, Madrid, Spain, Dec 4 – It is early evening at a restaurant in central Madrid and Jose Silva sits down for a meal of rice, meatballs and vegetables as waiters flit from one table to another.
All very normal, except for one crucial detail: Silva, 42, cannot afford to pay.
He lives rough under the platform of a cable car station in Madrid’s sprawling Casa del Campo park, one of dozens of homeless people who have started dining for free at the “Robin Hood” restaurant that opened this week.
The project is the brainchild of the “Messengers of Peace” association, led by Angel Garcia, a 79-year-old rebel priest with a thick head of white hair and kindly smile known for his charity work and alternative church.
By day, the restaurant charges regular customers for breakfast and lunch with an 11-euro ($11.7) menu, subsidising the same meal for the homeless at night, even if the association will likely have to step in with some funds.
Garcia has plans for three more such eateries in Madrid and other parts of Spain, where one in five people live close to the poverty line after a devastating economic crisis.
– ‘Dignity’ –
“It’s really good,” says Silva as he cuts up his meatballs, sporting a “GAP” sweatshirt he got as a handout — a welcome improvement, he adds, from the cold sandwich he usually has for dinner at the nearby Catholic church of Father Angel, as Garcia is known.
Once finished, he walks out of the warm eatery with its interior brick wall and chandeliers, back into the December cold.
As he leaves, others enter the 50-seat restaurant, some parking their trolleys in front of the bar at the entrance before sitting at tables with white tablecloths and red napkins.
“It’s about giving more dignity to the people who need it,” Garcia tells AFP days before the restaurant opening, sitting dressed in a smart suit in his San Anton Church in Chueca, the capital’s gay district.
Next to him, homeless or cash-strapped men and women drink hot coffee and munch on pastries for breakfast.
They will likely come back later, when the church serves sandwiches, soup and fruit for some 200 people every evening.
“Up until now, people would queue in the street to get dinner, in the cold and rain,” says Garcia.
“So we asked ourselves why we couldn’t do this in a restaurant.” And “Robin Hood” was born.
– An alternative church –
The restaurant runs two services for the homeless, enough for 100 diners who come from the crowd that normally gets food at the church.
The church itself has become an institution since Garcia took over last year with the firm belief it should be open to anyone, from any religion.
Not only does it serve the homeless food on pews covered with white cloths, but it also broadcasts the Pope’s appearances on television screens, as well as football matches.
Last year’s nativity scene featured a figurine of Aylan Kurdi — the three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach and caused a global commotion — as baby Jesus, to emphasise the plight of refugees.
Garcia himself baptises the children of same-sex couples, which has earned him a steady stream of visitors from all over the country, on top of those who regularly go to mass.
“More than 1,000 people come through every day,” he says.
– Making Franco cry –
The association, meanwhile, goes far beyond running the church and new restaurant.
Horrified by the treatment of children in orphanages, Garcia founded “Messengers of Peace” in 1962 in his mid-twenties, with a view of creating welcoming homes for abandoned kids.
From there, the association grew and started looking after young people with AIDS or addictions, disabled children, women who suffered domestic violence and the elderly.
Funded by a mix of donations, subsidies and income earned from some of its ventures, it also provides humanitarian aid abroad and employs close to 4,000 people, with 4,200 more helping as volunteers.
Over the years, the softly-spoken Garcia has accumulated a legion of stories, like the time he met Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco in his constant search for funds… and made him cry.
“He asked us what ‘Messengers of Peace’ did, and I said it was for children whose parents had abandoned them, or weren’t married or in prison,” he recalls.
“I saw some tears — he was old by then, this was two or three years before he died — and he told me ‘I was one of those children, because my parents separated’.
“It’s moving to see an old man recognising he was one of those children, especially dressed in military garb as he was.”