Often when Joëlle Siedel leaves her apartment in southern France, she must step around a homeless man sitting aimlessly on her doorstep. Another, often inebriated, calls after her lewdly as she crosses his square. 30 yards from her building, Joëlle passes a gypsy woman sitting propped against a building with a child across her lap imploring, “Mademoiselle, s’il vous plaît...”
It’s a daily emotional pull.
Joëlle, who was raised in a Christian family and studied occupational therapy in Montpellier, continually cultivates relationships with her peers. Some aren’t ready to talk about such a personal issue as faith, nor frankly, ever think of it. But who have all, like Joëlle, encountered the homeless folks around them and want to help.
Around 10 years ago, French staff members decided to marry the country’s spiritual needs with the physical ones.
They created the outreach “J’ai Faim” (I’m Hungry) as a response to the poverty in the city while bringing non-believing students along.
This initiative began in Paris and spread to other cities such as Toulouse, Rennes and Lyon.
In Montpellier, 15-20 students and staff members like Joëlle gather quarterly to assemble ham sandwiches on soft bread (the homeless often have dental issues), coupled with bananas, a bottle of water, and homemade soup carried in thermoses.
Then they divide into small groups seeking out folks on the downtown streets, sometimes bringing fresh socks and even dog biscuits for the homeless folks’ faithful companions.
“It’s an encouragement for our Christian students to grow with God in leaving their comfort zone,” says Joëlle. “And it’s fairly common that non-Christian students are sensitive to humanitarian issues. So it’s an excellent opportunity to invite them to come with us. We can discuss our motivations, that we do it for the glory of God.”
A few months back, Joëlle did just that – inviting her friend, Emilie, a nursing student. As their group of 4 encountered 2 men, food was distributed and 2 conversations ensued. One turned bawdy, the other spiritual. Emilie listened in as Joëlle expressed some biblical truths and heard the young man’s frustrations.
At times, drunkenness or the prevalence of mental illness can make communication during J’ai Faim difficult. And since the homeless also drift in from other parts of Europe, graduate student Benjamin Guibal has needed to use his Spanish skills, and French intern Julien Grenier has conversed in Romanian.
But periodically, the gesture of free food, hot coffee and warm smiles have to stand alone. On one such night, the despondent state of a foreign traveler caused Benjamin to reflect, “He and I are the same age. Why is he the one homeless and not me?”
Later the students regroup, eat leftover sandwiches together, recount their conversations and play games. Emilie, Joëlle’s friend, was able to witness biblical compassion in action and get to know some of the Christians in the group.
“Above and beyond the aspect of physical needs, I am sensitized to the spiritual needs of these people,” remarks Joëlle. “And regardless if it’s our university friends or homeless people, their primary need is ultimately that of knowing Jesus.”
At a later date, Emilie asked Joëlle some questions, and Joëlle was able to explain the gospel message.
That’s a double bounce with a French twist.
The Cru (Agapé France) team in Montpellier is planning their next J’ai Faim outreach for January 18.