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I’m a believer

In our increasingly secular society, many religious people feel their voices are not heard. So here,

After four centuries of breathtaking scientific progress, many wonder why intelligent people would still feel the need to believe in God. Andrew Zak Williams decided to find out. Over the course of several months, he corresponded with dozens of scientists and other public figures, quizzing them on the reasons for their faith. Here is a selection of the responses.

Cherie Blair, barrister
It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.

Jeremy Vine, broadcaster
There is a subjective reason and an objective reason. The subjective reason is that I find consolation in my faith. The objective reason is that the story of the gospels has stood the test of time and Christ comes across as a totally captivating figure.

In moments of weariness or cynicism, I tell myself I only believe because my parents did; and the Christian faith poses more questions than it answers.

But I still return to believing, as if that is more natural than not doing so.

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Oxford
To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ's life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else.
In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.

Peter Hitchens, journalist
I believe in God because I choose to do so. I believe in the Christian faith because I prefer to do so. The existence of God offers an explanation of many of the mysteries of the universe - es­pecially "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and the questions which follow from that. It requires our lives to have a purpose, and our actions to be measurable against a higher standard than their immediate, observable effect. Having chosen belief in a God over unbelief, I find the Christian gospels more per­suasive and the Christian moral system more powerful than any other religious belief.

I was, it is true, brought up as a Christian, but ceased to be one for many years. When I returned to belief I could have chosen any, but did not.

Jonathan Aitken, former politician
I believe in God because I have searched for Him and found Him in the crucible of brokenness. Some years ago I went through an all-too-well-publicised drama of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. In the course of that saga I discovered a loving God who answers prayers, forgives and redeems.

James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
One word: Jesus. All that you imagine God would be, He is. His life and His love are compelling, His wisdom convincing.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
I believe in God because He has both revealed and hidden Himself in so many different ways: in the created world, the Holy Bible, the man Jesus Christ; in the Church and men and women of God through the ages; in human relationships, in culture and beauty, life and death, pain and suffering; in immortal longings, in my faltering prayers and relationship with Him. There is nothing conclusive to force me into believing, but everything sug­gestive, and constantly drawing me on into the love of Christ and to "cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt".

David Alton, Lib Dem peer
The notion that humanity and the cosmos are an accident has always seemed implausible. A world littered with examples of complex genius - from developments in quantum theory to regenerative medicine - points us towards genius more perfect and more unfathomable than ourselves. The powerful combination of faith and reason led me as a child to believe in God.

Unsurprisingly, as I matured into manhood, that belief has not been immune against the usual catalogue of failure, sadness and grief; and belief has certainly not camouflaged the horrors of situations I have seen first hand in places such as Congo and Sudan. Paradoxically, it has been where suffering has been most acute that I have also seen the greatest faith.

By contrast, the more we own or have, the more difficulty we seem to have in seeing and encountering the Divine.

Professor Stephen R L Clark, philosopher
I believe in God because the alternatives are worse. Not believing in God would mean that we have no good reason to think that creatures such as us human beings (accidentally generated in a world without any overall purpose) have any capacity - still less any duty - to discover what the world is like.

Denying that "God exists" while still maintaining a belief in the power of reason is, in my view, ridiculous.My belief is that we need to add both that God is at least possibly incarnate among us, and that the better description of God (with all possible caveats about the difficulty of speaking about the infinite source of all being and value) is as something like a society. In other words, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, and of the trinity, have the philosophical edge. And once those doctrines are included, it is possible to see that other parts of that tradition are important.

Nick Spencer, director of Theos, the public theology think tank
I would say I find Christianity (rather than just belief in God) the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying explanation for being.

Stephen Green, director of the fundamentalist pressure group Christian Voice
I came to faith in God through seeing the ducks on a pond in People's Park, Grimsby. It struck me that they were all doing a similar job, but had different plumage. Why was that? Why did the coot have a white beak and the moorhen a red one? Being a hard-nosed engineer, I needed an explanation that worked and the evolutionary model seemed too far-fetched and needful of too much faith!

I mean, what could possibly be the evolutionary purpose of the bars on the hen mallard's wings, which can only be seen when she flies? Or the tuft on the head of the tufted duck?

