March 3, 2015

Are the Schemes as Needy as We Say They Are?

“It doesn't look as bad as I thought.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

“I thought it would be rougher than this.”

“I don’t know what I was expecting but this looks OK.”

Just some of the comments I have been noticing more and more from overseas visitors to the schemes (specifically Niddrie). It’s fascinating, to me anyway, how some outsiders view need, particularly among the materially rich, Western poor (which, in reality, is what we are). I sometimes wonder if they would be happier if I showed them the man who lives in a one bed flat, covered in faeces, with only one leg after he lost his other injecting Heroin into his toes and couldn’t be bothered to go to the doctor as the gangrene ate him away. Or the mother with five babies she is struggling to feed because she loves Valium more than them. Or the couple with five jobs between them to keep the wolf from the door and to pay off the massive debts they’ve accrued from loan sharks to keep their drug addicted son from being murdered. Or maybe the poor elderly couple alone and depressed as all three of their children have died early: murdered, accidental death, and an overdose.

Maybe that would better help us sell the work to prospective supporters? Maybe that would ease the disappointment of visitors looking for a bit of inner-city rough?

Yet we refuse to take this tack. We refuse to sell 20schemes on the basis of horror stories. Our vision of planting gospel churches among Scotland’s poorest is about access to the good news of Jesus, not how many heart strings we can pluck. If we make it about the social issues, we will soon drown in need. We must not lose sight of the gospel need. That is our drive. That is our obsession. That is what we believe God has called us to.

At 20schemes, we work in areas of great social, material need. There is little doubt about that. You can take my word for it. Even if you visit and you see nothing but quiet streets and a growing number of building projects, you can be sure that all is not as it appears. However, in comparison to most of the rest of the world, the schemes (and council estates in the rest of the UK) are not that materially needy. I worked in the favelas of Brazil, so trust me, in the league table of need we rank low (certain areas of Glasgow excepted).

Visiting mission and vision teams are not going to come to Niddrie and be disturbed by the sight of disabled beggars on the streets like they would in, say, India. We don’t have the drive by shootings of many American projects. In Niddrie, at least, you will find relatively nice houses (thanks to gentrification) and quiet streets during the daytime. (In fact, I found it to be similar to the Bronx in NY when I visited). The problems here have been masked, albeit temporarily, by a lick of paint and some new double-glazed windows. The lonely, the bereft, the depressed, the mentally ill, the addict, the elderly, and the growing number of immigrants still cower behind (newly furnished) closed doors, watching hours of mind-numbing TV on bargain basement flatscreens. Life, hope, ambition‚—they’re not words for the scheme. Survival, getting by, stoicism—they’re our friends. In Niddrie alone, we have untold (and often hidden) thousands going to a lost eternity for lack of gospel witness, and the indifference of outsiders who see the superficial face lift and think, “Well, it' not too bad here is it?”

Other schemes are not so lucky! They have yet to hit the (supposed) jackpot of government investment and their existence is often lived out in substandard housing and the grey monotony of the hopelessness of nothing ever really changing. What's even sadder is that many like it like that. They have no intention of changing, and they have no will to make life better in any way. From the moment of birth, theirs is the slow, often far too short, march to the grave never having met a true Christian in the their lives and never knowing the life-saving, life-changing, hope-instilling gospel of Jesus. You’re not going to see that on a mission trip. So, you’re going to have to take my word for it.

This is the fate of countless, silent millions in our country who live in schemes.

20schemes need church planters more than we need social workers or volunteers for mercy ministry programmes. We need people who know their Bibles and love the gospel and long to see lives changed through the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. We’re not going to sell you sad stories and take you on tours of crack houses (for that would be foolishness). We will tell you of the lost who need Jesus. Some of them take drugs. Some of them do not. Some of them have jobs and work hard. Some of them do not. Some of them are house proud and are very good parents. Some of them are not. Some of them struggle with literacy and comprehension. Some of them do not.

All of them need Christ. That is the poverty we are trying to alleviate.

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