“A Song of Hope,” Ensign, Dec. 2000, 30
No plush seats, no modern sound system, no ushers—after all, this isn’t a concert hall; it’s Montreal’s busiest metro station. And yet it is also the home of la Chorale de l’Accueil Bonneau. Under the harsh fluorescent glare of this noisy, cavernous station stand 18 men ranging in age from 22 to 69, in black pants and white shirts. Their weathered faces glow with a joy that almost masks the lingering evidence of misfortune and rejection. “Oh happy day!” they sing, and you can’t help but believe them.
The performers don’t look much like a choir, nor do they act like one. They don’t stand up straight, and they don’t stand still. One of the older singers sports a long, shaggy beard and wanders through the crowd, presenting roses to women. During one of the more lively numbers, two of the singers find partners among the listeners and start to dance.
Although some of the men have good voices, these are not professionally trained musicians. One of the soloists even sings a bit off-key. But their energy more than compensates for any lack of training. They sing with their whole hearts, and it is clear they are enjoying themselves. So is the audience, which changes about every three minutes as trains come and go.
By the end of two hours, a hat is nearly full of coins and bills, and the concert is over. Only then is it evident this choir has a leader. As the last song ends and the crowd disperses, a slender man with dark hair, glasses, and a radiant smile steps from the ranks. His name is Pierre Anthian, and the choir, he will tell you, is merely an extension of his religious beliefs.
By the time Pierre became an adult, helping others had become a way of life, and he volunteered to serve meals at the largest homeless shelter in Paris. It was here he became troubled over merely giving handouts. “It’s good to give food,” he says, “but what do we teach in the Church? We teach people to be self-reliant. So I began looking for an idea, a special tool, to give these people dignity and autonomy.”
Eventually it occurred to him that music might be just the tool he needed. Not only was music part of the gospel, it was a personal passion for him. He had studied music, particularly choral music, in conservatories of Pau, Cannes, and Paris, and he had once directed a Church choir. He determined to start a choir among society’s outcasts.
The choir ascends the stairs to street level, where a bus will soon arrive to take them to their next concert venue: a Catholic church on the outskirts of Montreal. While waiting, one choir member, Jean-Louis, tells how the choir has saved him from harmful addictions. “Now I get high on music,” he boasts. Others have similar stories.
The choir has given them something a handout could never impart: dignity. They are giving something back to society now and are being rewarded for their work.
The singers speak glowingly of Pierre. They know where they would be without him, but their friendship runs deeper than gratitude. They tease him incessantly, and he returns the teasing. This is not a somber group. Their faces are scarred by alcohol, drugs, violence, and hunger, but also evident on each weathered human canvas are hope and joy and good humor.
The bus finally comes, and on the way Pierre talks about how la Chorale de l’Accueil Bonneau came to be.
Pierre didn’t stay in Paris long enough for his choir idea to get off the ground. In April 1995 he moved to Quebec to get married. His engagement didn’t work out, but Pierre fell in love with Canada and decided to stay. He set up a successful dental lab and volunteered to serve lunch at l’Accueil Bonneau, a homeless shelter.
But the same frustrations he had felt in Paris resurfaced, and so did his idea for a choir. He gave out 600 fliers to the men in the food line, offering employment to male singers, including beginners, for part-time work. Thirty men expressed interest, but only a handful showed up at the first practice. The numbers grew, however, and Pierre taught the men four Christmas carols from the LDS hymnbook.
The metro was an inspired and logical location for their performances. “If the mountain won’t come to you, you must go to the mountain,” says Pierre. “Thousands and thousands of people come to the metro.”
Residents of Montreal were not prepared for what they encountered in the metro station at 7:30 A.M. on 17 December 1996. “I couldn’t see the faces of the spectators because I was conducting,” Pierre says, “but I could see the faces of my friends in the choir. People crowded around us. Several missed their trains to listen longer. One woman began to cry, and her sobs filled that improbable event with incredible emotion. It was like a tide coming in. People were crying, singing with us, putting money in the hat to the cadence of the melody, clink, clink. They started to make a line to put money in the hat. It was a wonderful experience.”