So I was drawn logically to see them as designed like that. I suppose I believed in an intelligent designer long before the idea became fashionable. So, that left me as a sort of a deist. But God gradually became more personal to me and I was drawn against all my adolescent atheist beliefs deeper and deeper into faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglas Hedley, reader in metaphysics, Clare College, Cambridge
Do values such as truth, beauty and goodness emerge out of a contingent and meaningless substrate? Or do these values reflect a transcendent domain from which this world has emerged? I incline to the latter, and this is a major reason for my belief in God.

Paul Davies, quantum physicist
I am not comfortable answering the question "Why do you believe in God?" because you haven't defined "God". In any case, as a scientist,
I prefer not to deal in "belief" but rather in the usefulness of concepts. I am sure I don't believe in any sort of god with which most readers of your article would identify.

I do, however, assume (along with all scientists) that there is a rational and intelligible scheme of things that we uncover through scientific investigation. I am uncomfortable even being linked with "a god" because of the vast baggage that this term implies (a being with a mind, able to act on matter within time, making decisions, etc).

Professor Derek Burke, biochemist and former president of Christians in Science
There are several reasons why I believe in God. First of all, as a scientist who has been privileged to live in a time of amazing scientific discoveries (I received my PhD in 1953, the year Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA), I have been overwhelmed by wonder at the order and intricacy of the world around us. It is like peeling skins off an onion: every time you peel off a layer, there is another one underneath, equally marvellously intricate. Surely this could not have arisen by chance? Then my belief is strengthened by reading the New Testament especially, with the accounts of that amazing person, Jesus, His teaching, His compassion, His analysis of the human condition, but above all by His resurrection. Third, I'm deeply impressed by the many Christians whom I have met who have lived often difficult lives with compassion and love. They are an inspiration to me.

Peter J Bussey, particle physicist
God is the ultimate explanation, and this includes the explanation for the existence of physical reality, for laws of nature and everything. Let me at this point deal with a commonly encountered "problem" with the existence of God, one that Richard Dawkins and others have employed.
It goes that if God is the ultimate cause or the ultimate explanation, what then is the cause of God, or the explanation for God? My reply
is that, even in our own world, it is improper to repeat the same investigatory question an indefinite number of times. For example, we ask, "Who designed St Paul's Cathedral?" and receive the reply: "Sir Christopher Wren." But, "No help whatever," objects the sceptic, "because, in that case, who then designed Sir Christopher Wren?" To this, our response will now be that it is an inappropriate question and anyone except a Martian would know that. Different questions will be relevant now.

So, likewise, it is very unlikely that we know the appropriate questions, if any, to ask about God, who is presumably outside time, and is the source of the selfsame rationality that we presume to employ to understand the universe and to frame questions about God.
What should perhaps be underlined is that, in the absence of total proof, belief in God will be to some extent a matter of choice.

Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, bioethicist and Anglican priest
At the age of 18 or 19, a religious way of understanding the world began increasingly to make sense. It did not involve in any way abandoning the scientific way. If you like, it's a larger way of understanding our relationship with the rest of the world, our position in nature and all those standard questions to do with why we are here, if there is life after death, and so on. That was reinforced by good teaching, prayer and regular reading of scripture.

Peter Richmond, theoretical physicist
Today most people reject the supernatural but there can be no doubt that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant. And here I would differentiate these from some of the preaching of authoritarian churches, which has no doubt been the source of much that could be considered to be evil over the years. Even today, we see conflict in places such as Africa or the Middle East - killings made in the name of religion, for example. As Christians, we recognise these for what they are - evil acts perpetrated by the misguided. At a more domestic level, the marginalisation of women in the Church is another example that should be exposed for what it is: sheer prejudice by the present incumbents of the Church hierarchy. But as Christians, we can choose to make our case to change things as we try to follow the social teachings of Jesus. Compared to pagan idols, Jesus offered hope, comfort and inspiration, values that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Michigan
[Our] spirituality, rooted in the developing biblical wisdom and in a faith tradition that crosses the centuries, helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology, Brown University
I regard scientific rationality as the key to understanding the material basis of our existence as well as our history as a species. That's the reason why I have fought so hard against the "creationists" and those who advocate "intelligent design". They deny science and oppose scientific rationality, and I regard their ideas as a threat to a society such as ours that has been so hospitable to the scientific enterprise.

