Young people excluded from society are worthy of love and have a future
Jerôme Gué (GAL)
When studying to be an engineer, I was moved by the commitment of the staff of the ATD Fourth World movement, who lived alongside very poor families, struggling side-by-side to realise change for them in society. After classes, I would go to one of these neighbourhoods and help out in the community college which the movement organised with these people. They taught me a great deal about life, they taught me to listen and to be humble. Most of all, I would always return with great joy. I had the feeling that these encounters were guiding me to something profoundly essential. 35 years later, that continues to be the case.
For the last 17 years, I have lived, with my community, in a neighbourhood where there are many socially disadvantaged families, a number of whom are of migrant background and Muslim confession. I am very lucky to have regular interaction with these families, in an ordinary, neighbourly way, in community life, and at Church. However, it infuriates me to see a large number of young people stuck here without work, stuck in the boredom and sometimes caught up in trouble. What a waste and what an injustice! They find themselves excluded from society, they don´t feel loved. I cannot accept that we leave so many young people to rot for years in failure and exclusion (one in five young people nationally). What kind of a start to life can they make, if their youth is wasted so?
The Society of Jesus asked me to establish a production school for these young people. Ours is a professional training centre, where they learn turning and milling, producing pieces for clients, as if in a business. Afterwards, they find work. One of the most wonderful moments is at the end of the year, when the whole team gathers around the assistant's computer and with a click finds out the results of their professional exams. There's no guarantee, but usually almost everyone passes. This is quite emotional if you consider what these youths were like when they began, two years previously, and having now succeeded in something which has recognition in society. Young people who were previously rejected and deemed good-for-nothings, now getting a recognized diploma and working in high-tech businesses - the world is upside-down! That's why my favourite prayer is the Magnificat!
The daily training is testing, especially for the tutors, most of all those in the workshop. They are tradesmen. Having not studied to a high academic level, they understand and are sympathetic towards these young people and the setbacks they experience. Above all, they have become highly competent both in technical ability and as supervisors, allowing them to foster self-confidence in the youths, through their practical work, all the while guaranteeing that the product sold is to a perfect standard. What they do is extraordinary!
The youths impress us with their spontaneity, their energy, their unpretentiousness and their humour. Educational conversations with them are often truly challenging. They can lose confidence and get caught up in all kinds of things, often related to their history and their unsupportive environment. How do you find somewhere in them the desire to progress, and the lever to renew their motivation? Seeing these youths struggle with their personal difficulties, I´m often reminded that we really are of the same flesh and blood, aware, as I am, of my own inner and spiritual battles. We share a sort of inner fraternity, at the heart of our desire to be alive and to stand tall.
None of us have the powers of healing and of hope which Jesus possessed for those excluded or suffering. However, taking into account the entire educational team and perhaps the youths themselves, this school has a real power of healing and reconciliation in society. The youths reconcile with themselves and with society, but also society reconciles with the youths, notably throughout the entire network of people who contribute to the school, be it financially, commercially or through voluntary activities. It provides a means of spreading a positive image of the youths in society. Our role has seldom been to share the Christian faith, but I have been content to be a companion of Jesus, contributing to a school whose approach means that everyone, no matter who they are, is worthy of being loved and has a future.
For the last four years, I have organised the network of training centres implementing Ignatian pedagogy for young people in difficulty, and I coordinate the social activities of the Jesuits. Thus, I am witness to many very nice projects, spread across different places, which give me a sense of wonderment and of thanksgiving. Institutional matters are important. For example, with the federation of production schools, we have been fighting for years at a political level so that the concept of a production school be recognized, funded, and widely developed at a national level. Moreover, there is good news, things are beginning to progress!
Ecole de production: a type of technical training school for young people aged 15+. Common in some regions of France. http://www.ecoles-de-production.com/