A second door opens to us when Sr Rhona Burns, a Daughter of Jesus in Paris, tells us how her involvement with people in precarious situations has led her to grow in humanity.
Behind the beige door
The door was beige five years ago but, after being tagged and painted over, it has become rather dingy. You only have to ring the bell, however, to be greeted with a big smile and invited into a place that is friendly and on a human scale. It is the door to La Bagagerie Cœur du Cinq (The Baggage Store at the Heart of the 5th), one of ten associations in Paris where men and women living in precarious situations can keep their belongings safe and secure.
Inside, you will find 54 large lockers, which can be accessed for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, every day of the year. This means that the ‘guests’ can move around during the day without worrying about :
– lugging heavy bags,
– being refused access to facilities such as the public library,
– being robbed.
At the same time, it is much more than a left luggage service. Apart from the lockers, we offer a space where those on the street can come in from the cold or the rain, sit down and rest for a while. They can drink a cup of coffee or tea, talk about anything and everything, spend time at the computer doing paperwork, or just relax. They can store food in the fridge or heat something up in the microwave.
Everything I take for granted, such as access to a toilet and a washbasin, is appreciated when you are a person on the street. It is a very modest “at home”, but it is always warm and welcoming.
Towards the peripheries
Unlike the Coeur du Cinq, the Bagagerie does not have a salaried social worker. Everything depends on a team of about forty volunteers of different generations and nationalities. The team members arrive by different routes – word of mouth, the Fabrique de la Solidarité, the Order of Malta, Caritas.
Like Monique, I chose to join the team because it corresponds to a central element of our charism, that of honouring “the Sacred Humanity of the Son of God” (Rule of Life no 3). For me, it is a way of living one of the invitations of our 2016 General Chapter :
“to move out of ourselves and our familiar habits,
to question our comfortable lives,
in order to make way for
an active and loving compassion.” (P. 9)
Active’ is the right choice of word because in the 5 years I have been here I have helped alongside the other volunteers with being present when we are open, doing the shopping, the cleaning and the laundry, preparing the attendance sheets and the statistics, and meetings of the volunteers. Next year I will be the treasurer, looking for grants and seeking to balance the budget. Hence two of the nicknames I’ve been given by those we welcome, ‘Rhona, the ant’ and ‘Mrs Clean’.
Yes, I give, but I receive much more from this collaboration and partnership between volunteers. Yes, it gets fraught sometimes and it heats up between us, but it is out of conviction and a desire to change the world for the better. The team is rich in experience, and we share our skills. I salute and thank all the members for what they have shared with me and for the links we have forged.
Towards a Church without borders
The most important links for me, however, are those I have forged with the people we welcome. There, a second call of the 2016 General Chapter echoes in me :
“to let our prejudices and habits be upset,
So that our mentalities can develop
and change the way we look at other people,” (P. 11)
Our ”guests” come from all over, each with his or her own skin colour, culture, language and religion. Each one has an experience of life and a journey unique to him or her. All of this diversity challenges and sometimes upsets me. I grumble when the kitchen is dirty when the lockers overflow when they leave their washing hanging on the radiators. From time to time I have to calm down the tensions and even fisticuffs from time to time and show authority. My third nickname is ‘The Commandant’ but it’s really because I share the experience of having been a soldier with one of the people I welcome. Every time he arrives now we salute each other!
I can truly say that I receive more from the guests than I give to them. From time to time I get little gifts – it might be a sandwich or a tin of sardines but it comes from the heart. On another level, they give me the gifts of :
– their ability to cope and overcome hardships.
– the richness of other ways of looking at the world.
– the dialogue with cultures and origins different from my own.
A whole education
They challenge me on how to live soberly and confront the plight of the current pandemic. I have learned a lot about the Islamic religion and the active compassion of the local Muslim community. I enjoy talking about “how you do it” in other countries and cultures.
Thank you to all of you! And if you have read this far … if you feel like joining us as a volunteer, or doing something similar outside of Paris, I encourage you to take the plunge. You will see the door open to surprising discoveries.
Sr Rhona Burns dj