There are, however, certain questions that science cannot answer - not because we haven't figured them out yet (there are lots of those), but because they are not scientific questions at all. As the Greek philosophers used to ask, what is the good life? What is the nature of good and evil? What is the purpose to existence? My friend Richard Dawkins would ask, in response, why we should think that such questions are even important. But to most of us, I would respond, these are the most important questions of all.

What I can tell you is that the world I see, including the world I know about from science, makes more sense to me in the light of a spiritual understanding of existence and the hypo­thesis of God. Specifically, I see a moral polarity to life, a sense that "good" and "evil" are actual qualities, not social constructions, and that choosing the good life (as the Greeks meant it) is the central question of existence. Given that, the hypothesis of God conforms to what I know about the material world from science and gives that world a depth of meaning that I would find impossible without it.

Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science, and even provides a reason why science works and is of such value - because science explores that rationality of existence, a rationality that itself derives from the source of that existence.

In any case, I am happy to confess that I am a believer, and that for me, the Christian faith is the one that resonates. What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.

Nick Brewin, molecular biologist
A crucial component of the question depends on the definition of "God". As a scientist, the "God" that I believe in is not the same God(s) that I used to believe in. It is not the same God that my wife believes in; nor is it the same God that my six-year-old granddaughter believes in; nor is it the God that my brain-damaged and physically disabled brother believes in. Each person has their own concept of what gives value and purpose to their life. This concept of "God" is based on a combination of direct and indirect experience.

Humankind has become Godlike, in the sense that it has acquired the power to store and manipulate information. Language, books, computers and DNA genomics provide just a few illustrations of the amazing range of technologies at our fingertips. Was this all merely chance? Or should we try to make sense of the signs and wonders that are embedded in a "revealed religion"?

Perhaps by returning to the "faith" position of children or disabled adults, scientists can extend their own appreciation of the value and purpose of individual human existence. Science and religion are mutually complementary.

Hugh Ross, astrophysicist and astronomer
Astronomy fascinates me. I started serious study of the universe when I was seven. By the age of 16, I could see that Big Bang cosmology offered the best explanation for the history of the universe, and because the Big Bang implies a cosmic beginning, it would require a cosmic beginner. It seemed reasonable that a creator of such awesome capacities would speak clearly and consistently if He spoke at all. So I spent two years perusing the holy books of the world's religions to test for these characteristics. I found only one such book. The Bible stood apart: not only did it provide hundreds of "fact" statements that could be tested for accuracy, it also anticipated - thousands of years in advance - what scientists would later discover, such as the fundamental features of Big Bang cosmology.

My observation that the Bible's multiple creation narratives accurately describe hundreds of details discovered much later, and that it consistently places them in the scientifically correct sequence, convinced me all the more that the Bible must be the supernaturally inspired word of God. Discoveries in astronomy first alerted me to the existence of God, and to this day the Bible's power to anticipate scientific discoveries and predict sociopolitical events ranks as a major reason for my belief in the God of the Bible. Despite my secular upbringing, I cannot ignore the compelling evidence emerging from research into the origin of the universe, the anthropic principle, the origin of life and the origin of humanity. Theaccumulating evidence continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible.

Steve Fuller, philosopher/professor of sociology, University of Warwick
I am a product of a Jesuit education (before university), and my formal academic training is in history and philosophy of science, which is the field credited with showing the tight links between science and religion. While I have never been an avid churchgoer, I am strongly moved by the liberatory vision of Jesus promoted by left-wing Christians.

I take seriously the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we may come to exercise the sorts of powers that are associated with divinity. In this regard, I am sympathetic to the dissenting, anticlerical schools of Christianity - especially Unitarianism, deism and transcendentalism, idealism and humanism. I believe that it is this general position that has informed the progressive scientific spirit.

People such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens like to think of themselves as promoting a progressive view of humanity, but I really do not see how Darwinism allows that at all, given its species-egalitarian view of nature (that is, humans are just one more species - no more privileged than the rest of them). As I see it, the New Atheists live a schizoid existence, where they clearly want to privilege humanity but have no metaphysical basis for doing so.

