From the top: Passion and Professionalism in Paris
by Commissioner Robin Dunster
AT Château Dan we walked the cobbled streets to just outside of town and stood, watched by a thousand windows from the top of a sheer cliff, in a light fog. The sun stood in the sky, dull like a powder puff, and no warmer. At night, in Paris, it set in golden red. After a lengthy wait a big Citroën offered us a lift into Paris. The radio was turned on. We didn’t recognise the words but we knew the tune: “Little man you’ve had a busy day.”
‘We entered Paris by the fabulous motorways at 140 km/hour and came through magnificent boulevards and parklands to l’Arc de Triomphe; from there by bus to the SA Headquarters, then by Metro to the YHA at de la Chapelle.
|The Chief of the Staff (right) with Territorial Commander Colonel Alain Duchêne outside Espace-St-Martin|
|The Dunster family in 1959, beside the Salvation Army barge|
|The Chief of the Staff with Youssef, author of the poem on the whiteboard|
|Espace-St-Martin staff and Salvation Army Foundation personnel with the Chief of the Staff (left) and Lieut-Colonel Edna Williams (IHQ, third from right)|
‘The experience of the day was our visit to the Armée du Salut barge which is a free bed and soup house for men. To get to it we walked along the bank of the River Seine, to its permanent anchorage, Quai St Bernard. Major Georgette Gogibus received us very warmly indeed and we put our names, with those of many other Australians, in her book.
‘The barge houses about 150 men and the major has a cabin astern and is the lone woman living aboard.’
Thus read my father’s diary from February 1959. I was 16 years old, hitchhiking around Europe with my parents. We had life membership of the International Youth Hostels Association and shared dormitories with adventurers from all over the world. Our limited resources meant that we ate simply, so when the major plied us with food – a thin veggie soup, sautéed potatoes, omelette, salad of endive and spring onions sprinkled with olive oil and vinegar, followed by cheese with coffee, the diary records that my eyes nearly fell out of my head!
My encounter with Major Gogibus was a memorable one. To this teenager, here was a woman to be admired and respected. Her chosen lifestyle and sacrificial service placed her in my careful selection of Salvation Army officer role models.
Some years later, I learned, with sorrow, that the barge had been withdrawn from service.
Moving on some 47 years to Saturday 4 November 2006, I found myself back in Paris, this time on official business as The Salvation Army’s Chief of the Staff.
Major Patrick Booth’s official report of the visit states:
‘The commissioner visited three social institutions in Paris:
‘The first was the “Espace St-Martin”, a former underground station transformed into a place which welcomes during the daytime homeless or durably dissocialised people. There, one can find an open ear and be helped in more practical ways such as with offers of a cup of coffee, a shower, washing machine, medical care, help for administrative necessities, search for a shelter or help to find another social or medical place.’
As Lieut-Colonel Edna Williams and I descended the long, steep flight of stairs, together with Colonel Alain Duchêne (Territorial Commander), we greeted individuals and little groups of men, all poorly – a few eccentrically – clad. Some responded but to others we seemed invisible. Evidently not all were at ease with the French language or English.
In a short space of time I realised that ESI St-Martin is the next generation of Salvation Army service being offered to homeless people in Paris. The old barge was a unique facility but now I was in what must be one of the most unusual Salvation Army locations for such a service.
Françoise Imperi, directrice of the service, is an enthusiastic young professional surrounded by a team in what the editor of their ‘in-house’ magazine describes as ‘a little village in a land of people of no fixed abode’.
The Métro station was closed in 1939. In the extreme winter of 1954 the platform was partitioned off to provide sleeping areas for vulnerable street sleepers. That was the year the ‘war without a name’ began. Historian John Talbot, writing about the struggle over the destiny of Algeria, a struggle in which terror bred torture and France itself was torn into warring factions, observes that this was the war that shook French life as Vietnam was to shake American life.
It was not until 2000 that The Salvation Army Foundation entered into an agreement with RAPT – the proprietors of the property – and The Salvation Army opened the doors on 6 March that year.
We experienced personally and witnessed a warm welcome being extended, without discrimination. It is evident that since the days of the barge there has been a dramatic shift in client profile. Most of the people we met were comparatively young male adults, economic refugees, some illegal immigrants, disconnected from family and home culture. Each was treated with respect, care and interest. The ministry is not labelled as Christian; however, the commitment of the workers and their compassionate and practical action surely conform to the criteria set by Jesus in the story of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:33-40).
Youssef, who describes himself as a ‘mountain guide from Morocco’, was the contributor to the words of wisdom for that day, written on the whiteboard fixed to the wall near the reception counter.
‘La passion est le vent qui gonfle les voiles des vaisseaux parfois elle le submerge et elle-même seule le fait avancer,’ he had written – ‘Passion is the wind that fills the ship’s sails; sometimes it submerges it and it alone moves it forward.’
Here is a place where unpretentious passion and professionalism blend to reach out to those in real need.
Beyond the welcome area, the little coffee counter recess, the library corner, shower and laundry areas we found private spaces for counselling, hairdressing and health care. Beyond that we again descended, this time through passageways to the cold darkness of the station platform, still partitioned as it had been in 1954. On the other side of a graffiti-covered wall a Métro train rumbled past. There was a sense of the surreal; shades of the Phantom of the Opera’s subterranean Paris.
When finally we re-emerged into the daylight and crisp cold of autumn it was with a unique sense of privilege for what had been a truly moving and spiritual experience. Still The Salvation Army fulfils its mission in reaching out to dislocated, lonely, desperate and lost people.
Commissioner Robin Dunster is the Chief of the Staff – second in command of The Salvation Army