100,000 Fires to Feed: Roshi Michel Genko Dubois’ Twenty years of Homelessness Ministry in Paris
Roshi Michel Dubois, founder and teacher at Zen – A Way of the Heart center in Paris, describes how spending a night among the homeless of Dusseldorf gave rise to a social enterprise serving its 100,000th meal this year to the homeless in Paris. Michel has engaged with bearing witness retreats for years, and his experience in Auschwitz, Bosnia-Herzegovina and with the Lakota on Turtle Island give a wider context to his ministry.
FIRST STREET RETREAT WITH ZEN PEACEMAKERS
PARIS, FRANCE. The first Street Retreat I joined was in October 1997 with Bernie Glassman, in Köln and Dusseldorf. Eve Marko, Grover Genro Gauntt, Heinz-Jürgen Metzger, Marzena Rey, and Catherine Genno Pagès, my better half, were there. (Many of these people have now become Zen teachers.) That was in Dusseldorf, during that retreat, that I got the idea to prepare and serve meals for the homeless people. There were so many delightful and magic moments during that retreat. Frank De Waele was with us, and I discovered that he was a really good beggar. One morning we were going to walk to Dusseldorf and I joked, “Frank, I want pizza for lunch” and we started to walk. A few hours later I find myself with Bernie in the middle of the countryside, when suddenly it starts raining. So we start walking faster towards a restaurant, 300 or 400 meters down the road. And it happened to be an Italian restaurant. We take shelter under the porch and suddenly Frank comes out of the restaurant, and says, “We’re all invited inside for pizza.” The owner of the pizza parlor was a Sicilian man who was very happy to treat us. Frank had come in asking for some rice and some bread, and the owner said, “We don’t have rice. This is a pizza place; do you want pizza? I can make pizza for you!” “There are 14 of us,” Frank replied, and the owner said, “It’s okay, bring them all in,” and that was it. We sat and ate. We also talked with the other guests and told them what we were doing and the Sicilian owner brought us pizza and he served us desserts. That was a very sweet moment.
THE IDEA GROWS
The following day, same street retreat, we ate at a soup kitchen in Dusseldorf. I liked the way we were treated. We waited for a long time and they had us come in small groups. And finally, we sat at a table with napkins and real plates—not plastic—and real knives and forks. We were served a very nice meal. We had to eat very fast, you know, five minutes under the sun. But it was nice: being a real guest for five minutes, in a real house. And I think the inspiration came from that moment. It was not food for the poor, but a meal for guests.
I don’t know if I wanted to start a soup kitchen but I had an idea that I wanted to distribute meals to the homeless. And so back in France, I got involved, I went to a big organization that was close to my house, and a social worker said, “Oh you know, we have this small organization, we let them use our cellar and they distribute food to people with HIV.” It was called “Food Project.” I joined that organization. And I did that for some time. That was not exactly what I had in mind, but I went to people with HIV and distributed food, fresh vegetables and things like that. And when the organization had its own office, I didn’t have to continue to do that– I didn’t want to be behind a desk. So I went to work for an organization that was distributing meals for the homeless.
MAKING CONNECTIONS, OPENING THE BUSINESS
At that time, Frank de Waele Roshi connected with an organization called La Lumière dans la Rue, “The Light in the Street.” And I did volunteer work for that organization for two and a half years or so. But then we discovered that The Light in the Street had too many dark spots – organizational issues. I had a meeting with a small group of volunteers, Jean Paul Lapeyre, whom I met at La Lumière dans la Rue, and early peacemakers Julien Gabrelle and Emmanuel Ollivier were present. I said: “Instead of going to fight for the control of the organization or to go to court or whatever, let’s not misuse our energy– let’s make another organization.” That’s what we did. In 2003, Jean Paul and I wrote the bylaws of the organization and named it L’Un Est L’Autre, “The One Is the Other”.
I was also part of an organization called Les Morts de la Rue, “Dying people in the Street”, that cares for people who live in the street, provides them funerals when they die and, moreover, informs the press and elected officials to let them know that actually many people are dying from homelessness. Les Morts de la Rue also organizes two yearly ceremonies, one lay and one inter-religious ceremony.