Michael J Behe, scientific advocate of intelligent design
Two primary reasons: 1) that anything exists; and 2) that we human beings can comprehend and reason. I think both of those point to God.

Denis Alexander, director, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge
I believe in the existence of a personal God. Viewing the universe as a creation renders it more coherent than viewing its existence as without cause. It is the intelligibility of the world that requires explanation.

Second, I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the
Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God. Third, having been a Christian for more than five decades, I have experienced God through Christ over this period in worship, answered prayer and through His love. These experiences are more coherent based on the assumption that God does exist.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia
There are many reasons - lines of evidence, if you will - all of which weave together to point me in a certain direction (much as a scientist or a jury might do before reaching a considered judgement), which we call a belief.

[I believe] because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and
it just so happens that He predicted that He would . . . I believe because of the testimony of billions of believers, just a few of whom are known to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony).

I believe because of my ineradicable sense that certain things I see and hear about in the world warrant the non-arbitrary categories of "good" or "evil". I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created - willed into being - by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist and Skeptic. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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A 21st century workhouse or a second chance? My life as an Emmaus Companion

Homelessness charity Emmaus takes in the desperate. But does it show them a way out again? 

In the summer of 2013, towards the end of my final year at university, I found myself homeless. Before I had started my studies, I lived and worked in Oldham. As I was a care leaver, I was receiving support from the council’s vulnerable adults team. When I started my degree, however, I moved to Mossley in the neighbouring borough of Tameside. The rent was cheaper and the flat was closer to my family. But with the move, I lost the support from Oldham Council. At the time, this didn't cause me great concern. I thought: "I don’t need to be babysat anymore." I was wrong.

I wasn’t ready to look after myself. During my finals, I fell into heavy arrears with my landlord, I was living alone, and White Storm and Scrumpy Jack had taken over from my support workers. I first became aware of Emmaus during this time, when I befriended residents of the Mossley community at their evening drinking haunt, the “Beach”, a sandy bank on the River Tame situated behind a derelict factory.

They told me how they were all formerly homeless and that Emmaus had provided them with sanctuary in return for 40 hours’ work a week. After our meeting on the Beach I didn’t really think about the charity again – until I found myself living on a campsite a few months later.

“Somewhere I can recover my self respect”

“If you are suffering, whoever you are, come in, eat, sleep, and regain hope. Here you are loved.” Abbé Pierre’s words are at the heart of what Emmaus claims to offer Britain’s homeless. Pierre, a Catholic priest and former member of the French Resistance, founded Emmaus in 1949. He began by taking homeless people off the streets in Paris and had them recycle old rags to earn their keep. The Emmaus model in the UK is not too far removed from the one that Pierre founded, only now Emmaus is a secular organisation, and predominantly trades in second-hand furniture.

Emmaus communities in the UK accept people who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion. Those who are accepted are referred to as Companions. They receive accommodation, food, clothing, and a small weekly allowance in exchange for 40 hours of work in the Emmaus social enterprise. But for Companions to earn “love”, they must adhere to a strict set of rules. They must not bring non-prescription drugs or alcohol onto the premises. They must relinquish all claims to state benefits apart from housing benefit, which is claimed on their behalf. They do not have employment or conventional renting rights. Legislation has specifically excluded them from receiving the minimum wage, and they are not allowed to receive any extra income apart from the weekly subsistence allowance.

Emmaus came to the UK 40 years after it had been established throughout France. The first community in the UK was opened by a Cambridge businessman, Selwyn Image, who reportedly drew inspiration to start Emmaus from a conversation with a homeless man at a soup and sandwich shelter.

The man told Image what he wanted was “somewhere where I can work, where I feel I belong, and where I can recover my self-respect”. Later, he recalled work experience he had done at an Emmaus community in Paris. He reached out to Abbé Pierre and received his blessing to open the first Emmaus community in Cambridge in 1991.

Today Emmaus UK is the largest movement outside France, with 29 communities spread across the country. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is a patron, and the president is the former assistant to an Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite.

The aims of the organisation have fit in snugly with conservative ideas of community and volunteerism. In 2011, shortly after the Conservative-led coalition government took power, a House of Commons select committee report stated: “We regard the challenge to government presented by charities such as Emmaus as a litmus test of the government’s Big Society project.”

