Thursday, 31 January 2013

Emmaus: a charity providing a home, work, companionship and the chance for people in crisis to build a new life. Abbé Pierre . Emmaus UK/ Selwyn Image.

The charity Emmaus UK has just taken out a full -page newspaper advertisement in the Daily Telegraph, and presumably in other newspapers, to publicise its work and to ask for donations. Emmaus UK is part of Emmaus International, which provides the poor and homeless with a home, work, companionship and the chance to build a new life.

The name Emmaus was taken from St. Luke’s Gospel when two disciples offered hospitality in the town of Emmaus to a stranger, Jesus, without having recognised him after his resurrection.

Abbé Pierre
Father Henri-Antoine Grouès, 1912-2007, was a Catholic priest who became known as Abbé Pierre, his pseudonym in the French Resistance during World War II. As a member of the Maquis in Grenoble he learnt to forge identity papers and passports and helped Jews and political refugees escape to Switzerland. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his work during the war, and became an MP in 1945.

Abbé Pierre founded the first Emmaus Community in 1949 in Neuilly-Plaisance as a secular group for people in need. Social services and government provision for homeless people in France in the post-war period were lacking at the time. He took pity on the homeless who came to him for help and let them live in his own home and garden: they in turn helped him build shelters or homes for other homeless people wherever Abbé Pierre could find land.  In 1951, he resigned as an MP to work full-time for the poor:

The eighteen men called Companions who formed the first Community did not want to beg and started collecting unwanted articles and selling them on. This concept of Companions supporting themselves still stands; profits provide for their requirements, the surplus goes to those in greater need, and on building new homes. Companions collect unwanted goods from the public and sell second-hand furniture, electrical goods, china, crockery, glassware, bric-a-brac, clothes, books, records, pictures, plants etc. in Emmaus shops. People on low incomes and benefits are given discounts for things they need. Many Communities run cafes too, which also provide work for Companions.

Emmaus International, run by Jean Rousseau, represents 310 communities in 38 countries in Europe, West Africa, Latin America and East Asia. Emmaus International campaigns against child trafficking and for literacy, migrant and human rights and for equality between richer and poorer countries.  All Emmaus groups share the same commitment from the Universal Manifesto of the Emmaus Movement: “to serve first those who suffer most.  Serve those worse off than yourself before yourself. Serve the most needy first.”

Activities of Emmaus communities vary from country to country. In France, many are situated in the countryside where Companions live off the land.  In Africa, micro-credit provides finance for projects for low-income Emmaus communities to become self-sufficient. Communities in South America earn money from shipbuilding and handicrafts as well as selling second-hand goods. Emmaus in South Korea does good work for people with mental disabilities and the homeless. Communities in India train women and Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables to get work.. Emmaus in Bangladesh has helped women set up a school for their children and to make and sell textile products. Emmaus communities in Indonesia provide training, a clinic and drop-in centre for children and the sick. In the Lebanon Emmaus has set up an alternative bank to grant loans for micro-projects.

Selwyn Image, a former student volunteer at the Emmaus Community in Paris, opened the first Emmaus UK Community in 1991, in Cambridge: the house had room for 28 people: there are now over 500 beds at 24 communities in the UK. Terry Waite has been President of Emmaus UK since 1998.
Emmaus cafe revive@Emmaus,
Brighton and Hove
The Emmaus charity is unusual in that it provides work as well as a permanent home for those who choose to live in the Community Houses: those who stay for good are usually over 50. Most Companions choose to stay in Emmaus homes for around nine months and leave when they have got back on their feet.  Companions forgo their income-related benefits in return for full board: the Community uses the benefits to give Companions an allowance of £32-£40 per week, a holiday allowance of around £200 per year and saves a further £6-10 a week on their behalf:  Companions can also go on courses to develop their skills. They are expected to work full-time at cleaning, cooking and looking after the Community house, collecting, sorting, mending and selling furniture and other goods in Emmaus shops, cafes and other related work.

Emmaus Hampshire Community
Emmaus gives a home and support to anyone who has fallen on hard times: ex-prisoners and ex-servicemen among others, as long as they abide by three rules:

1.    no drink, drugs or violence on site;
2.    sign off primary social security benefits 
    (Job Seekers Allowance/Income Support);
3.    are willing to work and participate in Community Life.

If Companions do not stick to the rules they are asked to leave. Work helps Companions get out of the downward spiral and regain a sense of self-worth. Their health improves with the routine of regular work and meals: living with others in a community forges strong bonds. Emmaus UK helps Companions in their communities with drink and drug problems. 93% of Companions are men; this is thought to be because there is better State provision for women.  Asylum seekers and others who do not qualify for housing benefit are offered ‘solidarity’ places at community homes, in keeping with Abbe Pierre’s sympathies for human rights and refugees.
The National Archives of the World of Work (ANMT) is currently celebrating the centenary of Abbé Pierre’s birth until 16 March 2013 with an exhibition in Roubaix.

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