Portrait of the month: Alain, volunteer at Emmaus Bougival (July 2021)

For this July newsletter, we welcome Alain Capmas, former president and volunteer of Emmaus Bougival (78), who tells us about the creation of Emmaus Europe.

I was a board member of both Emmaus France and International and when Emmaus Europe was created in 2007, I became board member and treasurer. It was exciting because it allowed me to participate in development projects. The groups were very quick to help and donate money. And Emmaus Europe, made us realize that the groups functioned in a very collaborative way, that is to say that there was no hierarchy between the groups, they rather had relations of mutual aid, of exchange .

Before Emmaus Europe, was there no Emmaus designation other than in France?

Actually, the first creation was Emmaus International. Abbé Pierre was on a ferry boat, the “Rio de la Plata”, it sank and he was pronounced dead. But he came out of there unscathed and he said to himself “I meet a lot of groups in a lot of countries, they have to know each other”. Emmaus France was a much later creation, in the 1980s, while Emmaus International was created in the 1960s. After that, we noticed that there were groups in Europe that were being created but that ultimately, they didn’t know each other very well. Emmaus International had decided to regionalize: there are groups in Europe, Africa, Asia and America […]. But the groups’ reaction to Emmaus Europe was: 

“We don’t want a labyrinthine system, we don’t want a hierarchical structure that will try to explain to us what to do. Rather, we want you to help us meet, work together and share our difficulties and ensure that we are defended at a European level ”.

We have spoken several times at the European Parliament, in particular on the topic of immigration.

Was it a logical follow-up to create Emmaus Europe?

It was a logical follow-up. The difficulty is that Emmaus Europe is a very large structure, with many many groups […]. Also there is an imbalance because Emmaus France is huge compared to the others. But I think it worked out well. Emmaus Europe did not seek to play hierarchy or politics either, […] that was not the objective at all. 

And then on the contrary, can it be a strength for small groups to be helped by larger ones?

Exactly. It was one of the very strong points in Europe and it made it possible to develop groups: in Iași, Satu Mare, Târgu Jiu (in Romania) but also in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Bosnia, Serbia. 

In France, how many are there?

120 communities and 180 “other” groups […] which are financed by the communities, which make micro loans to individuals and families in need.

He then goes on to a present Emmaüs Bougival

Emmaüs Bougival is one of the first five communities of the movement, which was created in 1953 […]. Today, there are 130 companions on three sites for 15 employees. It is one of the five largest communities in France in terms of the number of companions. The community is located in a quite wealthy municipality and therefore we collect beautiful material, which allows us to live well, […] but also and above all to help other groups. Solidarity is one of the key points of Bougival […]. We have 11 trucks and we made the choice to donate a truck after ten years […]. Cette année, c’est Iași qui a reçu ce camion.

There are three places: Bougival, the historic site which is quite “constrained”; a shop in Nanterre where we have created an integration project […]; a 4,500 square meter site in Chatou, where our solidarity workshops are located. Because we had noticed that we were wasting a lot of material, […] it helped us considerably to have this large building with really diverse workshops. And it also makes it possible to train companions. […]. 

Are there volunteers who help?

Volunteers and companions. There are 80 volunteers with the 130 companions. And I have been a volunteer for 30 years at Bougival. 

Finally, he tells us about how he met L’Abbé Pierre. 

Abbé Pierre, who always said he was very old and tired. […]. He always came to spend time with us, to talk, he also liked to walk around. […] But he was astonishing, because the first time I met him, he said to me: “You, are you married, do you have children?” Yes ! “Your wife, your children first. Be careful!” 

He had met many people who had “drowned” in Emmaus. It’s true that it’s so fascinating, how rich all these social interactions can be, that many people ended up overwhelmed here. […] You really have to keep your balance […] to be able to last long-term. It’s in the long run that we manage to make things. 

Is there an addictive side to helping people?

Indeed, we must be very careful because there are power relationships and abuse of weakness. Someone who possibly has a slight need-for-recognition issue can drown in it. […]. So yes, this is one of the difficulties in Emmaus, which I have seen several times. On the other hand, what I find fascinating is that the community is the typical example of human permaculture. In a community like Bougival, with 130 companions, ages range from 18 to 80 years old. We have 30 nationalities and all these people live together. It’s permaculture because there is an incredible human richness. Whereas when we see the big French companies, […] (they) have all come out of the same school and all think alike, […] so if there is a virus that passes by we end up saying “funny, there used to be a big company here and it has completely disappeared “. That’s because it had no resilience. 

We at Emmaus have an incredible resilience in the communities, there is always this creativity, […] this mutual aid which also exists internally first, but also between groups when it’s needed [. ..] we know how to help each other perfectly. There are always exchanges which allow us to develop ideas. […] We are able to manage failures like that […]. We had serious setbacks, organized theft, floods, fires, etc. And it never broke a group apart. We can fight and squabble […] but if a guy burns, it’s the one he was arguing with the day before who will bring his truck to help restart. This is one of the things that is extraordinary, it is one of the biggest assets of the movement for me.