“You are walking on eggshells”

When I entered Emmaus Mossley, I felt relieved that some structure and stability was being reintroduced into my life. After a while I began to feel normal again. I was working in a regular job, and I fell asleep in the same place every night. But as I spent more time with the charity, my feelings changed. Many of the Companions I was with had lived there for a long time, and even though they routinely complained about the community they had nowhere else to go. They were trapped.

I also began to notice that I was doing full-time manual labour for no pay, with no basic rights protecting me. I lived at Emmaus in two different communities for just over a year, but I never felt the “love” Pierre spoke of. Instead by the time I left the community I felt exploited, demoralised and angry. I felt like I was no more to them than a cog in a machine.

I left Emmaus Mossley in late 2013, but after some complicated housing issues I returned, this time to the St Albans community. There I met Leon Webster, 37, an electrical engineer who came to Emmaus after struggles with drugs caused him to lose his job.

Leon’s first impressions of the charity were similar to my own: he welcomed the sanctuary the community provided. But after a few months, his views changed too. He witnessed Companions being frequently expelled from the community: “You don't have a home, you live in this community but you don't have any rights as a tenant. You could wake up in a bad mood one morning, tell someone to fuck off or do something equally stupid, and that’s it you're back homeless again even if you’ve been in there for four or five years. You are walking on eggshells; if you cause trouble, you're out.”

He claimed that the rules were applied inconsistently in the community: "I think a lot of it is if your face fits, and if the staff like you.”

Dominic Smith, 22, another former Companion at Emmaus St Albans who now works as a magician, shared Leon’s fears of being thrown out of the community: “You could get ejected quite easily; people were kicked out left, right, and centre. It is quite daunting to think that if you lose your job you also lose your home. Usually those things are separate.”

Dominic described one incident involving an expulsion: “This guy was kicked out for drinking in his room. Then he started living at the back of the garden near the fence.” Dominic said he took pity on him, and brought him food in the evening: “They asked me why I was giving him food. I was given a verbal warning for doing that. They didn’t explain what rule I had broken.”

In response to Dominic’s claims, Emmaus said: “It is not unusual for companions to provide food for people living outside of the community and it is not something they would be reprimanded for. There is no record of any kind of warning being given to Dominic for passing on food.” 

The perception that the rules were not fairly applied was shared by a group of former Companions I encountered using a homeless relief centre in Deptford. They described a similar atmosphere at Emmaus Lambeth, in central London. Some of them had received short-term bans and were hoping to re-enter the community as they had nowhere else to go. Because of this, only Conor, a young man in his early twenties, agreed to be interviewed on the record. Conor said he didn’t feel valued in Emmaus and that the charity is run more like a business: “It was alright at the start, I kept my head down but trouble always seemed to follow me in there. They’ve got their own little cliques, and their favourites.”

I witnessed the inconsistent application of Emmaus’s rules first hand. During one particularly frightening evening at Emmaus St Albans I got into a confrontation with another Companion. After a brief scuffle, this person produced a knife. Before things got really serious, two other Companions broke it up.

The next morning, I had a very difficult time convincing staff to act appropriately to the situation; I told them that I was not prepared to live in the same community with someone who threatens people with knives. Eventually they banned this Companion from the community, but despite my vociferous protests they allowed him to return a month later while I was still living there. The Emmaus handbook stipulates a much longer ban for violent behaviour.

Emmaus said: “No companion should feel they need to 'walk on eggshells' and we work hard to ensure we are consistent with people. As a charity we do work with people with complex and varied needs, and it is important we ensure we can be adaptable to these needs wherever possible."

With regards to the knife incident, the spokeswoman said: "In this particular situation, which was witnessed by a number of people, a companion had been backed into a corner when he pulled a pen knife he had been carrying for work that day, from his pocket. When the altercation was broken up, he admitted he shouldn’t have reached for the knife, and left the community.

"When, at a later date, he applied to return to the community, Danny was consulted to see how he would feel about him living there again. While he did raise some concerns, Danny did agree that this individual should have a second chance and be allowed to return to the community."

In fact, I was never happy about him coming back, but I was worried about my own position in the community.