That first concert brought in more money than they had expected. The next morning the choir earned even more. “But the greatest pay the men received,” says Pierre, “was when people came directly up to them, spoke to them, and shook their hands. This meant much to men who had spent their lives digging in garbage cans, begging, or even stealing simply to survive.”
The choir sang every day that Christmas season except Sundays. The money they earned allowed all of them to spend the holiday in more comfortable circumstances. A few were able to visit relatives. Some hadn’t seen their families in years.
“After the last performance,” Pierre recalls, “I asked my friends, ‘Do you want to keep going with this choir, or do you want to stop now and start it up again next Christmas?’ ‘Keep going,’ they insisted.”
It is late Saturday evening. It has been a long day for the choir, and you can tell they are tired only because their voices don’t blend as well as they did earlier, and they hit a few painfully flat notes. But the more than 200 listeners at the church don’t seem to mind. The singers still exude the same level of energy they did this afternoon in the metro, and several of them patrol the aisles, pulling people at random from the audience to join them onstage.
The listeners have been treated to hymns and popular songs—but now comes the audience’s favorite part of the concert. The melody and words might be unfamiliar to a visitor, but it is obvious this final number has special meaning to the people of Quebec. Everyone is standing, holding hands, swaying back and forth in time with the music, singing with his or her whole soul. Tears flow freely. The song ends, and for a magical moment there is only silence. Then the audience breaks into wild applause and calls for an encore. The choir obliges, not once but twice, and finally the audience lets them go.
After the choir’s first subway concert, the media quickly learned about them. Two days later they were invited to introduce the weather forecast for a large television station, and the next morning articles appeared in most of the Quebec newspapers. This unexpected free publicity allowed the choir to sign contracts for concerts at festivals, schools, churches, banks, and other television stations. It also opened the door for them to record the first of five CDs.
“The media,” says Pierre, “has helped give us a voice for our message that life is beautiful, that it is really worth living, and that we should never give up. Everyone deserves a second chance, and no one should be excluded, even if he or she is different.”
This belief motivated Pierre at the very beginning to keep two choir members who sing off-key. “Being able to sing is not a requirement to be a member of this choir,” he explains. “They have suffered too much rejection already.”
Brother Anthian has several goals for the choir. One is to infuse joy, love, and hope into the lives of men who have in the past sought to salve their pain with drugs, alcohol, and other vices. The fulfillment of this goal is clear in the life of Nicolas “Colas” Allaire, who hands out roses during subway concerts. Now 65, Colas was raised in a Montreal orphanage until age 17. With no formal education and no family, friends, or money, he was never able to find work. In winter he made snow caves to keep from freezing to death. Sometimes he committed crimes just to be put in jail so he would have something to eat every day. This is his first regular job. Since joining the choir, he says, “my life has been paradise. I have made friends, and I have started to support myself. I now have a small apartment, and I am happy.”
Another of Brother Anthian’s goals is to share this joy and hope with others. “For example,” he says, “after a concert in the subway, a lady took my hand in hers and told me she had just learned she had cancer. She had wanted to give up. But after listening to these men who had come so far, she had renewed courage.”
These men are making a difference—particularly at schools. Children listen when choir members say: “I stopped learning in school; I stopped obeying my parents. I took drugs and drank alcohol, and now I’m homeless. So please, study hard, respect your parents and teachers, and don’t take drugs.”
The choir contributes to society in other ways. Members divide among themselves the cash they earn from singing in the metro, but the money they charge for their other concerts goes directly to l’Accueil Bonneau homeless shelter.
Perhaps one of the choir’s most meaningful opportunities to help came in the wake of a tragedy. In June 1998 a gas leak ignited and destroyed the homeless shelter. The explosion killed 3 people and injured 33 others. Within months, the choir had made a major contribution to the community’s fund-raising effort, staging more than a dozen benefit concerts. In the place of the old, rundown structure, a modest new shelter was built.
