In Spain, New Restaurants Nourish the Needy, and the Soul


It is the brainchild of the Rev. Ángel García Rodríguez, 79, one part clergyman, one part innovator and nonprofit entrepreneur, who has spent a lifetime working with the needy.

Unconventional down to his attire, Father Ángel, as he is universally called, prefers a suit and loose tie to a collar, unless he is saying Mass, and is just as likely to hand out his business card as communion. “The priest habit is like my gala outfit,” he said with a chuckle.

Father Ángel has had long experience finding new ways that sometimes push the boundaries of how to serve the poor.

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The Rev. Ángel García Rodríguez, center in suit, at San Antón church in Madrid. Last year, he took over the abandoned church and reshaped it into something akin to a community center.

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Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

He is president of Messengers of Peace, a nongovernment organization that employs 3,900 people and 5,000 volunteers. It runs homes for older people, orphanages, centers for drug addicts and other social services.

But what all of his projects have in common is that they have helped sustain the most vulnerable Spaniards at a time of near-record unemployment and deep public spending cuts amid the lingering economic crisis. His organization also runs projects in about 50 developing countries.

These days, it is his budding string of Robin Hood restaurants that animates Father Ángel. On top of receiving basic help, he explained in an interview, poor people need to regain a sense of dignity and purpose that is hard to achieve when eating in a soup kitchen.

“To get served by a waiter wearing a nice uniform and to eat with proper cutlery, rather than a plastic fork, is what gives you back some dignity,” he said.

Father Ángel is already preparing to expand his model. He said he was in talks with a restaurant owner to open a Robin Hood in Miami in January. He is even hoping to lure celebrity chefs to volunteer occasionally to cook at his restaurants.

His restaurant idea is not the first time he has broken new ground. Last year, Father Ángel took over an abandoned church, San Antón, in Madrid and reshaped it into something akin to a community center.

Today, it welcomes about a thousand people a day. Most of them are destitute. Some even sleep there. Father Ángel says it is the only church open 24 hours a day in the Western world.

On some evenings, the church shows soccer games on the television screens that are normally used to broadcast Mass. Food is served in the back pews, while visitors can consult with medical volunteers, get free access to Wi-Fi or just use the church’s restrooms.

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“Father Ángel changes people a lot, and he has kept me away from doing some bad things,” said Alfonso Santamaría, center, who serves as an altar boy.

Credit
Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Of course, Mass is also said, either by Father Ángel or another priest. Confession can also be conducted via an iPad, for those too hard of hearing to catch the words of a whispering priest.

Alfonso Santamaría, 43, serves as one of Father Ángel’s altar boys. He said he spent most of his day in the church, but then traveled every night to sleep in one of the terminals of Madrid’s airport.

Mr. Santamaría has been homeless for more than a year, after losing his job at a street stall selling churros, a traditional Spanish pastry. He previously served in the Spanish Legion in Northern Africa and continues to wear a jacket with its logo on the back.

Before accepting Father Ángel’s offer to become one of his altar boys, Mr. Santamaría said, he had not stepped into a church for over two decades.

“Father Ángel changes people a lot, and he has kept me away from doing some bad things,” he said. “I feel we are now doing each other a favor: He keeps me busy while I help with Mass.”

Last Christmas Eve, Father Ángel organized a gala dinner at Madrid’s city hall for hundreds of poor people.

The son of a coal factory worker, he trained to be a priest and then started working with an orphanage outside Oviedo, in northern Spain.

The walls of his Robin Hood restaurant in Madrid are decorated with photos of orphans whom the priest helped five decades ago.

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Father Ángel is already preparing to expand his restaurant model. He is even hoping to lure celebrity chefs to volunteer occasionally to cook at his Robin Hood restaurants.

Credit
Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Father Ángel acknowledged his methods and approach were sometimes bolder than the Catholic Church’s rules allowed, notably toward gay couples.

He said his actions had received some criticism, but were broadly in line with the message of Pope Francis. Under Benedict, the previous pope, “it was certainly harder to carry out my kind of work,” he said.

Emma García, a 28-year-old unemployed mother, said she had turned to Father Ángel to have her 3-year-old daughter baptized, after a priest in her own city, Burgos, said he could baptize the child only if Ms. García took her to church.

However, Ms. García’s daughter, Nora, has been spending most of her time in a hospital because she has congenital nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney disorder. Nora will eventually need a kidney transplant.

“I heard about this great person who puts no limitation on who can be helped, whether it is somebody without a home, or a mother like me who can’t have a normal christening for her child,” Ms. García said. “I discovered a priest who did not just preach love and help but put his words into action.”

At Madrid’s first Robin Hood restaurant, which has 50 seats and two evening sittings, many diners said they had come after receiving other forms of help from Father Ángel.

While Mr. Castillo, the former restaurant cook, sat alone, many of the diners were eating among friends, having booked seats together through the church.

Giani Parlafes, a 41-year-old Romanian who has been living in Spain for a decade, said he was sitting in a restaurant for the first time since losing his job four years ago.

“It’s just hard to believe I get to sit and eat here without paying any money whatsoever,” he said. “You reach a point when something like this just makes you feel incredible.”

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