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May 18, 2007 / missallaneous

The Other Side of Rome

I’ve had the privilege over the last 2 weeks of experiencing a side of Rome that’s rarely seen and easily ignored – especially by visiting tourists. In a Trastevere soup kitchen run by a community called San Egidio, I met some of the poor and the homeless of the city.

What a great place :) Every Wednesday and Friday, this group of Catholic believers come together to serve the poor of their community by providing their dinner. It’s a great concept: This soup kitchen is less like a soup kitchen and more like a restaurant, intended to make its dinner guests feel welcome, relaxed, and special. Volunteers, most of them from the community of San Egidio, are each assigned a table and are responsible for waiting on those who sit there.

It’s a chaotic affair, serving about 1000 people each night, but what’s amazing to me is how dedicated these volunteers are to their ministry… and how happily they attend to even the minutest tasks and zero-glory details: emptying out rubbish bins, portioning out food, waiting tables, and serving those who come in.

We took orders, filled glasses, and served each guest a simple but full meal of bread, fruit, a primo pasta or soup, and a secondo meat. I was terrified I was gonna forget orders, get dishes mixed up, or worse… spill food on someone :P

I didn’t! (Hurray!!)  But even better than not spilling, I got to meet some of the forgotten of my community right here on Via della Lungaretta. Through broken Italian and broken English, I got to serve some of the hungriest and talk to some of the most grateful people I’ve ever met. I got to meet local volunteers who, on a regular basis, serve those less fortunate than themselves because they believe in the Gospel and actually feel an urgent need to live out their faith. What a crazy concept, huh? :)

The community of San Egidio began as a hippie-esque experiment in the ‘60s here in Rome. Founded by an 18-year-old, Andrea Riccardi was young, idealistic, and a somewhat disgruntled Catholic. He believed that his faith actually meant something. If Jesus spent His life serving the littlest, the least, and the lonely owning nothing more than the sandals on His feet, then shouldn’t those who believed in the Gospel be following in the footsteps of their Lord? For Riccardi this service-based community began as an experiment: He wanted to see if the Gospel could really change the world.

San Egidio is now an international community with volunteers from all over the world, with communities set up all over the globe. Regular people with families and daily jobs live their lives as if the Gospel matters and spend regular hours of their free time serving the poor within their communities. Some go further, their endeavours including peace negotiations in the Middle East and AIDS work in Africa. While we were meeting with one of the San Egidio coordinators in the church’s cloister, a bell rang and he held up a finger to his lips saying, “One minute of silence, please. At 6pm every day, any one who’s around the area says a prayer for the poor”. Paolo explained that though their mission is to act out their faith by serving the poor, their most fundamental focus as a community is prayer.

It floored me. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Despite all the work that’s to be done and the largeness of the issues that face them, these people still simply bow their heads each day and acknowledge Who it is they serve, and remember the One who provides them the opportunity and the strength to care for people who would probably never return the favour.

Today I saw another side of Rome. It wasn’t designed by Bernini, had no gold-leaf mosaics, shiny domes, or colossal Corinthian columns. But it was incredible.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. zoku / May 20 2007 5:20 pm

    dang. that’s cool.

  2. fie / May 23 2007 5:29 am

    hey you. nope, don’t know how to comment without having to sign up. see ya home soon. we’ll hit em’ lounges and nicenice jazz places yeh!

  3. tsub / May 30 2007 10:58 pm

    i miss you! you’re overdue for an update :)

  4. Liz / Mar 8 2008 11:24 am

    Hello! I’m not sure if or when you’ll get this, but I am wondering how to get hooked up with volunteering with Sant’Egidio when I visit Rome this month. They are a wonderful organization. If you don’t mind, please leave a note on my blog: religiousimagination.blogspot.com. Thank you!

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