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Thursday, July 25, 2024
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A place where hungry hearts can be restored

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Bishop Daniel Meagher enjoying a meal with a group of diners at the OzHarvest restaurant. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Looking out at the cold park bench below his Surry Hills window, invariably a figure is perched on it.

Cold, hungry, and lonely, he knows it’s where they will be spending the night. Dimly illuminated by a nearby streetlight, it offers the only refuge from the elements for some of Sydney’s lost souls who call the street home.

He throws on a jacket, takes down a warm beverage, something to eat and brings a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes he stays for a few minutes, other times a couple of hours, but once he’s sure they have what they need, makes his way quietly back to his room.

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He knows the next morning they’ll be gone, and probably never seen again, but says simply with a smile “welcome to the life of street ministry.”

Daniel Meagher has been a vocal advocate for the homeless for most of his life and can’t imagine being too far away from those living on the margins, even after his consecration as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney in December 2021.

Born in the NSW Riverina town of West Wyalong, his family left their farm to settle in Sydney to run hotels when he was just a baby.

One of six children, he and his siblings all worked in pubs with his parents, which is where he’s sure he learned to deal with people from all walks of life.

He went on to study economics and law at the University of Sydney and it was during these years he felt a strong calling to serve the marginalised, volunteering at the Mathew Talbot Hostel for homeless men and the local St Vincent De Paul conference at St Canice’s in Rushcutters Bay.

David’s Place Sue Buckingham, centre, breaking bread with Mary and Joe. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

After an early career as a lawyer, he entered St Patrick’s Seminary at Manly and since his ordination in 1995 has ministered at 10 parishes, including Mt Pritchard, Mosman, Gymea, Hoxton Park, Broken Hill and Five Dock.

Reflecting on his more than 25 years’ service to the Archdiocese of Sydney, including six as Rector of the Good Shepherd Seminary at Homebush, he said it’s without a doubt all about the vocation, not the location.

No matter where he’s been called, he said his life-long love of the poor has made him spiritually wealthy. “I am deeply attracted to being close to people on the margins because I find it helps me come much closer to God,” he said.

“It’s a great foundation for me now as a bishop. My 9-5 might take me to all sorts of meetings with all kinds of issues and problems but then there are those people who are just living day-to-day, on the streets.

“When I look out at the bench just outside my window here in Surry Hills there’s often someone who is going to spend the night on it and so I’ll go down and spend some time with them.

“Whatever I’m dealing with on my computer, maybe emailing or researching, I can still get in touch with real life and real people right outside my door. I can offer them a coffee and a cake and sit down and be present with them. It keeps me grounded to be with people who really only want the simplest things in life.

“While I can’t invite them all in, I think they appreciate me staying out there and spending time with them.

“Despite my many meetings and other duties now as a bishop, I still spend as much time as I can ministering to the homeless, travelling down to parks around Central where they congregate.

Reffettorio OzHarvest manager Nicole Khoury chats with Bishop Daniel Meagher. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“I have got to know a lot of people living in the housing commission areas and am attracted to that because I find that by being close to people on the margins, I come much closer to God.”

Before heading off to Portugal for World Youth Day with Sydney’s largest ever contingent of young Catholics, Bishop Meagher had the opportunity to break bread with some of them, taking time to feed not only the body but the soul.

The Catholic Weekly hosted a lunch for him and some “locals” at Refettorio OzHarvest, an Australian-first, social impact restaurant in Sydney.

And as Bishop Meagher said was inevitably the case in ministry, you never know quite what to expect—or in this case, who or how many.

Once word had gotten out that not only was there a free meal on offer but that the bishop was hosting, people flocked to the venue. Lined up in their Sunday best half an hour before the booking, more than 20 diners and one dog waited patiently to be seated—quite a few more than we expected, which the restaurant took in its stride.

Dividing the meals to ensure everyone got fed, they enjoyed a three-course menu starting with sunflower seed hummus, tempura zucchini, smashed sesame cucumber and spiced oil, followed by a main course consisting of Mexican tomato red rice, red peppers, corn, fried wontons, sour cream, chipotle smoky black beans, herb salad and finishing with glazed strawberries, ginger crème pastissiere, shortcrust pastry and baby meringue.

While a few of the diners at the vegetarian restaurant were left scratching their heads about where the meat was, all agreed the food and company was something they will never forget.

Refettorio comes from the Latin reficere, meaning to “restore” and was the name given to a place where monks gathered to share their daily meal.

The brainchild of Massimo Bottura, one of the world’s most respected chefs and founder of three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, it’s the latest in a string of refettorios in Paris, Milan, London, Lima and Rio.

Mr Bottura said he wanted to focus on rescuing food to make delicious meals from what would otherwise be thrown away, and to show that hospitality and welcome can be just as important as what you serve at the table.

Everything in the Surry Hills restaurant was donated, from the 100-year-old building down to the artworks, cutlery, decor and coffee machines, and is staffed completely by volunteers.

The not-for-profit Crown Street Surry Hills cafe serves three-course meals to Sydney’s vulnerable communities. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

By day, the not-for-profit Crown Street café serves nourishing three-course lunches to Sydney’s vulnerable communities, and then by night opens its doors to the public, where every ticket pays for four people in need to dine the following day.

Out of respect to its daytime guests, some of whom struggle with substance and alcohol abuse, the restaurant doesn’t serve alcoholic beverages or permit BYO, instead offering house-made zero waste fruit drinks, non-alcoholic beers, tea and coffee.

Based on its zero-waste philosophy, rescued ingredients from supermarkets, restaurants, and catering companies are transformed by chefs into gourmet vegetarian meals with the menu changing weekly.

Restaurant manager Nicole Khoury said the restaurant not only fills people’s bellies but their hearts. “Our space brings people together by offering them a warm, nourishing three-course free meal served with dignity and respect,” she said. “Anyone can walk through the door, no questions asked.

“It’s so much more than just a meal; it’s about fostering conversations, providing comfort, making connections, and building a strong sense of community. I come to work every day knowing what we do here makes a lasting difference.”

Bishop Meagher said feeding those on the margins was a real privilege but being able to take them for a three-course dining experience was something very special.

“I am so grateful to OzHarvest for having us all for lunch,” he said. “I recognised quite a few people at the restaurant, so they are obviously doing great work.

“It was lovely to be with those in need, enjoy their company and listen to their stories.

“So many of them are people who struggle all their lives with various disabilities, addictions, and mental health issues. They are lonely and afraid, so it was such a joy to spend some time together and be affirmed with friends.

“These people are not used to being served, let alone enjoy a top notch three course meal. Giving them the opportunity to sit and relax, being made feel special and be treated with dignity and respect was lovely.

“The volunteers were terrific, there was lots of shouting and laughing, and they all just took it in their stride. One of the fellows even brought his dog, who sat outside the eatery and waited patiently for him to finish his meal.

“It was such a lovely opportunity to see how much they all enjoyed being together, with a beautiful lunch and perhaps forget about their challenges and hardships if only for a little while.”

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