Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Mez McConnell’s new book The Least, the Last, and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK and the Responsibility of the Local Church. You can order the book now.
When I pick up a book, several questions run through my mind. Why has the author written it? What’s the point of it? What does the author expect from me at the end of it? They are reasonable questions, and I wouldn’t expect any different as you now hold this book in your hands.
To fully appreciate my motives and objectives in writing this book, I want to take the time to share some of my life story with you. I’m hopeful that this will help answer the why question. As to the what questions, I pray that the answer to those will become more evident as the book unfolds.
A Class Chameleon
As I type these words on an expensive laptop, I am sitting in a nice house. What’s even better is that it’s my own house. I have been married for over 20 years to Miriam, I have two teenage daughters, three foster children, and two dogs. My wife and children love Downton Abbey and correcting my grammar. My wife screws her face up in disgust when I say bog instead of bathroom. My girls get annoyed when I ask what’s for tea instead of what’s for dinner. Both of my girls aspire to University degrees, with one hoping to be a teacher and the other a scientist.
So far, so atypically middle class. At least, that is how it would appear from a material perspective. Because, on the other hand, my family and I live in a scheme on the East side of Edinburgh. We live and work within a community—called Niddrie—which is designated ‘deprived’ by the UK government (more on this later). Therefore, from a geographical perspective, we are anything but middle class.
I live and move, somewhat uneasily, between these two worlds. Socially, I feel most comfortable within the scheme culture, but I have learned to navigate, and even appropriate, some of the cultural sensitivities of the middle class. So, I like a chippie, a beer and watching the boxing with my pals on the one hand, but I also like reading all kinds of literature, and have high educational hopes for my girls, on the other.
This has left me as somewhat of a ‘class chameleon’. I have no impulse toward upward social mobility (which sounds odd to the middle class), yet I have no problem if my girls want to leave the scheme and pursue their ambitions (which is seen as ‘defecting to the enemy’ by the benefits/working class).
Rage Against The Machine
It was all so much easier when I was younger. A quarter of a century ago, I was shivering in the cold outside Victoria Train Station in London. I was high. I was hungry. I was scared. I was so very angry at the world. I was full of rage but, had you asked me, I would have had no clue against whom, specifically, this fury burned.
I was paranoid and trying to ward off the advances of a procession of male predators who wanted to have sex with me. Within weeks I would be doing 15 months in a Category A Prison where I would grow angrier still, forced into terrible acts of violence out of fear and self-preservation. Always on edge. Jittery. Untrusting. Guarded. Instead of rehabilitating me, prison hardened me, and with unfettered access to every kind of drug, my habits spiralled out of control. I left prison far angrier than I’d entered it.
I was furious at the world, ‘the system’ (whatever that was), and anybody who I thought had it better than me. I had been forced from my home in Ireland into a children’s home in England, passed from foster carer to foster carer, separated from my only sister, beaten, ignored and, finally, spat out into the world at 16 years old—violent, vengeful and left to my own devices.
My social workers and counsellors did me no favours either. I entered adulthood in a complete mess. I was a victim. Nothing was my fault. It was ‘my circumstances’. It was the Conservative Party. They stole our milk in the 70’s and 80’s and we never got over it. Imagine the man I could have been if I’d just had milk! They killed the miners. They killed the manufacturing industry. They wreaked havoc across the northern working-class heartlands. All of it churning about in my head, driving my impulses and emotions.
Homelessness followed soon after. Park benches, disused houses, on friend’s floors wherever I could get my head down. All of it blotted out by more and more drugs. Dealing, stealing, burglary, violence, lying; whatever it took to get me what I wanted. Meaningless, monotonous jobs: putting lids on yoghurt tops, making nails, making cardboard boxes, making hairspray, labouring, cleaning toilets, and my personal favourite: putting Ghostbuster badges on birthday cards. Hating my life. Hating my existence. Making bad choice after bad choice. None of it my fault. All of it everybody else’s. This is what society had made me. That’s what I told myself. No one cared about me, so why would I care about them?
Broken By The Gospel
Then, one day I met with Christ in a violent and uncompromising way. The book of Romans brutalised me far better than my vicious stepmother ever did. The Apostle Paul forced me to confront my cycle of sin. My selfish choices. My self-righteous, self-absorbed, vicious cycle of sinful rebellion. I hated the book of Romans with all of my heart. If I could have, I would have smashed the Apostle Paul in the face with a bat.
I wanted my social workers back. I wanted the kind-hearted old lady at the soup kitchen who was sympathetic to my problems and told me I was a good boy who just hadn’t had the right breaks. I wanted to be told that I wasn’t a bad person. That Jesus loved me. That I was just damaged by a bad start in life. Yet, the Bible destroyed every barrier and excuse I had ever constructed over the years to justify my way of life. The Bible tore a hole through every argument I had for all the pain and misery I had caused to others. The Bible wouldn’t let me off the hook. The Bible didn’t want to hear that it wasn’t my fault. God himself, through the pages of Scripture, grabbed my head with both hands and forced me to look into a spiritual mirror to see what I really was and what I’d truly become.
I was a sinner. A rebel against God, His Word and His people.
Looking at my true self in that spiritual mirror was the worst experience of my life. Worse than a maximum-security prison cell. Worse than prolonged punches to the kidneys by playground bullies. I was crushed by the realisation of my sin. I fought with all my might to look away from my reflection. But God, in His mercy, forced me to keep looking, long and hard. Then, just as I was about to sink into total despair, He granted me salvation. That’s when I first discovered what love really was. I had been told by a few people in my childhood that Jesus loved me, but I never understood it. Why would Jesus love me? My own mother didn’t even love me. Those placed in authority over me didn’t love me. I didn’t even love me. It was only when I saw the true depth of my sinful heart, and the great mercy of a forgiving God, that I began to understand love.
Looking into that mirror, with no excuses left, I sank to my knees and begged for God’s forgiveness. I begged to escape His just wrath. I threw myself on the mercy of Jesus. I confessed my sinful, proud rebellion against my Holy Creator. I threw my whole weight behind the Lord Jesus to save me, not only from myself, but from the sin that had separated me from Him. Against my wishes, I had become a Christian.