In May 2010, I moved back to Scotland with my family having spent the previous twenty years living and working in Mumbai, India's largest city with a population of around twenty million people. Taking up the Urban Ministries Leader role with SU Scotland after working in what is still referred to as the developing world, I frequently get asked what the similarities and differences are between working in Glasgow and working in India. Apart from the obvious difference in weather, it's easy to refer to the fact that Mumbai has more than 20 times the population of Glasgow, which means that many more people are affected by poverty and injustice. It's also easy to discuss how the levels of poverty and abuse that I encountered in India appear more severe than Glasgow - after all, Glasgow is part of the developed world and Britain has a good welfare system which prevents extreme poverty - doesn't it?!
The more I meet with colleagues and others outside the organization who are working in deprived urban areas of Scotland, the more I realise that it is difficult to make such comparisons. The poverty in Scottish towns and cities, whilst very different from what is encountered in countries like India, is still very severe and has a huge impact on tens of thousands of lives. Since starting the job, I have heard many stories of family breakdown, generations of unemployment, the affects of drug and alcohol abuse and the debilitating effect these have on families. One of the phrases I heard a lot in my work in India was "the poverty trap", referring to how individuals and families would stay in the same situation from one generation to the next, trapped by a lack of education and the resulting inability to get work.
Here in Scotland, it seems families are similarly trapped by poverty, with a lack of hope in one generation being passed onto the next, resulting in repeated instances of family breakdown and addiction. This was highlighted to me in quite an extreme way last winter when, through my work with Glasgow City Mission, I met a young man who was homeless. As I talked with him, I discovered that he had just come out of jail, a place he was very familiar with as he had first been arrested on his 16th birthday and had been in and out of jail many times since. This was all connected with a broken family and being introduced to drugs when he was just 11. I couldn't help thinking what would happen to his children.
And here, I believe, lies the tremendous opportunity. For, as we "spend ourselves on behalf of the poor", I am strongly convinced that we can bring a foundation and stability to life which can help prevent stories similar to the one I have just shared - especially where we are able to build relationships with children in deprived communities at primary and early secondary age. The Bible talks about the gospel being good news to the poor, and when we have the privilege of working with those who come from a place of poverty or being disadvantaged, it is amazing to see the difference that Christ brings as young people realize their value in God's sight. They come to understand that God is there for them, and that he is on their side. As they learn to trust him, they discover how they can get the strength to make the most of life and overcome the hurdles it may throw at them.