• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Agenda: Dip into the store of compassion to create an uprising of kindness

SIXTY years ago, on February 1, 1954, Abbe Pierre (1912-2007), a French priest who had become famous because of his role in the Resistance during the Second World War, declared war on homelessness.

Speaking on Radio Luxembourg, he told his listeners they had helped defeat Nazism. What were they willing to do to defeat homelessness?

The result was what was described as "an outpouring of kindness" by the French press.

Less than 10 years after the end of the war, French people probably didn't have too much to spare.

In the UK rationing had scarcely ended. But, struck by the forcefulness of the Abbé Pierre's speech, they were affected by the plight of those who were the worst off; those who didn't even have a roof over their heads.

Listening to his words, they heard "the voice of the voiceless". Tons of household goods and millions of francs were donated.

Abbé Pierre had never made such an appeal before. He was the founder of the Emmaus communities. They take their name from a village in Israel appearing in the Gospel of Luke, where disciples extended hospitality to Jesus after the resurrection, without recognising him. The concept has been described as "a sort of social fuel derived from salvaging defeated men".

The first community was established in Paris in 1949. The first Emmaus companion was Georges, a man who had spent 20 years in prison and, homeless and despairing, had tried to kill himself. He was brought to Abbe Pierre, who took him in and set him to work helping to build temporary homes for those in need.

Georges said Abbe Pierre had offered him something to live for. In 1951, Abbe Pierre had resigned as an MP for the Popular Republican Movement to devote himself to fighting homelessness and poverty. He inspired groups of poor people not to beg but to go out to the city dumps to see what they could recycle and make a living from.

Once these so-called "rag pickers" had done so, he wanted them to feel they were in a position to help others. The concept of companions running self-supporting businesses, with the profits going to those in greatest need, was born.

In Paris in the winter in early 1954, the weather was exceptionally severe. Several homeless people had died on the streets. In addition to his Radio Luxembourg speech, Abbe Pierre asked Le Figaro to publish his appeal for help to address the horror edured by thousands on the streets, including the woman who froze to death clutching the eviction notice that had made her homeless.

He appealed for the establishment of centres where those who suffered could eat, sleep, recover hope and be loved. More than 500m in francs was donated in the "uprising of kindness".

I remember a person who had once been homeless and who had made his way back into paid employment. He said that, while he was sleeping on a park bench, the hardest bit was not the cold or the hunger.

It was the experience of being looked down on. Some people made it clear that he could be treated like dirt simply because he was homeless.

Yet others were kind to him. He said that, even if people could not or chose not to donate anything, if they only showed him a bit of fellow human feeling he felt just a bit better in himself. He felt a little more sure that, one day, he would get out of the mess he found himself in.

Sir Harry Burns, who is standing down as Scotland's Chief Medical Officer, has gone on record as saying that "compassion is good for your health". We know times are tough. Food banks tell us they are tougher for some than for others.

Today, I would ask everyone to dip into their store of human kindness and give to someone who is worse off than they are.If it's a shopping day, buy a little extra to give away.

If there is something under the bed or in the attic or taking up garage space, take it to your nearest charity shop or phone to have it picked up.

If someone looks down and out, don't be afraid to make eye contact. Let us have an uprising of kindness in Scotland this winter.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

209664