“You do become institutionalised”

In his book Socialism and the Third Way, Bill Jordan, a professor in social work, compares Emmaus to the Victorian workhouse: “At one level an Emmaus community in the UK could be seen as a privatised form of indoor poor relief – a workhouse, operated according to strict rules, with informal systems of surveillance amounting almost to a blood and guts panopticon.”

The same comparison struck me when I was living in the community. In the Victorian workhouse, paupers were admitted on the proviso that they worked for basic subsistence, and their behaviour was closely monitored; in Emmaus, homeless people must work in exchange for accommodation, food, and a small weekly allowance, and their behaviour is similarly controlled. But there are other parallels, too.

In the Victorian workhouse, some inmates stayed for up to 60 years. An 1861 parliamentary report found that “nation-wide, over 20 percent of inmates had been in the workhouse for more than five years.”

A similar institutionalisation is evident among Emmaus Companions. While most stay for no longer than two years, some have lived in Emmaus for more than 20 years and see the community as an end in itself, either because they are comfortable with the regime or they see no other way out of it.

One Companion I spoke to, who had been with Emmaus for a number of years, told me since the government was not helping her, Emmaus was "a godsend". She emphasised that the community had improved her confidence, gave her a routine, and offered her the support she needed. However, she also expressed her desire to have a place of her own: “This is great but this is not normal life," she said. "You can become almost institutionalised living here, because you don’t have to worry about everyday stuff. It’s like a giant big brother with all the stuff going on. You know little things blow up massively, and you can’t breathe without someone knowing about it.”

Another said that the support workers at Emmaus were “fantastic”, but his views about the future were nuanced: “I would like to move on, but I’ll be 61 in March and I’m coming up to retirement. It’s an odd one, when you get to my age you don’t know what to do. I probably would take my own flat and a job. You do become institutionalised in a way. After a while I think, is it worth going anywhere else or should I just stay here?”

Although Companions can be banned from Emmaus, the organisation does believe in second chances. In today's welfare system, it is quite common for a Companion to leave or be forced out, but to later request a return. 

But Leon, the electrician, thinks it is not just a case of individuals unable to find other options. He argues the allowance is not enough to help Companions make a quick transition to independence: “They pay you £35 and put £10 away for you. That £10 is supposed to be for a deposit. How long would it take you to get a deposit in somewhere like St Albans where you need a grand for the rent, and another grand for the deposit?”

Emmaus does allow Companions to live in the community for up to three months if they find a job, and can help furnish their new accommodation with donated furniture from its charity shops. 

The spokeswoman said Emmaus took "great pride" in not forcing anyone to leave before they were ready: "Those who are looking to move on are given support to do so."

“It's about regaining self-esteem”

I travelled to Birmingham in May this year, to interview Simon Grainge, chief executive of Emmaus UK, in his offices at the city’s refurbished Custard Factory. Grainge didn’t recognise the similarities between the charity and the workhouse: “I think that kind of thing very often comes around where people’s perception of Emmaus is not complete, shall we say, and I think that’s where people dip into it and they don’t fully understand it.”

He went on to describe how Emmaus provides people with a sense of purpose and belonging: “It’s about people regaining their self-esteem by being able to work and support themselves, rather than being in receipt of charity.”

Historian Simon Fowler agrees that there is a fundamental distinction between Emmaus and a workhouse: “I’d say the big differences are psychological, how the workhouse staff and managers treated the inmates. They humiliated and did their best to dehumanise them. Often it was deliberate ie putting family members into different wards and making them wear special cheap and nasty uniform. Sometimes it was subtler, that is the boredom that most inmates endured – there was little stimulus, particularly on Sundays.”

Thanks to electricity, central heating, modern medicine, and the Human Rights Act, the living conditions in Emmaus very different from the hostile environment that Oliver Twist found himself in. Companions still have to adhere to a strict regime, but their working uniforms are much more attractive, and there is no oakum-picking or stone-breaking. Companions have access to televisions and games consoles, they enjoy four weeks' holiday a year, and there’s more than meagre slops of porridge on the menu.

But even though Companions do not experience the kind of draconian treatment that Fowler describes, some do suffer distress. The lack of guarantees that Companions have mean that even those who have lived and worked in Emmaus communities for up to 20 years do not have assured tenancies or employment rights. They can be dismissed from the community at the drop of a hat, or more often, as Professor Jordan observed, “a can of lager”.

