving us the food and the volunteers are serving us with such love,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
That’s part of the draw of the Joy of Heaven.
“There are people who tell us they come here to see us smiling, because they have no one to talk to,” said volunteer Jennifer Mardini, 21, who is studying for her master’s degree in landscape engineering at Lebanese University. “Especially when I see the kids and elderly people smiling, I feel closer to God.”