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What happens to us when we DON’T serve | Abbe Pierre’s story

March 8, 2024

The value of service is better shown than told, and a powerful memory edges into my mind of an odd-looking Frenchman named Abbé Pierre. Unannounced, he showed up one day at the leprosy hospital at Vellore. A homely man with a big nose and a scraggly beard, he wore a simple monk’s habit and carried a single carpetbag containing everything he possessed. I invited him to stay at my home, and there he told me his story.

Born into a noble family, as a teenager Pierre renounced his inheritance and gave away his possessions to charity. After becoming ordained as a Catholic priest, he served in the French Resistance, helping to rescue Jews from the Nazis. He spent a few terms in France’s parliament until he became disillusioned with the slow pace of political change. With Paris still reeling from the effects of war and Nazi occupation, thousands of homeless beggars lived in the streets.

During one unusually harsh winter, many homeless Parisians froze to death. Pierre could not tolerate the endless debates by noblemen and politicians while so many street people starved outside. Failing to interest politicians in their plight, Abbé Pierre concluded he had only one recourse: to mobilize the beggars themselves.

First, he taught them to do their tasks more efficiently. Instead of sporadically collecting bottles and rags, they organized into teams to scour the city. Next, he led them to build a warehouse from discarded bricks and to start a business in which they sorted vast amounts of used bottles from big hotels and businesses. Then Pierre inspired each beggar by giving him the responsibility to help another beggar poorer than himself.

The project caught fire, and within a few years, an organization called Emmaus was founded to expand Pierre’s work into other countries. The movement became known as “Abbé Pierre and the Ragpickers of Emmaus.” Now, he told me, after years of this work in Paris, there were no beggars left in that city. Pierre believed his organization was facing a serious crisis. “I must find somebody for my beggars to help!” he declared. That quest had brought him to Vellore.

He concluded by describing his dilemma. “If I don’t find people worse off than my beggars, this movement could turn inward. They’ll become a powerful, rich organization and the whole spiritual impact will be lost. They’ll have no one to serve.” 

As we walked out of the house toward the student hostel to have lunch, my head was ringing with Abbé Pierre’s earnest plea for “somebody for my beggars to help!”

We had a tradition among the medical students at Vellore about which I forewarned all guests. Lunchtime guests would stand and say a few words about who they were and why they had come. Like students everywhere, ours were lighthearted, and they had developed an unspoken three-minute tolerance rule. If any guest talked longer than three minutes, the students would stamp their feet and silence the speaker.

On the day of Pierre’s visit, he stood and I introduced him to the group.

I could see the Indian students eyeing him quizzically- this small man wearing a peculiar old hat. Pierre started speaking in French, and a colleague named Heinz and I strained to translate what he was saying.

Neither of us was well-practiced in French, and we could only break in now and then with a summary sentence.

Abbé Pierre began slowly but soon sped up, like an audio file playing too fast. I was on edge because I knew the students would soon shout down this great, humble man. Worse, I was failing miserably to translate his rapid-fire sentences. He had just visited the UN headquarters where he had listened to dignitaries use fine-sounding, flowery words to insult other countries. Pierre was saying that you don’t need language to express love, only to express hate.

The language of love is what you do.

He spoke even faster, gesticulating all the while, and Heinz and I looked at each other and shrugged helplessly.

Three minutes passed, and I stepped back and looked around the room. No one moved. The students gazed at Pierre with piercing black eyes, their faces rapt. He went on and on, and no one interrupted.

After twenty minutes Pierre sat down, and immediately the students burst into the most tremendous ovation I had ever heard in that hall.

Completely mystified, I questioned the students afterward. “How did you understand? No one here speaks French.”

One student answered me, “We did not need a language. We felt the presence of God and the presence of love.”

Abbé Pierre had learned the discipline of loyal service that determines the Body’s health. He had come to India in search of people more needy than his former beggars. He found them, some five thousand miles from his home, among our leprosy patients, many of whom were of the Untouchable caste and worse off in every way than his followers in France.

Some visitors shied away from our patients; Abbé Pierre embraced them.

When he returned to Paris, the members of Emmaus worked with new energy, donating the proceeds to fund a ward at the hospital in Vellore. “No, no, it is you who have saved us”, Pierre told the grateful recipients of his gift in India.

“We must serve or we die.” 

In a fundamental human paradox, the more we reach out beyond ourselves, the more we are enriched and the more we grow in likeness to God-the Father of all good gifts. On the other hand, the more a person “incurves, to use Luther’s word, the less human he or she becomes.

Our need to give of ourselves in service to the whole Body is as great as anyone’s need to receive.

– Fearfully and Wonderfully, The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ - Acts 20:35

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