“Through working in my business, I’m experiencing more of God,” says Faouzi Chihabi, “I have my faith in my head and heart. Now it is also flowing through my hands.” Faouzi studied theology to become a minister, worked for Dutch city councils and at European level on issues concerning vulnerable youth. Presently he owns trattoria Borgo d’Aneto. On the riverside in Rotterdam his former work experience and his faith merge in this restaurant-with-a-mission.
The latte macchiato is poured carefully. The Italian bun is crisp; not too soft and not too hard. The plate nicely decorated with fresh vegetables. Faouzi trains his crew to keep an eye on the customer. In every area a high quality standard is being pursued in this restaurant.
Youngsters ‘at risk’
Borgo d’Aneto is an approved apprenticeship for youth coming from low-level schools. “With these youngsters in the kitchen and the restaurant, is it an extra challenge to maintain high quality?” Faouzi reacts to this question: “These boys and girls might have a low IQ, but it’s the biggest misconception that they are not socially adept. They are actually very sensitive and intuitive.” He sees them flourish in his restaurant, although incidentally a dish does land in the trash. Faouzi: “As a business we can not afford to put something on the table which doesn’t meet a good standard. When a bun is thrown in the trash, these youngsters might feel they themselves landed there, but they learn through failure: to continue, despite a setback. They realize their contribution matters, and that realization causes growth.
‘Youth should learn that failure in a part of life’
Faouzi knows the ends and outs of working with vulnerable youth. Before he became owner of this restaurant, he worked in this area for the municipal government at district level. Later he got involved in research at European level, and developed an educational program, which involved simulating businesses so youth could experience the ‘real world’ in a class setting. But, that isn’t the same as working in a real company, is his experience: “I have to address these young people if they are doing it wrong, because the survival of my business depends on how they perform. A teacher in a simulated business setting can permit to shy away from confrontation. Creating such a ‘safe learning environment’ is unhealthy for other reasons. Young people can become frightened with warnings like “here it is safe, but later in the real world …” Youth need to learn that failure is a part of life. ”
Faouzi can identify himself with the ‘problem youth’ he is working with. He was born in Morocco and came as a child to Antwerp, where he grew up in a difficult family situation. Around the age of twenty his curiosity was aroused by a friend of African descent, he saw a positive change after his conversion to Christianity. “I started reading the Bible,” recalls Faouzi. “I was impressed by the Sermon on the Mount. This is full of examples how God cares for us as a Father. I came to believe it was true. As a Muslim I was used to understand truth rationally, but this became a deep soul issue. It was an irresistible and beautiful inner feeling, which I couldn’t resist. I prayed the sinner’s prayer on my own and God’s Spirit came over me. It felt like a shower; an overwhelming inner cleansing.”
He studied theology, but during his first year as an apprentice in a little town, he saw too little connection between the pastor and the regular, daily life of the congregation. “It felt oppressive to me. Too often the life of a pastor evolves around sermons, management and pastoral work. I saw a danger of living in an ivory tower far away from the reality of life. What intrigued me was how a pastor could understand the daily problems people are facing in their work and family.”
Connecting theory and practice; “We learn to walk by falling down ‘
Distance between theory and practice is a problem in the church, but also in wider society, according to Faouzi: “In our schools we teach mainly theory. It’s like we teach the ‘definition of walking’, but we learn to walk by falling down! A few centuries ago,” Faouzi continues, “education was for the elite. Now education has become ‘a must’ for everyone. But entire groups of young people feel imprisoned in our educational institutions, where the emphasis is on learning by using your head with hardly any appreciation for working using heart and hands.”
The normal job should be much closer to young people, is his firm belief: “Government legislation contributes to a dualistic way of thinking. A ten-year-old boy comes here regularly. He wants to do something, but I cannot give him a few euro’s to bring empty bottles away. That could be considered as child labor, and get me into trouble as a business owner. But this boy’s confidence could grow if I comment him on a job well done. Instead of stimulating his work ethic, our society chooses to postpone his work identity to a later time. He is forced to get bored and hang out on the street. Is that what we want?”
Saturate the entire company
This thinking-in-boxes is undermining society, according Faouzi: “When I meet management leaders of large companies to talk with them about corporate social responsibility, they tell me: ‘Social responsibility? Go to that office, that department is taking care of it. Another company sponsored African children and had pictures of them on the wall. Wonderful! Right? But are we then turning away to continue our focus solely on business profits? The question is how we integrate humanity and make that part of the DNA of the entire business, including management and products.”
For Faouzi ‘doing good’ is not resulting out of a good profit. It is neither some kind of tithe to God and society. He wants to saturate the entire company with humanity. Faith and God are central in that aim.
Host and fatherhood
“God is a generous God. He is a God of abundance, “continues Faouzi. “He is the ultimate host. How can we reflect that in our restaurant?” For Faouzi God as Father is another source of inspiration. A father is someone who is standing next to you; approachable, accessible and close. Faouzi shares: “At first I was not planning to run this restaurant, or work in the kitchen. But the managers and chefs, I hired in the beginning, did not want to work with the youth the way I had in mind. Cleaning toilets? They objected to cleaning toilets, that was a job for trainees! In my opinion a leader is working alongside his people and rolls up his sleeves as well.”
Creative work; a holy cause
Not only business, but all work is holy. Faouzi: “It is not a coincidence that the first verse in the Bible begins with a God creating heaven and earth; the first time God’s name is mentioned, it is connected to work: God created. I myself did all the spiritual exercises that you can imagine. I have prayed and fasted, because I desired to know what God wants, but every time there appeared to be some kind of distance. I am now speaking from my own experience, but I’ve never experienced God’s presence as I do now. When I am busy with creating here in this restaurant, God is unfolding himself. ”
A big dream
Faouzi has found a way to connect work, life experiences and faith. Meanwhile he is working side by side with vulnerable young people, while together they interact with clients from different backgrounds. He finds ways to make God’s heart tangible at the work floor: as a father of young people, as a host for the guests, as a creator of concrete products. But this is not ‘mission accomplished’. On the contrary, Faouzi feels the need to bring back into society appreciation of craftsmanship, a need for more people and businesses to get involved in transferring craftsman skills to young people. He also feels the need for more of such business activity in his neighborhood. Although his restaurant often is fully booked, that is not his measure of success. His dreams are bigger.
I was very interested to see how Faouzi was struck by all the references to the Father in the Sermon on the mount (17 in Mathew), while most theologians tend to see the less frequently mentioned ‘kingdom’ as the main theme in it. Maybe you remember (when you interviewed me) that I was working on preparing a website for the 99 meditations on the Father that I have written (85) or have yet to write (14). Well, this bi-lingual (English-Dutch) website is up now with 26 English meditations already posted to it, and 21 Dutch ones–plus a couple of articles. Check it out (fathermeditations.com), and please pass it on to Faouzi.
Thanks Jim, for your response. Do remember an inspiring, and informative interview with you. I will pass your thoughts on to Faouzi! Blessings, Gea.
Dear Jim, thank you very much for your reaction. Yes indeed: if we say that The Sermoun on The Mount is the heart of all christian teaching, then it’s obvious that the heart of The Teacher is revealed in this teaching and that’s The Father. I am full of interest to follow your project and meditations on Our Father. Keep UP the Good Works you do and hopefully till soon.