It was Easter 1958 that saw me panicking in the face of a looming oral exam. But Abbé Pierre, the founder of Emmaus, had made a recent appeal to students at my university to come over and help him in his communities in France. I saw an opportunity to brush up my faltering French and seized it with both hands.
Out on a lorry every day, I learned manual handling the hard way - pianos always seemed to be on the fifth floor of apartment blocks, and the companions taught me the sort of French which has held me in good stead in Paris traffic jams ever since. But more than that - they accepted me in a way that I have never forgotten. I was so taken by the movement, that I carried on recruiting others to the Emmaus cause.
I visited Emmaus communities in France several times and on each occasion I wondered how the movement could be brought to Britain. However, in 1992, I saw a tiny snippet in the newspaper which told me that a community was being opened in the UK. As a result of that piece of coverage I tracked down Selwyn Image – one of my recruits for Abbé Pierre.
Following my visit to Cambridge, I initially worked with Coventry Council of Churches Homelessness Commission, an organisation which was keen to find a practical application for their charitable work. Within months, the Coventry & Warwickshire group was launched. A Grade 2 listed building in an old vicarage became the community house, and the first companions arrived in April 1993. Our first shop opened in December 1993.
As a trustee, I have always been involved with the strategic decisions made on behalf of the community’s companions and staff – and we have not always had an easy ride. The community closed once due to staff sickness and we have seen one of our shops close, too. However, I take pride in the fact that despite it all, we are still afloat, we are still weathering the storm.
I am fascinated by the three pillars on which Emmaus is based: work, community living, and solidarity, and it is these principles that I share over and over again, to ensure that others are as enthralled by Emmaus as I am.