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On Britain’s Road to Emmaus

More than 60 years ago, a Catholic priest in Paris had a revolutionary idea to help the homeless. Today, his brainchild is one of the fastest-growing charities in Britain. Faith Today finds out more.

It’s a sunny morning in Cambridge, and not surprisingly the roads are clogged with cars carrying families destined for an interesting day out. But the occupants of the vehicles in this particular queue aren’t going to see the dreaming spires of the university town’s colleges, and nor are they planning to punt on its famous river. The place they’re heading for is a community for homeless people that lies just outside the city.

If you think it sounds an unlikely tourist venue, you’re right: but the pull of Emmaus is more about bargain-hunting than meeting the homeless. Because running a second-hand furniture and bric-a-brac emporium is how the residents of Emmaus make their living: it’s a community and a vast charity shop, all rolled into one and surrounded as it is by lush green fields, and with a cafe to boot, it’s easy to see what attracts the day-trippers.

Emmaus is fast becoming one of Britain’s highest-profile charities for the homeless, with 24 communities across the UK and nine more in formation. The communities provide what for many residents they’re known as ‘companions’ is genuinely a lifeline, rescuing them from a future on the streets that could easily have ended in them eventually never waking up on a freezing park bench in the middle of winter.

The organisation is secular, but at its heart it’s a product of Catholic social teaching, the legacy of a priest known in his native France as Abbé Pierre. It was back in the late 1940s that the first Emmaus community was founded: Abbé Pierre whose real name was Father Henri-Antoine Grouès, though he was always known by the nom de guerre he worked under as a member of the French resistance during World War II was working to provide shelter for the many homeless who lived on the streets of Paris.

One night a man called Georges was brought to him after a failed suicide attempt. Georges had just finished a 20-year prison sentence, but had found himself homeless on his release. Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him in his work, and he became the first Emmaus companion, living alongside Abbé Pierre and helping him build temporary homes for those in need, in the priest’s garden or wherever land could be obtained.

Through the work Georges discovered a reason for carrying on: he said later: ‘Whatever else Abbé Pierre might have given me money, home, somewhere to work I’d have still ended up trying to kill myself eventually. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for.’

For a few years in the late 1940s Abbé Pierre became involved in politics, serving from 1945 as an MP in the French Parliament (in Britain Catholic priests were barred from serving as MPs until the Clergy Disqualification Act was reversed in 2001, but no such law existed in France). He was a member of the Popular Republican Movement, which mainly consisted of Christian Democrats who had, as he had, been in the Resistance. But in 1951 he gave up politics and devoted himself to setting up the Emmaus communities. With his move out of politics, though, came a financial problem: until then, he’d used his salary to pay Georges and the by-now 18 other companions who worked with them. To cover the shortfall, Abbé Pierre started to ask smart restaurants in the French capital to help him out but the companions were outraged, feeling that begging undermined their self-respect. They decided instead to raise funds through collecting things people no longer wanted and selling them on and the first Emmaus ‘charity emporium’ was born.

Through the second half of the 20th century Emmaus became extremely well-known and well-respected across France, with Abbé Pierre becoming a household name. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that it came to Britain, after a Cambridge businessman called Selwyn Image became worried by the numbers of homeless people appearing on the streets of the city. He helped set up a soup and sandwich shelter, and found himself talking there one night to a man who was very lucid, and also very angry, about his situation. Mr Image asked him what should be done to change things: and the man’s answer was ‘I want somewhere where I can work, where I feel I belong and where I can recover my self-respect’.
The man’s words immediately took Mr Image back 30 years, to a summer he spent in Paris in 1960. He was a Cambridge undergraduate wanting to do something useful with his long vacation: for three months he had lived as part of the Emmaus community in Paris, helping to salvage items from houses that could be sold and working alongside companions and Abbé Pierre himself. Mr Image phoned Abbé Pierre the following day, and got his blessing to set up the first Emmaus community in the UK.

Today more than 580 formerly homeless people in Britain have a home and a job because of Emmaus: they’re people like John Gall, the leader of the Cambridge community and a former companion himself, who ended up as an alcoholic living on the streets of London after his wife died suddenly in her thirties, leaving him with three teenage children. For a while Mr Gall carried on as best he could, but eventually he simply couldn’t cope, and simply melted away from his family.

They expected to never see him again and they almost certainly never would have seen him again, if he hadn’t heard of Emmaus and decided, with its help, to turn his life around. He moved into the Cambridge community, successfully detoxed, and met a new partner, Joan, whom he later married and his children, with whom he was by then reconnected, joined them for the wedding. ‘I knew I needed work to give me something to get up for in the morning, and I knew I needed to get away from London and the life I’d been living there,’ he says.

Emmaus UK was recently given a huge publicity boost when its patron the Duchess of Cornwall made it the centrepiece of her first solo official trip overseas. She travelled by Eurostar to Paris with three companions from UK communities, and once there she learned about the roots of the Emmaus communities and the life of Abbé Pierre. She visited the Emmaus community at Bougival, west of Paris, buying a fake Cartier watch for 10 Euros as a souvenir of her visit from the good-as-new shop there.

Abbé Pierre, who died aged 94 in January 2007, is remembered at every Emmaus community: and at the Cambridge house, there’s a larger-than-life statue of him at the entrance gate. It’s made of metal, which seems strikingly apt: this was a man who on one occasion in the early 1950s barged into a radio station in Paris, seized the microphone from the astonished announcer, and told the story of a woman who had died on the freezing streets that morning, with an eviction order in her hand. ‘Friends, help,’ he pleaded. ‘There are people dying in the streets of Paris. In three hours the first help centres for the homeless will be set up. We need 500 blankets, 300 large tents and 200 stoves.’

Parisians flocked to help him; and days later, the French parliament voted to allocate funds for housing that were ten times above the level it had rejected the previous month. Abbé Pierre was a priest who got things changed for those who had nothing: and in the UK today, in his name, things are changing still.

For more information on Emmaus please visit: www.emmaus.org.uk

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