Salvaging goods, salvaging lives: recycling junk to serve those society has excluded, the poor help the poor in Emmaus communities

Salvaging goods, salvaging lives: recycling junk to serve those society has excluded, the poor help the poor in Emmaus communities – Cover Story

Margot Patterson

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 Emmaus. Here in the Emmaus 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 Emmaus. Pierre Chiffre, director of the community here, speaks of the mission of solidarity.

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

There are 110 Emmaus communities in France. Founded in 1949 by a French priest known as the Abbe Pierre to help the down-and-out living on the streets, Emmaus has in the intervening years become not only a national institution in France, familiar to every Frenchman, but an international movement. Today, 446 Emmaus communities exist in 37 countries and four continents. The purpose of Emmaus is to help the marginalized and the excluded, those who are without homes and without work. The motto of Emmaus is “Serve first those who suffer most.” While each Emmaus community is different, work, welcome and solidarity with others are the common values of the organization. If you knock on the door of an Emmaus 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 Emmaus 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 Emmaus 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 Emmaus, whose compagnons not only support themselves but raise money to help those in greater need. There’s a spirit of romance to Emmaus, 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 Emmaus.

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 Emmaus’s diversity. A former nurse, Chiffre has been the director of Emmaus at Longjumeau for three years. Since 1993, he’s been the director of six Emmaus communities. Before that, he was in two other Emmaus 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 pickups 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 Emmaus, 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 Emmaus 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 Emmaus 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 Emmaus 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 Emmaus 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, Emmaus 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 Emmaus’ strengths. “One has a certain liberty of dialogue that one does not have if one represents something,” he said. “At Emmaus one respects everybody, whatever their religion, their color, their politics, to the degree that they respect others.”

Emmaus 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, Emmaus 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 Abbe Pierre, Emmaus’ 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 Emmaus or the street.”

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

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

Observing the Emmaus 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, “Emmaus is a big family.”

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The founding of Emmaus and its remarkable growth not just in France but throughout the world is due to a celebrated figure in France, the Abbe Pierre. Born in 1912, Fr. Henri Groues took the name of the Abbe Pierre during World War II when he was a member of the French Resistance and smuggled Jews from occupied France into Switzerland.

Denounced to the Gestapo, the Abbe Pierre fled to North Africa where he joined the Free French forces stationed in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, After the war, he was elected to the French parliament where he spoke out for homeless and unemployed people and opened his own home to homeless men. Eventually 18 homeless men shared his home in the Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance. Abbe Pierre is said to have spent his entire salary buying war-surplus materials for them to put up temporary homes, initially in his own large garden.

The genesis of Emmaus dates from a meeting in 1948 between the Abbe Pierre and Georges, a convict whom he saved from suicide and whose assistance he asked in helping others. In 1949 the Ragpickers of Emmaus was formally established. Five years later, in 1954, the Abbe Pierre launched all appeal on French radio. On a cold winter’s day, a woman was found frozen to death on the streets. The Abbe Pierre delivered an emotional call for help to the French public that stirred the conscience of the nation. It led to an outpouring of charitable donations and prompted government action to help the homeless.

Since that time, the Abbe Pierre has been a constant advocate for the poor, the homeless and the socially excluded. At the same time, he has rubbed shoulders with some of the most eminent personalities of his time. A vice president of the World Confederation, a universal federalist movement, the Abbe Pierre with the renowned French writers Andre Gide and Albert Camus founded in 1947 the committee of support for Gary Davis, an American who called for world government and renounced his citizenship before the United Nations, declaring himself the first world citizen. A biography of the Abbe Pierre shows photos of him with Charlie Chaplin, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1981, the Abbe Pierre was named an officer in the Legion of Honor. Seated beside Pope John Paul II in 1989, he was bold enough to suggest that the pope retire when he turned 75.

A scandal erupted in 1996 when the Abbe Pierre defended a longtime friend, Roger Garaudy, who published a controversial book “The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics” that suggested that fewer than 6 million Jews may have died in the Holocaust. The Abbe Pierre was denounced for defending the book and expelled from The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, of which he had been a member for decades.

The furor does not seem to have done the Abbe Pierre any lasting harm in the eyes of the French public. Now 89, the Abbe Pierre continues to top opinion polls as the most popular personality in France.

Revered as the conscience of France, the Abbe Pierre has in recent years championed the cause of immigrants in France.

“The man is in his 80s and he still gets out and does what he started to do. That’s the whole idea: If you see an injustice, you work to change it. He’s very humble. He doesn’t like to be considered a celebrity,” said Redemptorist Fr. Randy Eldridge, volunteer coordinator and marketing coordinator of Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (H.O.M.E.), an Emmaus (spelled without the umlaut in the United States) community in Orland, Maine.

Founded in 1970, H.O.M.E. is a cooperative community dedicated to economic and social reconstruction. Homeless people work in the recycling bargain barn H.O.M.E. operates or in its soup kitchen or food bank. Begun as an outlet for rural home crafters’ goods, H.O.M.E. now also runs a free medical clinic, six homeless shelters, a learning center with daycare, literacy and GED tutoring, and offers alternative high school and college-level programs and job and craft training.

During the civil unrest in Guatemala during the 1990s, H.O.M.E was a stop on the underground railroad for Guatemalan refugees fleeing from Central America to Canada. The Maine community, helped start a new Emmaus community in Guatemala in 1997.

In the last 10 years, new Emmaus communities have also been started in Eastern Europe — in Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and Russia.

–Margot Patterson

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Catholic Reporter

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