Bottom Reaching Up!

To see Vikash is to know immediately that he has Indian blood. He comes from the Mauritius Islands and his ancestors immigrated there from India many generations ago, far too many to count. His family was a poor one and could barely afford to send their kids to school. However Vikash was a bright boy and was awarded bursaries to study further  vikashbecause of his good grades.

Still the family’s poverty demanded that he  help put food on the table. At the age of 14 he was hired to wait on tables at a hotel. He switched from time to time to a bellboy. But his life began to change when he found work in the kitchen of a famous hotel on the Island, the Palm Royal. A chef from France began to teach him some serious cooking skills.

By 17 years of age, Vikash was finished with schooling. He decided to find full-time work as a chef and actually made it to a Club Med cruise ship for about 4 years. From there he came to France. He was just 22 years. All he had known religion-wise till now was Hinduism. Yet the church buildings he saw all over Paris fascinated him. He just had to go in. What he discovered surprised him, his heart was at peace in those places of worship. It was the quiet, the fresh cool air in the hot summer, it seemed to help him clear his mind while sitting there, looking and meditating on life.

While in Paris he found work illegally with a well-known chef named Paul Menchelli. He learned more about French cuisine and some international dishes. His ‘piece de resistance’ was the Spanish Paella. His life seemed good. He fell in love, married and had three kids. He began his own business working out of his apartment as a caterer to events and was able to make a decent living providing for his young family.

However it all went downhill in 2008 when he became very ill with a bacterial infection that destroyed the usage of his pancreas. He was interned in the local hospital for a month. Not being able to work made it difficult to care for his family let alone pay the rent in expensive Paris; they had to move out. Things kept getting worse between his wife and he, and in 2010 his wife found it too much and she took the kids, two sons and a daughter and left.

Alone. Terribly alone. Could it get worse? He was able to find the odd work here and there, but eventually his health deteriorated further and he found himself homeless. For six months he begged, borrowed and did what he could to stay alive. The worst part of being homeless was the violence on the streets. Other homeless would sometimes rob or kick the other homeless wheel they slept. The fear was real. He was a lonely broken man.

Walking the streets he sometimes remembered how it was to have a good salary. He remembered the praise from clients about his well prepared meals. Once he remembered taking his whole family to India to visit the Hindu tourist sites. Though his wife discouraged it, he was drawn to an old majestic Catholic Church. While the family waited outside, Vikash went in and gave God his respects in his own way. Was God looking over him?

Eventually Vikash found a hostel who took him in with about fifty other men. Often there would be stealing and conflict even here. One time after finally having new shoes, he laid them on his bed and went to the toilet. When he returned the shoes were gone. There were days he was depressed. Many days. His depression once led him to the fast-moving waters of the Seine River where he wanted to end it all. “All I have to do is jump and I’ll be through with this misery,” he thought. Miraculously he heard church bells ring then and there. A sign? He decided his jump could wait another day.

And then in 2015 another cold lonely day, a day like the rest of not ever having a meaningful conversation with anyone. After all, he was a nobody and a loser. And he was at his wit’s end. He decided to clear his mind at the Catholic Church. There he asked God to help him once again. “All I need is 10 euros, God!” Ten euros to survive another day or two.

When he stepped out of the church and walked some, an Asian lady addressed him. He was quite surprised at this rare occasion. She asked him what he was looking for. And the ten euros came to mind and he asked for a bit of money. She reached into her purse, pulled out ten euros and said, “This is not from me, it is from God.” She then invited him to join her at her small church. “There are good people there”, she said.

That same day I remember seeing This small dark man in a heavy coat for the first time , sitting quietly, head bowed for the most part, not making eye contact with anyone. As quietly as he slipped in, he did the same slipping out. He did this week after week for months. Our church helped him with his medication needs. I guess that is why he came. Eventually though, as others would begin to speak to him, pray with him, he began to want to come. What stands out is how the people of the church never made him feel ashamed or guilty for needing help.

Eventually the day recently came this past May when he heard about the church organising a water baptism. He so wanted to be baptised. In his words He told us that for years no one gave him the time of day. Loneliness was a disease that was killing him more vikashbaptizedthan his heart problems. But here he found a family. He found people who would engage. On the day of his baptism he told me he was proud to call us his family. The words that came next touched me, “I am no longer afraid of life, I have you guys now!”

Vikash was quite ill immediately after his baptism. Maybe it was too much excitement for his heart that day. He spent almost three weeks in the hospital. I tried to visit as often as I could. That’s really when I found out about his fascinating life. This man truly touched the bottom to find God’s grace reaching for him.  Daily for a time we read the french version of Francis Chan’s book ‘Crazy Love.’ Afterwards Vikash would smile and comment on what we read.

During my visits his confidence and warmth surprised me, before this I took him to be a simple man who didn’t want to interact with people. I discovered that there was more to Vikash than meets the eye. He was more than a homeless broken man with a lot of pain, there was change happening in him brought on by hope. With a warm smile and a direct gaze from his dark eyes he told me his stories. We would always finish with clasping our hands to eagerly say a prayer. It is crazy to think of all he came through to somehow get to where he is today. It was thvikashlaurentpeter2016at crazy love of God that reached him. His dream is to see his kids again, now 12, 10 and 8. And to work as a chef. I looked at him for a moment, knowing how fortunate I was to have my wife and family together. Yet seeing his faith and hope as he shared his prayer request, my eyes watered up. “All things are possible,” I told him, “All things are possible.”

“What Do You See?”

I quickly slipped again into another of the many Catholic Churches of Paris on a weekday. I love that unlike most of the Protestant churches, they keep the doors open for anyone to come and take a look. I often have this compelling to go in, maybe to feel something there, maybe its the ancient history of prayers, tears, community sorrowing and celebrating. Children-All-Nations-These places have been gathering places of great hope for ages. Now Patricia and my daughters, when seeing me dash through the doors of yet another church, must find this a little amusing.  “Do you mind?” I asked Patricia. She didn’t. I walked hurriedly around the outer-court sensing nothing really, but as I passed by one of the last ‘saints,’ a statue of the founding father I presumed, a woman tapped me on the back.

She was about five foot four and maybe 60 years old. She smiled widely pointing to the small cross emblem on the back of my T-shirt and asked in French if I was a believer. I guess she didn’t notice the funny unicorn blazing on the front of my T-shirt! I responded to her smiling face with an affirmative. She then beckoned me to follow and led me to the statue of the priest holding children in his arms.

“Look into his face,” she said. I did. I wondered if at first she thought I looked like the statue with a moustached visage. But I definitely did not! She asked, “What do you see?” I could see her anticipation. After looking again, I responded that the man depicted before us must have loved people, especially children. Her faced glowed at my right answer. She explained to me the virtues of the priest and then wanted to know if I had time to visit other churches in Paris, especially the Miraculous Medallion where the Virgin appeared!

I could have said that I wasn’t Catholic or didn’t believe in Miraculous Medallions. Actually, that didn’t cross my mind as she so graciously was willing to write down all the places I should see and feel God, me a stranger. I simply showed respect to this wonderfully sincere woman and in the end asked if we should pray. “Yes, especially for my children, they have lots of troubles,” she asked. And so for a few moments a tall six-foot-two-accented-man prayed in French for the family of a beautiful white-haired seeker. As I left to go through the doors of that chapel I looked back once more and I saw a glowing smile and wondered, who got more blessed, that woman or me?