In December 1999, at the request of a Quebec television station and a prominent Montreal newspaper, the choir toured the province of Quebec, staging 64 Christmas concerts in 20 days. This tour was an offer they simply could not refuse: People attending the concerts brought food for the homeless and the poor.
Only those close to the choir understand how difficult this choir project has been. Many of these men have experienced so much rejection, loneliness, and despair that their lives are still fragile. Giving up long-entrenched patterns of living is not easy, and some men have returned to the streets because they haven’t been able to abide by Pierre’s rules or survive the rigors of the choir’s busy schedule.
The rules are simple but, for most, require a dramatic change in lifestyle: No violence. No drugs or alcohol during any performance or rehearsal. And they must be on time. “The choir is a school,” Pierre explains. “If we stay in school, we can learn. Many homeless people drink a lot and sleep during the day. At night they often don’t have a place to sleep, so they walk during the night. In the morning they find a place to sleep, and afterward there’s nothing to do, so they drink. My work is to give them a schedule. I start them at seven o’clock in the morning, so they have to get up early, and they have to get to bed early.” Because of this schedule, many of the men, some of whom are alcoholics, have given up alcohol completely. Music has taken its place, and, as Pierre suggests, “Music is therapy.”
“It is a very positive feeling, a natural high,” says Roby, a former welfare recipient. “I don’t use drugs since I started with the choir. It’s got me so busy I need my sobriety or I can’t make it through the day.”
Some people on the street, Pierre is quick to explain, have drug or alcohol problems. Some run afoul of the law. But in many cases these individuals “have simply been unluckier than you or me.”
Because of Pierre’s idea, the luck of 17 men has changed. All but two now have an apartment or at least a room to sleep in. The two who still don’t have an apartment choose to spend their portion of the money on other things. “I don’t judge them,” says Pierre. “It’s their decision. Sometime maybe they’ll change their minds. But if they obey the rules, work hard, are nice, and are punctual, it’s OK.”
Sunday morning. Brother Anthian is teaching Primary in Montreal’s Hochelaga Ward. Five of his eight class members are present—he teaches the boys from age 8 to age 11—and they are learning the Ten Commandments. Pierre uses his fingers to help the boys remember the Lord’s laws. One finger reminds them that God should be number one in their lives. Seven fingers mean a man should stay true to his wife seven days a week. Pierre holds his hands out, palms down, and tucks his thumbs under. Eight fingers mean no stealing—because it’s difficult to steal without thumbs. Each commandment is there in the boys’ hands. Brother Anthian quizzes them, and five eager hands wave in the air. They all know the answers.
Pierre, who has also served as a stake mission president and high councilor in the Montreal Quebec Stake, neither hides his religion nor forces it on anyone. He simply lives it. “Not only do I speak to the choir members about the Church,” he says, “but they have all performed in sacrament meetings and have presented free concerts at the stake center.”
The Church has received a good deal of positive attention because of Pierre’s work. In 1997 the Canadian National Assembly awarded him the Volunteer of the Year award. “One television program presented me as ‘the Mormon priest who pulls the homeless out of hell,’” he says. “It is easy for me to bring the conversation around to the gospel when I am interviewed, for it is clear that I never would have had this idea if I had not received the family and religious education that I had. And I never would have had the strength to continue without the Lord’s daily help.”
Why did Pierre choose the homeless for his volunteer efforts instead of some other worthy cause? His answer is simple and sincere. The Savior, he says, is his role model. Jesus Christ calls to all, but He ministered often among the poor, the homeless, the despondent, the outcasts. “The message is simple,” Pierre says. “If we walk in His footsteps, we will find happiness for ourselves and for the people we serve. We are His hands, His instruments.”
His experience serving the homeless, Pierre concludes, has brought him closer to the Savior and to those he serves. “A sweet feeling of peace confirms to me every day that my place is at their side.”