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Scheming for God

2019 Hope Awards International winner 20schemes | How a Scottish ministry works in hard places to show the poor and addicted the riches of new life in Christ

Scheming for God

Mez McConnell (Alex Baker/Genesis Photos)

This story is part of our 2019 Hope Awards contest. To vote for your favorite regional winner, go to wng.org/compassion.

Let’s start with a word that sounds nefarious to Americans: scheme. In the United States, it usually means an organized plan for doing something dishonest. But in Scotland, a scheme is a neighborhood with substantial government housing—and the goal of our 2019 Hope Awards International winner is to create charity-infused churches in 20 of them. 

So far 20schemes, formed in 2012, has grown churches in six schemes. In May my wife and I visited four of them to talk with leaders, interns, and neighborhood residents involved in building churches—and, flowing out of that, walking groups, reading groups, community cafés, cooking classes, weight-reduction classes, and more. At an after-school program, elementary-school students (to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) sang about sin and redemption: “Are you messy, noisy, nosey, greedy, grumpy, lazy? / Are you always causing trouble, driving grown-ups crazy? / Jesus changes Mr. Men and Little Misses too / He will take away your sin and give new life to you.”

Schemes are often their own worlds. The Gracemount scheme in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, has its own capitol—a strip shopping center with a barber, a hairdresser, a fish-and-chips restaurant, a drugstore where residents get their doses of methadone, a criminal defense lawyer with numerous local clients, and a tanning salon. The Balarnack scheme in Glasgow has 3,800 residents, a third of whom are officially “income deprived,” 15 percent of whom take prescribed drugs for mental health. Both of those numbers are double the national average, and 29 percent of residents are officially “employment deprived” (triple the national average).

Local governmental councils built the schemes after WWII to move poor people from central city slums into two- and three-story apartment buildings. Some resemble garden apartments with rooftop satellite dishes and small yards. Some have a mixture of privately owned and “council” housing. They don’t look bad from the outside, and 20schemes founder and director Mez McConnell recalls that when he stood in a Brazil slum and showed residents photos of “deprived” Niddrie, they laughed and asked: How could poor people have nice houses and gardens?

McConnell says, “Try telling a child from the scheme whose da’ beats his ma unconscious every night that he has it better than a child who lives in a shack in Brazil with two loving parents trying their best to provide for him.” A scheme child may have better housing and other material benefits than his counterpart in Brazil, but the Scot may not have had “a hot meal this week and he’s been living off moldy Rice Krispies and gone-off milk.” 

Although schemes are now places where welfare-dependent families have lived for generations, they also have an upside. As opposed to discipleship in “gathered churches” where members drive in once a week, many scheme residents see each other daily and “community spirit” is a reality, not an aspiration. Natasha Davidson, 29, grew up in the Niddrie scheme where alcohol flowed and illegal drug use was common, but longtime residents did not have to lock their doors or fear crime: “The people committing the crimes never done it to their own people. They always done it to strangers.”

Natasha Davidson (right) talks with a resident of the Niddrie scheme.

Davidson, no stranger, now heads the 20schemes women’s ministry in Niddrie. 

Her mother used drugs “and had some abusive partners,” so Davidson had “a real problem with men who wanted to display authority. If they asked me to do something, I would just not do it to prove a point: I don’t have to do it and you can’t force me.” She sees her employment in a Christian ministry as ironic because “me and my friends were known for throwing bricks at the church. We’d climb onto the roof, break the drains, throw things at windows, and sometimes target the cars of the Christians.”

Then one of Davidson’s friends wanted to go to church. Davidson did not, because she “liked partying and drinking and things like that, so to sacrifice a Sunday morning. … I liked the person I was when I was drunk.” But her friend, a single mum, “was desperate to come, so we came to church. I remember being so bored.” Even though Davidson read her Facebook feed during the service, something drew her back. She kept coming. She met Christians who “became good friends and they weren’t just fake friends” who tried to manipulate her.

Davidson says one 20schemes strength is that leaders live in the schemes they serve: “Outsiders coming into your community can make you feel like they’re going to fix you.” Another strength is the willingness to talk about sin: “I really didn’t see myself as a -sinner. … I wasn’t as bad as the person next to me, because so many people I knew had committed horrendous crimes. … Then to realize that actually I was a sinner and heaven and hell were very real.” A third strength is the emphasis on forming a church family: “I lost most of my friends when I became a Christian. Part of that is because they don’t like change, but my change forces them to look at their own lives.”

Davidson’s background helps: “At a lot of middle-class churches people put on their best face when they come in,” but life in Niddrie is rawer, and Davidson is able to tell those who visibly mourn, “I know this is a crappy time and I know how you’re feeling.” She says 90 percent of her work is with people coming from non-Christian homes, and it’s those she feels particularly called to serve: “I didn’t hear the gospel until I was 21 years old, and I want that to be different for our kids in our scheme.”

