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Salvaging good, salvaging lives

Longjumeau, France

Jacques Poisson was faintly apologetic about the enormous mound of trash bags lying in the backyard of the house. “We have very little space here,” he explained as he led me round the corner past old stoves and refrigerators standing in the yard and into a building crammed with fans, clocks, books, toys, radios, lamps, beds, chairs, armoires and other pieces of furniture. These, like the clothes in the stuffed-to-overflowing trash bags we’d passed, would be sorted and, if possible, repaired and resold or otherwise recycled.

Recycling junk is the work of the ragpickers of Emmaüs. Here in the Emmaüs house at Longjumeau, just outside Paris, 40 men make their living “valorizing” old goods and living in community. They call themselves compagnons, and whether one translates the word as “comrade” or “companion” or “member of a company,” the word connotes a certain esprit de corps that reflects the spirit of Emmaüs. Pierre Chiffre, director of the community here, speaks of the mission of solidarity.

“The work at Emmaüs is not a goal in itself but is only important as a means to solidarity,” he said. Poisson, 40, describes the Emmaüs ethos in more down-to-earth terms: “The work is hard, but the atmosphere is terrific.”

There are 110 Emmaüs communities in France. Founded in 1949 by a French priest known as the Abbé Pierre to help the down-and-out living on the streets, Emmaüs has in the intervening years become not only a national institution in France, familiar to every Frenchman, but an international movement. Today, 446 Emmaüs communities exist in 37 countries and four continents. The purpose of Emmaüs is to help the marginalized and the excluded, those who are without homes and without work. The motto of Emmaüs is “Serve first those who suffer most.” While each Emmaüs community is different, work, welcome and solidarity with others are the common values of the organization. If you knock on the door of an Emmaüs home in the middle of the night, the community will welcome you if there is room. You can stay a night, a month, a year or a lifetime. The only condition for joining an Emmaüs community is the desire to enter and a willingness to abide by the rules of communal life.

“It’s the poor helping the poor,” said journalist Laurent Larcher, describing how Emmaüs works. While France provides government assistance to the poor and unemployed, he and others say that government agencies that give food and shelter to the homeless and most charitable organizations as well lack the spirit of fraternity that distinguishes Emmaüs, whose compagnons not only support themselves but raise money to help those in greater need. There’s a spirit of romance to Emmaüs, said Larcher, who wrote a series of articles about the movement. “To be a compagnon means something noble, something romantic.”

Everyone has a story

There are about 4,000 compagnons in France. They come from many different walks of life. Some are or have been alcoholics; some are illegal aliens in France without proper papers; some are former prisoners; some are people who have had to contend with divorce or other family problems; all are people who need a job and a place to live and have found them at Emmaüs.

Chiffre said each member of the community at Longjumeau has his own story and his own reason for being there. “There are mentally ill people here but no more or less than other places,” he said. “The same is true of alcoholics and people who have problems with groups.”

The 46-year-old Chiffre is himself testimony to Emmaüs’s diversity. A former nurse, Chiffre has been the director of Emmaüs at Longjumeau for three years. Since 1993, he’s been the director of six Emmaus communities. Before that, he was in two other Emmaüs communities as a compagnon.

Why would a man give up a middle-class job as a nurse to join a group of ragpickers?

“It’s boring to work in a hospital,” Chiffre said. “Here, I do 20,000 different things in a day. Nothing is impossible, and I have the impression that I can respect human beings more here than in a normal job.

“I am morally satisfied,” Chiffre said of his work. “Before, I was chronically dissatisfied.”

Each week the community at Longjumeau receives about 360 calls from those with goods they want to donate. Every day four trucks, each manned by two compagnons, make pick-ups while the other compagnons are involved in the work of sorting through goods, selecting which are salvageable, and repairing and reselling them. Prices are kept low so that goods may be accessible to everyone. You can buy an armchair for about $15 or an armoire for about $40. Jackets go for $3, a blouse for $1, and a T-shirt for even less.

