Monday, January 22, 2007

Abbe Pierre

I must admit to knowing nothing about Abbe Pierre until this morning. And news of his efforts immediately put me in mind of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and even Christopher Hitchens, because NPR ran a story this morning about religious books and the "new atheism," and the latter has a new anti-religious screed (grabbing the coat-tails of the former, clearly) coming out soon. Still, not only did Jacques Chirac praise the Catholic priest, but France itself is poised to take action on his life work:

His and others' advocacy for the homeless paid off when de Villepin this month sent a bill to parliament that will establish housing as a right and enable the homeless to sue the state for lodging. Fondation Abbe Pierre, another non-profit group he founded to work with the homeless, estimated last year that France has 100,000 homeless, up from 86,000 in 2001.

Royal has pledged to go further. In her statement today, she said that, if she's elected, the needs of the homeless will be ``met at last by concrete acts, notably requisitioning empty speculative properties and by building a sufficient amount of public housing.''
Who was Abbe Pierre? This article seems the best introduction to him:

In April 1939, his life changed dramatically, as he was sent from the quiet religious community to the bustling city of Grenoble to work as parish priest. Within a few months, war broke out and France was invaded by Germany. The young priest joined the Resistance and was soon making forged identity papers and work permits and helping to smuggle Jewish people out of the country to Switzerland. In 1943, he met resistance worker Lucie Coutaz, who was later to to become involved with the Emmaus community. It was during this time that Fr Henri was given the code name 'Abbé Pierre' which he has kept ever since.

That name was on the Gestapo's wanted list. On several occasions his life was in great danger. In 1944 Abbé Pierre escaped to Spain and joined the Free French forces in Algiers where he worked for a time as a Navy chaplain. When the war ended, the Abbé returned to France and in October 1945, General De Gaulle persuaded him to stand for parliament. He won the election as an independent candidate allied to the socialists.

The war had left many people in France desperately poor. To begin with, the Abbé simply opened his own presbytery to homeless people who he found on the streets. He had planned to make his large, dilapidated house in the Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance, into a student hostel, fostering reconciliation among Europe's post-war generation. But very soon 18 homeless men had moved in. The Abbé spent his whole salary, buying war-surplus materials for them to put up temporary homes, first in his own large garden.

One of the men was a homeless ex-convict called George, who had planned to commit suicide. George was to became one of the founder members of Emmaus. Soon more homes were established and gradually these communities, whose members became known as 'Les Chiffonniers d' Emmaus' (the rag pickers of Emmaus), took on a dynamic of their own as the 'companions' and showed they could support themselves by using skills learned while they had been living on the streets.

By recycling, refurbishing and re-cycling other people's rubbish - glass, paper, cloth and metals, the Communities were eventually able to make enough income to support themselves.
Snarky comparisons to "mega-churches" would be entirely inappropriate. How many of us, after all, want to be "the rag pickers of Emmaus." But how does this sound anything like the "Christians" pilloried by Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins?

We could use a voice like Abbe Pierre's in this country, especially now:

One issue the Abbé Pierre, and other groups, such as 'Droit au Logement' were angry about, was the fact that, while hundreds of apartments were vacant in Paris, and most other large French cities, thousands of families did not have decent living conditions. Either they were on the streets or living in overcrowded slums.

To make the point, Abbé Pierre went to Paris and took over an empty building in Rue Du Dragon. Jacques Chirac, who was Paris's mayor at the time, was compelled to react, as was Balladur, the French Prime Minister. But they both gave in to the pressure exerted by Abbé Pierre, possibly because they realized it would have meant political suicide to ignore him. From that point on, Chirac promised to requisition empty buildings in accordance with an old 1945 law.
One last thing: I have to investigate this further, but at this point I don't find any Emmaus Community connected to Abbe Pierre's organization extant in the US; not via Google of the Emmaus International website. This is not politically "good" or "bad," but it certainly strikes me as sad. Still, I'm glad to know it exists somewhere in the world.

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