“It was the hardest job I've had”

The work that Companions do is obligatory, so there is a strong argument that they should they be considered employees, and have the rights that come with that status.

The test on whether someone is an employee is broad-ranging, but key elements are “control” and “mutuality of obligation,” says Paul Johnson, a solicitor from the Oldham Law Centre who has practiced employment law for more than 30 years. “It appears to me that Emmaus have total control over when, where and how the Companions work."

There is also a mutuality of obligation – Companions are obliged to work 40 hours, and Emmaus must provide subsistence in return. Johnson says that this does not mean that a Companion would necessarily win if they took a claim to an employment tribunal, but says the “prospects of winning seem good”.

It is also possible that Companions should in fact be considered tenants, and therefore have the rights that come with that status, too. 

Companions sign a Right to Occupy agreement when they enter Emmaus, and they are told this is under a licence. A licence can be terminated on giving reasonable notice and does not confer the protections against eviction provided under the Housing Acts (formerly the Rent Acts).

Johnson says that even if an agreement says it is a licence, it doesn't necessarily mean it is one. In the leading case on this subject (Street v Mountford) the Right to Occupy agreement said that it was a licence, but the House of Lords decided that it was a tenancy and that the Rent Acts did apply.

Johnson adds: “On the basis of the decision in Street, it could be argued that Companions have exclusive possession of their rooms, even though Emmaus has reserved a right to enter, and therefore the Companions are tenants.” This argument, too, has yet to be tested in court.

Grainge rejects the idea that Companions are more vulnerable to unfair treatment due to their lack of legal protections. He argues that it is appropriate for Companions to not have these rights, as he does not think the charity could function if they were given employment contracts. He also does not believe that Companions should have tenancy rights because Emmaus is no different than any other hostel where people don’t have assured tenancies. “When people come into our communities they are very vulnerable,” he explains. “They have drug, alcohol, addiction issues; mental health issues."

Grainge also argues that the comparison with a typical worker is incorrect, as many Companions would not actually be able to work as an employee: "I’ve seen that with many Companions who have actually moved on from communities and gone to work for an employer, and it hasn’t worked for them.”

He says “huge allowances” are made for Companions that ordinary employees wouldn’t enjoy, such as time off for routine appointments at the doctors and probation services: “What kind of employer do you think would accept 20 to 30 fag breaks during the day, and the ability to say, ‘I’m not functioning today I need to go to my room’. All that sort of stuff goes on, on a regular basis in communities.”

The work at Emmaus can be very labour-intensive. One of the key roles is portering furniture, which involves a lot of heavy lifting, often up and down several flights of stairs. When I put this to Grainge he said: “It is exactly the kind of labour that many other people are expected to do on the minimum wage,” and then reiterated that the “huge allowances” made for Companions means that they are not ordinary employees.

Of the Companions I spoke to, all of them without exception agreed that the work is hard. Dominic, one of those who left Emmaus, said: “Everyone took their work very seriously, if you didn’t work you were asked to leave. Every job I’ve had after Emmaus was easier; it was the hardest job I’ve had.”

Even if Companions were to win status as employees, they would still not be entitled to a wage, however. A amendment to the National Minimum Wage Regulations in 1999 exempts charities and other institutions from paying workers, if prior to entering a work scheme they were homeless or living in a hostel.

It seems this amendment was passed with Emmaus in mind. During a debate in the House of Lords in 1999, The Lord Bishop of Ely cited Emmaus UK as an intentional community that is “a modern off-shoot of the monasteries which are very much a feature of our culture. They are places where men and women practise an extremely modest way of life as a vocation in order to benefit their fellow human beings.”

One could argue that Companions do receive remuneration in exchange for their labour in the form of accommodation, food, and their allowance. However, Companions do not work in exchange for their accommodation as this is covered by housing benefit. In St Albans, the amount someone living in shared accommodation can claim in housing benefit is £78.50 per week. But this cap does not apply to claimants living in supported accommodation, and before I left the St Albans community in 2016 I was receiving £182 per week in housing benefit. 

This cost to the taxpayer is addressed in a 2008 economic evaluation undertaken by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, which is often cited in Emmaus’s promotional material. The evaluation, which used the Village Carlton Community as a case study, claimed that the hypothetical annual saving to the taxpayer from housing 27 Companions in Emmaus rather than in alternative accommodation is £557,362.