MANY OTHER 20schemes staffers have similar backgrounds. Paul McLoughlan, the 20schemes church planter in Bingham and Magdalene, grew up in a scheme and became a Christian in 2006 while in a Christian recovery center for addicts: “My life had become a mess due to my shallow, hopeless lifestyle.” He knew he had to change: “The way I was going it was going to be a short life.”

McLoughlan is now married with a 4-year-old daughter and another child on the way. His target area is in the bottom 5 percent according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which measures problems including addiction, broken homes, and mental health issues, but McLoughlan says “the most alarming issue is that there’s no gospel witness in the area. The people are hopeless and no one points them to Jesus.”

20schemes has a two-year training program for interns, some of whom sport impressive tattoos. Intern Sam Wilkins has all the words of Luke 18:7 tattooed on his arm because he was “falling away from Christ” and needed “a constant reminder … that God will always bring about justice.” All the interns meet every Wednesday for classes in the 20schemes “Ragged School of Theology,” which steers clear of both liberation theology and prosperity gospel chatter as it promotes Biblical understandings of marriage and parenting.

One reason 20schemes attracts helpers from hard places: Mez McConnell himself survived abandonment by his mum at age 2, an assault conviction at age 12, and a knife fight and homelessness at age 16. He’s now 46 and has learned that “Scotland’s schemes need the gospel. It is only in Jesus that the leopard can change its spots.” McConnell should be familiar to WORLD readers because our issue last Dec. 29 contained a Q&A with him headlined “Good news for wretches.” He argued that only a realization of our sin before a holy God sets us on the road to change: Handouts are a detour.  

McConnell also welcomes workers from middle-class environments when they are willing to relocate. The grandfather of Gracemount Pastor Andy Prime was pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel, a prominent church in Edinburgh. Prime’s father was an elder there. Prime went to seminary, worked at the big church for four years as an assistant and then an associate pastor, and thought that was his long-term calling. In 2012, though, he married a woman who had set up a youth basketball club in Gracemount, and Prime caught the desire to help but not control: “The gospel helps us avoid that kind of superhero complex where we think that we’re the answer to people’s problems.”

Prime says such thinking arises from “a misunderstanding of what poverty is. People from the outside may think that the biggest poverty in an area like this is material: If people had more money it might be better.” He describes the tension those with money face in trying to help the children of an irresponsible dad: “You know his kids don’t have new clothes. His house is a mess. We could go and buy his kids clothes and we could paint his house, but I also know he smokes about 400 pounds’ worth of cannabis every month and cigarettes on top of that. If we do everything for him, we’re just facilitating his drug use.”

Alex Baker/Genesis Photos

McConnell (left) interacts with Sam Wilkins (in orange) at the Ragged School of Theology. (Alex Baker/Genesis Photos)

Prime says the only solution is through Christ: “A dad needs to invest it in his kids rather than his drug addiction, and that’s only going to happen when the Lord changes his heart and he responds to the gospel.” The good news is that people can change, affecting not only themselves but a whole community: Emily Green, a women’s gospel worker from a middle-class background, remembers “having goose bumps thinking that when one person in a scheme becomes a Christian it can affect the whole.” Her work has increased her own faith in Christ alone: Evangelism in the schemes has “no gimmicks, no flashing lights: We’re going to preach the gospel and trust that’s enough to save people.”

Helpers now come not only from both sides of the tracks but both sides of the Atlantic. Jason Nelson came from a middle-class background and was a youth pastor in Laramie, Wyo., but—attracted by Mez’s vision—he moved with his family to Scotland last year and will pastor a 20schemes church. Intern Carrie Selby, 60, moved from Dallas two years ago: Frequently asked why she came thousands of miles to live in a troubled housing project, Selby says the Bible does not speak of “retirement.” Noting that most people who join church-planting efforts are in their 20s, Nelson asks, “Who will reach the older generation of Scotland who are desperately in need of hearing the gospel before it’s too late?”

Ten other Schemers we interviewed reflected Mez McConnell’s message of opposition to social workers who tell the poor they are not responsible for their condition and “need to love themselves more.” McConnell remembers his parole officer’s prediction that he “would be in the prison system for the rest of my life. … He gave me no hope that I could change my life. And then I met Christians for the first time who confronted me about my sin and told me to throw myself on the mercy of Jesus.” 

So what is a scheme? According to 20schemes, it’s a place dominated by people “who have been on social security handouts for generations.” It has “a criminal underbelly that deals in street drugs, prescribed medication and stolen goods as a matter of course.” The result: “Far too many people in the schemes are ruled by fear. To some they are places of terror, to some places of hopelessness, but to many millions more they are ‘home.’”

20schemes

2017 revenue: $1,309,996
2017 expense: $1,256,580
Paid staff: 48  Volunteers: 50
Salaries of two company directors (in dollars, approximately): $49,345 and $32,883
Website: 20schemes.com

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.