Emmaus International

Stéphane Drechsler is the founder of Emmaus Cologne (Germany) and was vice-president of Emmaus International from 1991 to 1996. In 1969, he took part in the first Emmaus world assembly, which brought together 70 Emmaus organisations from 20 countries in Berne in Switzerland. Stéphane agreed to share some memories in this interview.

What was the purpose of the first world assembly?

At the time, only Abbé Pierre’s famous address book listed all the contact details of all the Emmaus organisations around the world. Moreover, Abbé Pierre had nearly lost his life in 1963 in a shipwreck on the River Plate (between Argentina and Uruguay) when he was visiting Emmaus organisations in Latin America. If he had perished that day, the Emmaus organisations worldwide would not have been in contact or would maybe never have found out that other Emmaus organisations even existed.
Abbé Pierre also wanted to prevent the movement from solely revolving around his personality. Forming a well-structured secular organisation was therefore a must in his eyes.

This first world assembly brought together some 70 Emmaus organisations from 20 countries. Some organisations met each other for the very first time. The assembly was held in the Swiss Parliament Building and Marcel Farine, who subsequently became the first president of Emmaus International, chaired the meeting. Marcel Farine used his professional experience to give the movement a clearer structure.
A temporary committee was formed in order to set up an international secretariat: the secretariat was tasked with preparing statutes for the international movement. A vote was taken on the statutes at the next world assembly held in 1971 in Montreal.

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What was the most memorable moment of this world assembly for you?

I was one of the youngest assembly participants. Meeting people who had been prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps left a big impression on me. Yet, as a German, I was accepted as being an equal partner. We shared the same struggle: fighting for greater social justice.

How did this world assembly help Emmaus to develop?

This assembly first and foremost enabled us to adopt the Universal Manifesto, which is still the movement’s founding text even today. This text has become the cornerstone of Emmaus’ work.
A text drawing on the contributions made by the groups was submitted to us. We then discussed and voted on it during the last few days of the assembly.
We needed to ensure that the text was sufficiently clear for us and for the general public worldwide. At the same time, it needed to be as outward-looking as possible to enable everyone to understand it, whatever their country, culture or continent. 

What did the Emmaus organisations from all around the world take from this first meeting?

For the participants, it was clear that the movement’s new structure would help us to bolster commitments between the groups and coordinate solidarity initiatives, while continuing to focus on those who suffer most.
We gained a better understanding of how to relieve extreme poverty but also how to address the root causes of exclusion and extreme poverty. This assembly reinforced our determination to be part of this sort of international solidarity and action movement.

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