Bread Rolls and Bibles
John Perkins talks of three types of incarnational missionaries…relocators, remainers and returners. Returners leave their home only to come back later and invest deeply in the community they once left. Here is Graeme’s tale of how it feels as he returns back to Dumbarton.
Our new home
We parked up, got out and legged it through town centre to the letting agents to pick up the keys to our new home. It was Dumbarton, in July, it was pouring. Welcome home eh? After a short detour back to my parents, it was off to see the new flat. Back past the letting agents, across the river, and up the hill. We took a breath, turned the key and stepped into our new home, a flat we’d never actually seen before. It was a bit cold and damp, but it was clean and would soon be filled with a van load of stuff. We hadn’t chosen the flat for its aesthetics. But the fact it wasn’t derelict was a plus point. Especially in convincing my mum we hadn’t completely lost the plot. At least not yet anyway. Only a mile and a half separates this flat from where I grew up, and yet they are worlds apart. According to the Scottish government statistics, this area is in the top 5% of deprived areas across Scotland. So, when I mentioned we planned to move there, it was met with a look of friendly disapproval which often greets my ‘perceived’ naivety. In a society built on the quest for upward social mobility, the pioneer lifestyle isn’t exactly easy to explain. For many outside the area, Castlehill is to be avoided, and for 27 years I was all too happy to comply.
Bread rolls and super-novas
The closest I came to the ‘horrors’ of the area was as a 17-year-old. Late one Friday night my mates and I were doing what any group of Scottish teenagers would do on Friday nights. Roaming the streets. Having just stolen the rolls delivery from round the back of the local shop, it seemed only natural to then use them as missiles to be aimed at passing cars. In my defence, I didn’t realise who was in the car I was aiming at. It took a few seconds for that to sink in. As the car began to turn back at the next roundabout, adrenaline began to surge. Fight or, FLIGHT!? I was off. Sadly, there’s only one winner in a race between an intoxicated teenager and a Vauxhall Nova. In the confusion, we forgot what house we’d come out of so kept running, leapt a fence, and frantically tried the back doors of the tenement. I turned and saw the shadows of my roll throwing accomplices hurtling towards me. I rested my hands on the fence to help them over, when suddenly a blow to the face suggested that these guys might not be who I thought they were. As I protested my innocence, in vain, someone managed to batter a door in and we escaped through it into the night.
10 years on Naomi and I are moving into the scheme these lads called home. How come? Well, about 3 years after this incident I gave my life to Jesus. If you are reading and are involved in pioneering then I could just stop right there. That would be enough information. But, I thought it might be good to briefly outline some of the stages I’ve gone through which have lead me to this point. Borrowing some categories from David Male in his book, How to Pioneer: Even If You Haven’t a Clue.
During my days as a history student I would travel up to Glasgow on the train to learn about a nation bursting with tales of inventors, explorers, traders, miners, manufacturers, ship builders, preachers, theologians, and missionaries. Then I’d get the train back to back to Dumbarton, and along the way be confronted with the cold, grey reality of post-industrialisation and all its friends; urban decay, addiction, broken homes, unemployment, depression, suicide, sin, idolatry, etc. A Scotland which is well acquainted with poverty in all its forms. When I left Scotland 4 years ago, I half-knew I was destined to return. It’s hard to shake off the mark which growing up in Glasgow and the West leaves on you. This was not about some nostalgic craving for a past I never knew. You can’t study Scottish social history and retain a romantic view of the past. God was stirring something in me. Even before I knew him. Something in those past experiences had sufficiently disturbed me. I was dissatisfied with how things were, socially, culturally, spiritually. If God is calling us to those in need, then I wouldn’t have to look much further than home.
Stage 2: A New Journey of Alternatives
When I did leave Scotland, I did so to receive training for ministry. This took me to King’s Church in Durham. A church I will always be indebted to. It was here I would get a taste for ‘incarnational mission’. I joined a team of Christians who had intentionally moved on to a council estate to be a witness in a community which the church had largely abandoned. Last week when Naomi and I visited King’s we noticed we were surrounded, on every side, by people from that estate who now regularly attend. On Wednesdays they all go along to a home-group to have dinner together, do a bible study, pray, worship, and have Sunday school type lessons for their kids. Two things strike me about this. First, we really do have something good to offer and some people will actually gladly receive it. And secondly, those people wouldn’t be in the church now if it wasn’t for that missional community I joined. Feeling dissatisfied is a great first step, but it’s a difficult place to stay when you can’t see any hope for change. But in Durham, I began to see beyond my dissatisfaction. I learned to hope. If we can live alongside people in an authentic way, offering them the good news of Jesus in all its fullness some people will gladly receive it. If it can happen in the north-east of England, why not in Glasgow and the West? Why not?
Stage 3: Confirmation and Approval
When Dave Male mentions confirmation and approval he is referring mainly to the creation of teams. I think there are multiple levels to this. I think before we undertake any projects we should be asking these questions. Do I see this in Scripture? Is what we are planning consistent with the Jesus of the New Testament? What is my role in this? Is God asking me to do something specific? Is He the one behind these desires I have to see change? Are we following him into this adventure or have we veered off on to our own path? As my understanding of the God revealed in Scripture sharpened I began to see a call to lay down my life to serve those forgotten in society. I would say living and ministering in some of the most disadvantaged areas of society seems quite biblical. I reckon it’d be difficult to argue that Jesus wouldn’t be found there. The question of Dumbarton over Durham was harder. Why not stay put? The practical justification is that we left a well-established team of 12 to help start something new. Sometimes it’s as simple as go where your most needed. The other answer is harder to explain. It’s to do with the relational element of following Jesus. Discovering where he is leading you. It was like trying to un-weave the threads that were intersecting our lives. Threads of learning, experience, circumstance, passions, timely prophetic interruptions, and opportunities. Trying to trace these strands to where they all led: home.
The final piece of the jigsaw was finding a community of people who shared in all of this. Who have walked with the dissatisfaction. Yet, in them remains an unyielding trust that God is not finished with our nation yet. In the faces of old and new friends I have found brothers and sisters who have a hope which stands its ground in times of despair. They are not content to sit back and watch the Church’s demise any longer. Not on their watch. Not without a fight.
On that first day in our new home in rainy Castlehill, I was going through the cupboard and found an item that sums up a lot of this journey. It was a small red Gideon’s Bible tagged with the initials of the local young team, the same gang who had chased my roll throwing friends and I. As I looked upon it I felt the gravity of the task ahead, but at the same I was met with confidence that God had work for us here, and that we were not alone in on our journey.
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