The reporting mechanisms used, however, can be questioned. The figure is based on interviews with just 11 Companions in one week of the year. 

“Emmaus was there for me when I was at my lowest”

I was eventually evicted from Emmaus St Albans in January 2016, for reasons that were entirely justified. Emmaus communities are insular places where every move you make is under close scrutiny, and after six months I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I was at odds with the staff, not only for allowing the Companion who threatened me with a knife to return, but for the inconsistent way they treated other Companions too.

One day, I was delivering furniture with a Companion that I didn’t get on with. I can’t recall what the argument was that day, but it ended with me demanding that he pull the van over so I could get out and walk home. Before I got out I punched the windscreen, shattering it. The day after the incident I was told by the support manager that I was banned from the community for 28 days, and was given a week to find alternative accommodation.

Emmaus did not work for me, but it does work for others. Many Companions adjust well to the structures in Emmaus, in part because their existence prior to moving in were so austere and the state-run alternatives can be very bleak.

The Companions who suffered the most outside of Emmaus are the most enthusiastic about the charity. One I spoke to came to the UK to escape persecution in his country of origin. Before he was accepted into Emmaus he described himself as being mentally and physically broken.

“I was almost finished before I came here,” he says. “This is a wonderful place for people who temporarily cannot manage their lives. Doing work is much better than sitting idle, as it makes you ill.” He acknowledges that “voluntary work is compulsory to stay here”, but says he is “very happy, as it's good for my health and social wellbeing. And I’m satisfied that I’m doing something for people like me.”

Many more Companions see Emmaus as their home, and fully support the ethos of the charity. Gary, a Companion who I met while at Emmaus Mossley, told the Emmaus website that life in the community had given him the opportunity to do things he couldn’t have done on his own: “Emmaus was there for me when I was at my lowest, and has helped me to rebuild my confidence and my life. I can say with all sincerity that I honestly don’t know where I would be without Emmaus, it really doesn’t bear thinking about.”

And then there are people like Michael Leadbetter. Michael was from Hull, and had lived in the Mossley Community for six years when I met him there in 2013. He was from a generation of working-class hippies who – hypnotised by Pink Floyd and Sixties psychedelia – dropped out, and never quite managed to drop back in.

Michael was found dead earlier this year in the River Tame near Mossley. His death shouldn't have surprised me; I'd witnessed him – paralytic on black lager and co-codamol – fall over walls, into the canal, down steps, and over his shoelaces on many occasions. I can recall people telling him that if he ever fell into the canal on his own he'd be in dire straits.

Michael was a hopeless drunk, and an incredibly warm and intelligent man. Even after three litres of White Storm he would still humiliate me on the chess board. He was also fond of taunting me at every opportunity. At Emmaus Mossley our rooms were next to each other, and Mick would blast out Bonzo's Dog Band's "Slush" every morning, as he knew that the maniacal laughter that loops throughout the track really freaked me out. He also enjoyed preying on my lack of work experience by asking me to fetch a long stand, tartan paint, or a left-handed screwdriver.

Many Companions like Mick are far better off within Emmaus's walls than left to their own devices. But the fact that formerly homeless people have seen a material improvement in their circumstances does not alter the fact that many Companions have had negative experiences. I am not the only one to have left feeling unsupported, unappreciated, and exploited by being forced to do unpaid labour just because I was unfortunate enough to end up homeless.

Just like the Victorians with their workhouses, we in the 21st century still behave as if homelessness was the result of an individual's moral deficiencies, rather than the result of political choices and social ills.  

The homeless are the only members of our society who can be forced by poverty to work for no pay. It is surely wrong that, even if a charity like Emmaus works for some, so many vulnerable people have no choice but to submit to being institutionalised, stuck doing voluntary work that is compulsory for decades in a “community” from which they could be expelled at any time.

I would often chat with Mick after work about Emmaus. He understood my criticisms, he said, but maintained that the charity had saved his life. Mick said he was very proud of the work he did there, and felt like he was contributing to the wider community. He told me he intended to spend the rest of his life with the charity – and in the end, he did.

*Some names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special