In the Lebanese crisis, religious are also acting as auxiliary and social workers

BEIRUT – As Lebanon collapses under a socio-economic crisis, religious in Lebanon are taking on the role of auxiliaries and social workers.

“We cannot be a real priest, a real presence of Jesus Christ, without helping people. Otherwise we are just an official of the Church,” Maronite Father Hani Tawk told Catholic News Service.

“We are missionary workers because we see our Lord Jesus Christ in the face of every family, every person that we meet,” said Father Tawk, a member of the informal group Church for Lebanon, which includes 15 priests and a nun of three Catholic rites : Maronite, Latin and Melkite.

“We made this decision to be with the people, to help them, to support them and to seek justice,” Father Tawk said.

Her union’s roots date back to the October 2019 mass uprising in Lebanon against a corrupt government; during this time some of the priests met on the street.

Gradually they began to meet. As the Lebanese economy began to collapse, individual and collective aid initiatives began.

Jesuit Father Gabriel Khairallah, with a team of volunteers including the Circle of Catholic Youth, organized the distribution of hot meals and food packages and set up a health clinic and pharmacy.

What began in 2019 with 25 hot meals a day has now grown to 260 a day. And from 30 weekly grocery boxes in 2019, the initiative is now delivering around 300 a week.

The rise reflects the emergence of the “new poor” in Lebanon, Father Khairallah said.

Since 2019, the Lebanese currency has depreciated by more than 90% and food prices have risen by more than 1,870%. Poverty is now a reality for almost 80% of the population in what was once considered a middle-income country.

“More and more people are in need,” said Father Khairallah.

“They have lost their purchasing power. People are unable to afford basic necessities. It hurts so much to see the loss of human dignity,” said Father Khairallah.

“I now also see my mission as a priest as comforting people, listening to them,” the Jesuit noted as they shared their burdens, adding that many Lebanese religious are trying to develop listening and counseling ministries.

“People feel that the church is the place where they can be helped and where they can share their pain,” said Maronite Father Tony Lattouf, a group member and pastor of Our Lady of Assumption Church in Rabweh, a formerly bourgeois area north of Beirut.

As living conditions in Lebanon deteriorate, communities face the challenge of helping families with a variety of needs: rent and school fees, food, medicine and hospital fees.

Father Lattouf attested blessings despite the frustrations of the religious.

“Sometimes we feel like we can’t handle everything. But we always believe that the presence of God is with us, that he will take care of things,” Father Lattouf told CNS.

The Beirut Port blast in August 2020 further strengthened the unity of the informal group, and members continue to help families of the victims and those affected by the blast and campaign for justice.

There has yet to be justice or accountability for the disaster that killed more than 219 people, injured more than 7,000 and displaced more than 300,000.

After the explosion, Father Tawk set up Mary’s Kitchen in a small garage in a neighborhood about 500 feet from the port. As more and more people slide into poverty, the initiative has grown and currently prepares 900 hot meals a day for four distribution areas in Beirut.

The walls of Mary’s Kitchen are adorned with photos of people who died in the blast. “It’s not just a kitchen,” Father Tawk said. “It is a center of conviviality, of brotherhood, a home of listening.”

The 15 priests and nuns of the Church for Lebanon meet for weekly meetings.

“We discuss political issues, social issues and how to be a sacred presence among the people,” explained Father Tawk.

Despite different religious traditions, their Catholic rites and different political views, the group is united by the common goal of helping the people of Lebanon in need.

“We are going through a very miserable situation. But we believe there is light at the end of this tunnel. We believe in the resurrection,” Father Tawk said.

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