Friday, 28 December 2012

Feeding the Homeless at Christmas

Last Sunday night was Livingston FC's first night on the Bethany Christian Trust Winter Care Shelter for rough sleepers.  Our team worked brilliantly together and cooked a very tasty shepherds pie for around 25 men and women.  Many thanks to Alana, Naurice, June, Marion and Janice (all credit to Janice and her great organising and cooking skills!).   The food was all kindly donated from individuals within the church.  Bethany often talks about 'love in action' but it was very evident last Sunday at St Stephens Church, Edinburgh.  Never underestimate the power of ordinary people and their ability to do extraordinary things. 
The A Team
The Winter Care Shelter is now a well oiled machine with a minimum of 3 staff on at all times.  Each year it operates for 5 months during the coldest months of the winter to provide a safe place for some of the most vulnerable men and women in Edinburgh.  It is entirely funded by donations and costs well over £100,000.   Even more remarkably Bethany manages around 500 volunteers from churches all over Edinburgh and the Lothians. 

As always I was very humbled to see the quiet efficiency, humility and compassion of the staff from Bethany.  The remarkable Mike Sherlock (Bethany Care Shelter Team Leader) had been in an ambulance only a few weeks earlier making his peace with God as he struggled for breath with a massive heart attack.  He was saved by the skill of some great doctors and nurses (and the mercy and grace of God) and it was great to see Mike back at the shelter - doing what he does best.

There is something very raw about the shelter.  Myself and 2 off the staff picked the guys up from Waterloo Place; they were a bit loud, some were a bit tipsy, but all were in great need of a safe place and a hot meal. It's hard not to feel some parallel with the work of the Bethany Winter Care Shelter and Guthrie and his fellow social reformers 160 years ago.  It is obviously on a smaller scale and is perhaps a little less radical than what Guthrie proposed to a city that was (or pretended to be) oblivious to the poverty and squalor on their doorstep.  But the parallels are definitely there to be seen.

Firstly Guthrie had a coherent vision for the poor.  This is sadly lacking today with the doctrinal and ecclesiastical fragmentation of the church in Scotland.  Amidst the heated (and important) debates on subjects such as marriage, the authority of scripture and leadership in the church, we have lost the Biblical vision for the marginalised and the poor.  Despite the Bible being laden with teaching on justice for the oppressed and mercy to the poor, it is relegated within many churches to the last item on the Deacons Court Agenda or to some committee of 'the keen and enthusiastic'.  But compassion for the poor (inside and outside the church) can't be an 'added extra'.  It needs to be part of the DNA of the churches work and ministry as Guthrie made it throughout his work in Angus and Edinburgh.  CH Spurgeon the great Baptist preacher said on one occasion; 'Compassion is a great gospel duty, and it must be hearty and practical. When we see a man in distress, we must not pass him by as the Priest and the Levite did, for thus we shall show that our religion is only skin deep, and has never affected our hearts. We must pity, go near and befriend.'  Sometimes this means as Christians being in places and situations that are well out of our comfort zone - but this is where we are called to be. 
Secondly Guthrie brought churches together to work for the same cause.  While Guthrie was certainly not ecumenical in the modern sense of the word, he certainly favoured inter- church co-operation particularly on such projects as the Ragged Schools.  He is quoted in his Memoir by his sons as saying (in 1867) 'let the ministers or representatives of the different denominations within this city - Episcopalian, Baptist, and Independent, United Presbyterian, Free Church, and Established Church - meet, and form themselves into a real working Evangelical Alliance.  Agreeing to regard all old divisions of parishes with an ecclesiastical right over their inhabitants as nowadays a nullity - let them map out the dark and destitute districts of the city, assigning a district to each congregation.  Let each congregation then go to work upon their own part of the field, and giving some five hundred souls to care for, you would thus cover 'the nakedness of the land'' (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 323). 

With this and other projects Guthrie encouraged collaboration from all churches.  This was particularly seen in the Ragged School movement and when controversy flared over 'protestant indoctrination' Guthrie was able to respond by saying 'the religious instruction conveyed at these schools must necessarily be of the most simple and elementary kind, so as to be adapted to the tender years and gross ignorance of the children.  Its entire freedom from all sectarian biasis effectually secured by the superintendence of a committee impartially selected from the various leading religious bodies composing the great bulk of the community.  The only books hitherto used in the school have been the Bible and the First and Second Books of Education, published under the superintendence of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland.  The Committee feel that they cannot hope for a blessing on their schools if religion is not the pervading principle of the instruction given to the children' (Seed-Time and Harvest; or Plea for Ragged Schools, 1859, p 190). 

Hugh Miller was Editor of the Witness newspaper and great supporter of the Ragged Schools.
Lastly, Guthrie's theology produced action.  Guthrie wasn't the first minister to visit the Cowgate.  He wasn't the first minister to pass the thousands of 'ragged children' that filled the streets and prisons of 19th century Scotland.  Yet why was he one of the few to raise his voice and use his considerable influence to bring about the most incredible acts of Christian philanthropy? Although he was not alone with others such as Dr Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Miller (Editor of the Witness) and James Begg also being used to bring about huge social and spiritual change in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, Guthrie was used to stir up a generation to the plight of the poor and marginalised in urban Scotland.  He was able to fuse doctrine and action, theory and practice and words with deeds like few others before or after him.  Many quotes could embody this but let me leave you with this; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, 'these are the pests of our city'.  Call them if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching.  Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and for ever in a Redeemer's crown' (Seed-Time and Harvest; or Plea for Ragged Schools, 1859, p 52).  Guthrie's theology led to an active Christianity that impacted the world around him.  It is a Christianity we desperately need to recover in Scotland today.

File:Thomas Guthrie.jpg

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