Mez McConnell is a church planter in the housing projects of Edinburgh. You can read about his life growing up in the housing estates of Scotland here.
When I worked among the street gangs in Brazil I had a moment when I just knew they had come to accept me and to love me. One day I accidentally left my car unlocked in the city centre. When I got back there were a gang of street children who were not only guarding it but they had washed it for me as well! They could have stripped it bare and robbed me blind but they had grown to accept and love me as I had them.
I recently went on a five-week training trip for church planters in New York. Upon my return to the community I had two miraculous moments that made me glad to be home. The first involved a skip (a small boat) sat in the car park near the front entrance of our church building. Just an ordinary small, yellow skip. I looked inside and it was half full of rubbish, some other bits and bobs and a fridge freezer. I went inside the church building and asked somebody how long it had been there. "About 5 days" was the answer. I smiled to myself and my heart was encouraged. The next day it was still there and the day after that and the day after that. Our little skip was there for a full week and with each passing day I was more encouraged and more thankful to God for His faithfulness and grace. For me it was a truly miraculous sign that probably went unnoticed by every church member who passed it by on the way to worship on Sunday, the members of my team and probably most of the people in our community who pass by our building on a daily basis. Yet, what a miracle on many levels, wouldn’t you agree?
The second miraculous moment took place yesterday when a young man walked past me inside our building carrying some shopping for the community cafe. Again, I smiled to myself as he passed by, thankful to God and encouraged in my heart. Another amazing sign of God miraculous grace, wouldn’t you agree?
You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? Why would a half-full skip and a boy carrying shopping constitute a miracle, let alone some random blog post? The answer, my friends, comes with context. Consider these two incidents in light of the following background information.
When I first came to Niddrie four years ago I found a building under siege. Read the following newspaper article here to get an idea of what my wife and I and our two little girls were walking into. The steel roof on the church premises was awash with a sea of broken bricks, bottles, bits of metal and in fact anything that could be used as a projectile. The windows were being smashed on a regular basis (when I went to visit the place during my first interview the window in the front doors was stoned less than 30 seconds after I walked into the building). Meetings were often interrupted by gangs of young people rushing in. On one occasion a masked group armed with metal bars, led by an angry young man in a ski mask and wielding a golf club, barged in to our service! Members' cars were randomly smashed up, one was burned out and some members attacked in the street. The locks on the front door were once jammed with broken glass to prevent us opening up on a Sunday (we conducted our service in the local park on that occasion). The drainpipes couldn’t be put up because they were ripped out. Flowers couldn’t be planted because they were torn out. The concrete slabbing on the steps leading up to the front door was regularly smashed up with bars and golf clubs. Outside doors were set on fire, graffiti was daubed all over the walls, neighbours' houses were stoned, their fences ripped out and their garden sheds set on fire. Some members were afraid to even open the church door on their own. In the early days there was even a policy of making sure two people were present when the front door was unlocked. One to open the doors and one to keep guard against being attacked! At one point nearly every window in the building was smashed.
So, let me tell you my story again. I returned from my trip to America this past week and discovered a half full skip sat outside the front of our church that had remained untouched for a week. A young man walked past me in the cafe and instead of wearing a ski mask and wielding a golf club, he was carrying shopping for our cafe. How’s it looking now?
Reams have been written about community acceptance and cultural renewal in church planting circles. Many opinions are being put forward for how to "do" community in the Twenty-First Century. Let me just say that nothing beats just plain old patient perseverance, love, consistency, faithfulness to the gospel & just keeping on in the face of immense hostility and depressing years of fruitlessness. Because if you hang in long enough you will begin to experience little miracles of spiritual renewal, community renewal and cultural renewal in things that often seem random and go largely unmissed to the outsider. I mean, who amongst us would pass a skip in the street and even think of thanking God? Or give any thought to a young man carrying a bag of shopping and think of a miracle of God’s grace?
We’ve come a long way in Niddrie over recent years. Four years in and we are just breaking through. Pray for us. Now, don’t get me wrong. One of our guys had his laptop stolen out of the church recently and on Sunday night I had to tell off two four-years-old (yes four!) boys who were trying to attack cars with sticks. They hadn’t touched the skip though. That was still there. And the boy who used to carry a golf club and wear a ski mask? He was at his house, reading a Christian book and seeking to find out how Jesus could change his whole world.
We press on.