At one point, the people at Les Morts de la Rue said “We’re going to do an inter-religious ceremony at the mosque this year. How about L’Un est L’Autre does the meal?” And I asked, “How many meals?” — “700,” and we said “700? Ok.” And we did. A few days later, we started distributing meals in the street, we did so for a few months. And then I heard of a large room with tables and toilets, where we could distribute meals indoors, at lunchtime during the weekend. It was run by a very large organization called Les Restaurants du Cœur (“The Restaurants of the Heart”) which distributes 130 million meals a year all over Europe. They also provide work training, classes, employment, lodging, etc. But they didn’t serve meals on Saturday and Sunday at lunch. Another organization, called la Chorba, was using the site in the evening. We made an agreement with them that we would distribute meals on Sunday at lunch time, in their dining room. Basically, the goal was to complement the work of the other organizations and serve meals when no other organization did, to fill the hole in the distribution of free meals in the city of Paris. And we did just that. At the time, we made the meals at the Dana Centre (founded by Catherine Genno Pagès, a dharma successor of Genpo Roshi in the lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi) and, once or twice, at my own very small apartment (which turned out to be very hard, especially when the elevator didn’t work and we had to carry massive containers down the stairs). Finally, we decided to prepare all the meals at the Dana Centre, and we did that for about a year. So that’s how L’Un est l’Autre got its start.
We first distributed a hundred meals in the street, and then 150 meals at the site of Les Restaurant du Cœur, and soon enough we had 400 people. We used enormous pots that you could barely carry unless they were empty. They were probably manufactured in the 40s and 50s– nobody uses those things anymore. Soon the Dana Centre kitchen became too small, and we started to prepare the meals in the garden, using gas bottles and gas burners. But after 6 months or so, it became quite difficult for the house. We regularly plugged up the evacuation pipes, and in July 2005, we had to find another place. Eventually, we found a caterer who was willing to lease his kitchen for the weekend. And we started to distribute meals 2 days a week, Saturday and Sunday. By that time, we had some support from the city and from the state but it was a little bit on the edge. I spent most of my weekend—from Friday morning to Sunday evening—going to the Food Bank and Paris wholesale food market, Rungis, cooking, distributing meals, and cleaning.
STORIES FROM THE KITCHEN
One time, when I was distributing meals at Gare du Nord (Northern Station) in 2001, there was a big push in the waiting line toward our table. People were pushing from the back of the line. And I could see that the table upon which we were distributing the meals was about to be overthrown. I got in front of the table. I knew the person who was first in front of the line, and instead of pushing him back with my hands, I pushed him with my chest. We were heart to heart. Suddenly something dropped away. I felt overwhelmed with love…There was a deep sense of light and tenderness.
In 2005, we were serving meals at a big distribution centre, with maybe 350 seats, and suddenly I see a guy jumping the line to go get food directly at the counter. So I go to him and I put my hand on his shoulder, he turns around, and I see a Tibetan. He had come such a long way, I could not send him back to the end of the line. I asked, “You look like a Tibetan” and he said, “I am. And we just got here.” He was with 5 other Tibetan people; it was the first time I saw Tibetan people coming to eat at l’Un Est l’Autre. I sat down with them for a while.
I remember another time, a couple of years later, when I saw Tibetan people and Berber people from Algeria eating couscous together, at the same table. Where else do you see Berber and Tibetans eating couscous together? Another time, I saw a guy coming out after he ate and he had a turban and I started talking with him and I said, “You are Sikh?” and he said, “Yes” and we start talking. We were about the same age. Suddenly, it was like the barrier between us dissolved. There was a moment of recognition and it felt like we were heart against heart. And he took my hands and kissed them and so I did the same.
I had all kinds of experiences and met all kinds of people working with the homeless…I even got punched a few times.
In the place where we distribute food, the organization that distributes dinners doesn’t work on Thursday night. So this year, L’Un Est L’Autre is distributing meals Thursday night, as well as on Saturday and Sunday at lunch. Because of the change, this means we will be serving our 100,000th meal in 2017!
When I started sitting in the 70s, 40 years ago, I felt a big gap between my sitting practice and my relationship with people and with the world. The day I pushed chest up against chest with that man, I discovered that sitting did not depend on a particular posture: it could be right here, standing in a relationship. In a way, it was a very deep sitting. It’s about how do we treat people, how do we treat the world. And not separating formal practice from our relationships. Nowadays, at every sesshin I lead we end by going to a homeless shelter to prepare, serve, and share a meal.
With the influx of refugees, L’UN EST L’AUTRE NEEDS YOUR HELP! 1€ is a meal. If you want to help L’UN EST L’AUTRE you can do so here.
Michel Dubois, Roshi is a teacher and founding member within the Zen Peacemakers, and cofounder of the “L’Un Est L’Autre” (The One Is The Other) humanitarian organization, which distributes meals to the needy in Paris. He currently teaches Zen at the Dana Zen Center at Montreuil, suburban Paris, and regularly leads retreats in France and Catalonia, Spain. He has a small organization called Zen – A Way of the Heart, where he holds sesshin, organizes street retreats, and organizes social work in partnership with L’Un Est L’Autre and the Salvation Army. For more information, to attend a retreat with Roshi Dubois, or to get involved with L’Un Est L’Autre, visit Zen Way of the Heart’s website.