BEIRUT – With the speed and dexterity of a professional chef, Maronite Father Hani Tawk chops – first 65 pounds worth of onions – for a vegetable stew.
"I never cooked before this," he admits.
With his new-found skills and the help of a small team of volunteers, the priest prepares nearly 600 meals five days a week for those in need in blast-stricken Beirut.
Together they work in a cinderblock and concrete space, not much larger than the size of a double garage, in the Karantina section of Beirut – a low-income, semi-industrial neighborhood just 500 feet from the site of the apocalyptic blast at the port Aug. 4.
Considered one of the most powerful nonnuclear explosions in global history, the Beirut disaster killed 200 people, injured more than 6,500 and left 300,000 people homeless.
Nearly four months after the tragedy, Karantina still looks like a war zone. Some buildings are partially collapsed; others are missing windows. A crushed car, covered in layers of ash-like dust, seems to be frozen in the street like a tombstone.
Father Tawk is blunt about Lebanon's plight: "Now we are in hell," he told Catholic News Service. "But I believe that from this catastrophic situation, we can have new life, like the resurrection of Jesus. We have this flame of light, which is Jesus. And with this flame we will continue."
The blast was the last straw for the Lebanese, as the country struggles with its worst economic crisis in modern history. Unemployment exceeds 30% and poverty is now a reality for more than 50% of the population.
Amid so much suffering, Advent takes on a special meaning this year in Lebanon.
"It's like we are preparing the way for Jesus' coming: in our hearts, in our life," Father Tawk said, citing Matthew 25: "'For I was hungry and you gave me food ... a stranger and you welcomed me.'"
For his feeding mission, Father Tawk has formed an organization, "Our Roots – Together for Life."
The hot meal initiative began as a family project the day after the blast. Father Tawk is married; in many Eastern Catholic rites, priests may marry.
Father Tawk, his wife and four children, ages 8-16, set up on a street in Karantina, cooking in the open air, at first serving about 150 people.
"We felt that it was a time to be with the people, to help them," he said of his family's motivation.
"In Lebanon, we feel like we are orphans, since we don't have a government that is taking care of its people," Father Tawk said. "So, we have to do what we can to help each other."
Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch, met with Pope Francis Nov. 28 and told him that in the fallout from the explosion, Lebanon's authorities "have shown no solidarity or responsibility." Cardinal Rai likewise praised the "great work" carried out after the disaster by volunteers who helped the affected families.
The current meal preparation space in a warehouse building was offered to Father Tawk by the owner a few weeks after the project began. "It was a miracle of providence," the priest told CNS.
In time for his children to return to school, Father Tawk attracted a team of volunteers.
Aside from local residents, there are four young adults from France who have donated their time with the French Catholic charity L'Oeuvre d'Orient, which helps Christians in the Middle East. Father Tawk's initiative is funded 80% by the charity, the rest by private donors.
Initially, the priest thought the project would last just a few months, but the needs of the Lebanese keep increasing as more slip into poverty.
"This is not a kitchen or a restaurant," Father Tawk said. "This is a place for conviviality, fraternity, love and acceptance."
Around a simple plastic table, the crew peeled and cut the vegetables, chatting and laughing together. Cooking is carried out on huge pots atop single burners on the concrete floor, fueled by propane gas canisters.
"I come here every day. I want to help," said 45-year-old Ibrahim "Bob" Hazra, a volunteer with Down syndrome. "It is hard work, but I love it."
"My mother is with Jesus (in heaven). But here is like a family for me."
"He is always beside me," Father Tawk said, as Hazra carefully cut a zucchini. The priest encouraged him with a smile, telling him, "Good work."
"We're all learning cooking skills together," the priest added.
Juliette and Antoine Oudim, both 28, had taken a hiatus from their corporate careers in marketing and IT engineering, respectively, to do humanitarian work.
Knowing that there is an extensive population of Lebanese in Paris, the couple felt pushed by a feeling of solidarity.
"We thought, we need to be there (in Beirut)," said Juliette Oudim.
"We wanted to answer to the call of the Catholic Church," Antoine Oudim said. "I like to think that the church is one, universal church. So we need to take care of the Christians that need us abroad."
"In France, we are used to planning everything. We schedule. We organize. But the people devastated by the explosion live moment by moment," he added.
By 1 p.m., the meal is ready for serving in individual take-out containers. Father Tawk ladles the aromatic stew over steaming rice, as Hazra sprinkles salt and pepper on each portion.
Fadia Trad, a 58-year-old accounting professional, home from work during a coronavirus lockdown, waited patiently to obtain meals for herself and her two neighbors. Their kitchens were damaged in the blast.
"This is a big help for us. The food is delicious, and they are very generous," she said. "Anyone can come here. The priest serves everyone – Christian and Muslim."
Making deliveries on foot to elderly residents nearby, Antoine Oudim pointed out, "they receive you at home like you are their friend. They are so precious."
Emile Abou Nahme, 76, greeted the volunteer from his small house. Its damaged front door had already been fixed and painted a fresh blue by young volunteers after the blast. With a smile, Nahme first reached for an icon of Mary holding baby Jesus before accepting the meal.
"May they protect you. Thank you," he told Antoine Oudim.