Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A most respectful exchange

Mondragon worker's handling of homeless man admirable

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When it was over, I thought of how differently it could have ended.

My daughter and I had lunch at Mondragon coffee house Saturday afternoon. It's an interesting place. The staff members are young and casual and friendly.

The all-vegan menu is written on a chalkboard. Mondragon's food is good and it's cheap. The place is popular with the young, the opinionated and those who want to believe in a world outside the mainstream.

I'm merely a casual visitor, there because I'm hooked on a couple of their dishes.

This isn't a restaurant review. It's a sketch of the place for those of you who might never have wandered through the Exchange, walked up the wooden stairs and discovered a community sitting around the scratched tables, sharing ideas, intensity and laughter.

A couple of generations of university students bought their social justice textbooks out of the back of the restaurant, a space that has now been primarily turned over to an organic grocery store.

Mondragon is a workers' collective. The staff all earn the same salary. There are no bosses. They call it a "participatory" workplace.

Some might find the whole idea foolhardy. Others think it is utopia. Many of us just like the food and the energy. It's not corporate and that's wonderful in a chain-restaurant world.

Saturday afternoon, Kate and I were waiting for our roti when a homeless man came through the doors. His eyes were dulled from the womb or from substance abuse or both. His black hair was wild and his clothes filthy.

He made his way to the counter and leaned against it, swaying slightly.

Then he plopped himself down at the nearest table. It was already occupied by a young woman. She clutched her purse and looked terrified. Staff called out to the man and then one young man came around from behind the counter.

Adam Czuchnicki was ever so gentle.

He knew the man's name was Andrew. He knew, too, that Andrew was confused. Softly, using his name, Czuchnicki offered Andrew a cup of coffee and suggested he drink it outside. The incident was over before it had begun.

There was something lovely and profound about the exchange.

When we spoke Monday, Czuchnicki explained working at Mondragon appealed to him because there is "no hierarchy, no boss, no power structure." He's 24 and he's an idealist and those are lovely things to be.

He said Andrew was outside every day along with a number of other homeless people. Rather than discouraging their presence, the coffee house offers free soup at the end of the day. Some of them, says Czuchnicki, can't remember the time and come in earlier.

"It comes along with the job," he says. "I've been here two years. Andrew's been here longer."

When I told Siloam Mission executive director Floyd Perras about the exchange, he was silent for a minute. He doesn't pretend his clients are saints. They're not, not by a long shot. But it's a rare story that ends with a homeless person being treated with respect.

"It's actually very unusual," he says. "Restaurant people, they often have a difficult time handling these kind of situations."

He's realistic. Most business people (and their clients) would rather not deal with the homeless. The reaction of the young woman at whose table Andrew parked himself was natural. He was the other. He was unpredictable. He was someone most of us would step around if he was sitting on a sidewalk with his hand out.

And I guess that's what struck me most about Mondragon and young Adam Czuchnicki. Andrew wasn't a bum in his eyes. He was a person, with a name. He came to the restaurant, in part, because they wouldn't toss him out.

There could have been raised voices. There could have been the threat of violence. Any possible combination of anger and fear might have flared.

Instead, there was a gentle exchange between a young man and a damaged one, person to person.

That's what I consider utopian.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2011 A2

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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