In the year 2000, the community at Lonjumeau collected 38,980 metric cubes of objects for recycling. The compagnons at Longjumeau were able to give 905,840 francs, or about $130,000, to assist others outside the community. Chiffre estimates the community gave more than a million francs to those in need in 2001.

The emphasis on service matters to Jacques Poisson. At one time a train conductor, for five years Poisson lived on the street. He describes it as a period of time when he was eating a little and drinking more. It sounded rough, but Poisson said, “It’s easy to get money by begging. But one has no dignity,” he said.

Now, working at Emmaüs, Poisson feels he’s doing something worthy. “I don’t lose my day. I do something useful in my life.”

Perhaps equally important is the sense of community Emmaüs offers. “People here always find somebody to talk to,” Chiffre said. “In the modern world, one of the most difficult things is loneliness.”

The society of others

Emmanuel Bouttevilla, who answers the phones at Longjumeau, describes Emmaüs as a different way of life and, sometimes, he thinks, a better one. A factory worker before joining the community three years ago, Bouttevilla lost his job following nervous depression. For eight months he was in a psychiatric clinic. Afterward, he returned to his job, but said he had many problems. He drank and eventually was hospitalized again.

“The difference between life before and at Emmaüs is that here one has the society of others,” said Bouttevilla, 42.

“In my preceding life, poverty was nothing,” Bouttevilla said. “I had money, an apartment. I thought I was happy. It wasn’t true. The truth is when you touch misery.”

People in the world, Bouttevilla said, think they’re happy, but their hearts are cold. They don’t speak to their neighbor. They don’t speak to anyone. They don’t have the time.”

Longjumeau is an all-male community, but many Emmaüs communities are mixed houses for both men and women. The rules are few: no violence or drinking, respect for others, cleanliness, do your best at work. During the workweek, compagnons are expected to take lunch and dinner together. On the weekend people are free to do what they like. Though started by a priest, Emmaüs has no religious or political affiliation. Its name is taken from a town in the Holy Land where “the desperate rediscovered hope. This name evokes for us, believers or non-believers, our common conviction that love alone can link us and cause us to advance together.”

Berny Camboukis, a compagnon for 10 years, is a former Capuchin friar who left before taking final vows. “I thought myself more useful, more free while keeping my spirituality,” said Kamboukis, explaining his decision.

For Camboukis, the absence of a religious affiliation is one of Emmaüs’ strengths. “One has a certain liberty of dialogue that one does not have if one represents something,” he said. “At Emmaüs one respects everybody, whatever their religion, their color, their politics, to the degree that they respect others.”

Emmaüs celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1999. Marking the anniversary, the organization issued a statement. “Over the past 50 years, exclusion, far from disappearing, has become an enduring characteristic of contemporary society. Our conviction today is that one can remake the world in order that it become more just, in order that everyone can find a place in it and live with dignity.”

In speaking of exclusion, not simply homelessness, Emmaüs underscored that poverty and isolation are not simply or always economic problems. The pervasiveness of such problems and his own tireless efforts to deal with them may help explain the tremendous respect the Abbé Pierre, Emmaüs’ founder, commands in France today (see story below).

It can happen to anyone

“The average Frenchman realizes that homelessness can happen to anyone. Nobody has found a real solution to the homeless, to the problem of exclusion,” said Camboukis.

In France as in the United States and other countries in the West, jobs are becoming harder to find. Poisson and 52-year-old compagnon Guy Laville, a former truck driver, say it’s impossible to find work in France if you’re over 40.

“Before it was possible to find work with a small boss, but now there are no small bosses. Everyone is a big boss,” Poisson said. “You have only Emmaüs or the street.”

Because of this, the role Emmaüs plays in the lives of those it serves has somewhat changed from what it was originally.

“Today, more and more, Emmaüs is a place to live for people. It’s no longer a place where people come en route,” Chiffre said.

Observing the Emmaüs community at Longjumeau, that doesn’t seem so bad. Even on a quiet Saturday afternoon, with most of the compagnons away from work and out of the house, one gets a sense of home and hopefulness. As Poisson said, “Emmaüs is a big family.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002