The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-07149, in the name of Kate Forbes, on Serve Scotland.
That the Parliament welcomes the establishment of the Serve Scotland coalition of church-based community groups; recognises the positive work undertaken by these groups, providing services such as foodbanks, debt advice, night shelters and refugee support work in communities across Scotland, including in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch; pays tribute to the many thousands of volunteers who provide these services, and believes that such community work undertaken by churches and other faith groups is a mark of a healthy civil society and is to be welcomed as part of a modern, plural Scotland.
I thank colleagues who will participate in the debate, and I acknowledge those in the public gallery who have come to listen, while acknowledging the many others who would have been here if they had been able. Thank you very much.
To many people, religion or the church evokes images of damp walls and cold pews, or of an empty but iconic building standing tall and proud—perhaps too tall and proud for some people’s sensibilities—yet at the heart of the Christian faith is the story that Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. That title might be the stuff of Sunday school stories, but it is every bit as relevant today as it ever was.
I t is the story of somebody who was left battered and bruised, confused and alone by all that life threw at him. There are still too many in Scotland who are in that situation because they are living with abuse, addiction, homelessness, loneliness, poverty and fear. They are forgotten, abandoned and alienated from society as victims of this world’s selfishness, greed and evil desires.
Those who know the story of the Good Samaritan will know that individual after individual, with all the right clothes and all the right qualifications, who looked every bit the story of success, hurried past this poor guy who was left in the gutter of life with barely a glance and certainly no helping hand.
T he man remained still forgotten, still abandoned and still alienated from society until a stranger came along—someone who was vulnerable himself, who was from another part of the world, who had perhaps been subjected to abuse and who was certainly not in step with contemporary culture. He stopped and
“took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds.”
The Good Samaritan looked after the man until he was ready to face the world again.
That story motivates people in churches across Scotland to serve the most marginalised in our society.
Is the member aware of the excellent work of the Inverness street pastors? I have previously had the opportunity to go out on one of their patrols and I was inspired by the work that they do. Does she agree that, like the Good Samaritan, they did not walk on the other side of the road?
That is a great example of what I was about to talk about. There are so many people from charities and churches who choose to stop—they do not walk on by; they stop to help the helpless and give their time, care and effort to those who need it. Often, when we are tucked up in bed, they are out in the cold, the wind and the rain. They follow in the footsteps of those in Scotland who have been a voice for the voiceless and advocates for the marginalised for centuries.
In fact, many church-based charities were established decades ago, when the public sector was much smaller and it was left to individuals and churches to care—people such as Thomas Chalmers, with his commitment to education, or Tom Allan, with his desire to see social work established in Glasgow.
Of course, the public sector has an important role to play and I thank the Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart, for taking part in the debate. However, tonight we are highlighting Serve Scotland, which is a network of charities such as Blythswood Care, Bethany Christian Trust and Glasgow City Mission. Those charities follow gospel teachings to radically love their neighbour and see every human being as born with inherent dignity and worth.
Voluntary work by faith charities produces almost £100 million of economic impact in Scotland every year. Although that is a whopping big number, the impact on the lives of individuals and families cannot be quantified. At its heart, the debate is about people across Scotland who see the need; who recognise the brokenness in our society; who hate—with such a vengeance—the injustice that is endemic in our society; who hate the abuse of children; who hate the loan sharks that heap debt on vulnerable people; who hate the revolving door of homelessness; who hate the poverty that entraps families; and who hate the fact that we live in a world that is so rich and yet people starve. However, rather than just hating injustice, they are also loving others and showing compassion.
I am grateful to colleagues who will speak tonight and I am sure that they will highlight examples from their constituencies of how church-based work and faith communities have helped individuals and families. I started with a story about the Good Samaritan and I would like to finish with a story. The problem is that there are so many stories that I could not pick just one to finish on.
There are stories of children who were living and sleeping on the streets of India and who are now safe. There are stories of men and women who have been homeless in our cities for years and years and who now have their own place to stay. There are stories of mothers and fathers who had been borrowing food from other people and skipping meals to feed their children. All those stories have a positive outcome because of volunteers, some of whom are in the public gallery, and because of the churches across Scotland. Those volunteers chose not to just sit in a pew and talk; they chose to get out and act on their faith.
For all the stories that we hear, there are plenty more that do not have a positive outcome yet. That is why I start the debate by applauding the vital work of churches, who hate injustice like we do, who love people and who will not be content until peace and love reign supreme in Scotland. [
Many thanks to Kate Forbes for bringing this important debate to the chamber. As she said, there are many examples of great work being carried out by church-based community groups, and I will mention one or two of them.
For example, in recent years during the winter in Glasgow, a night shelter has provided shelter for people who otherwise would be sleeping outside. That has been organised by Glasgow City Mission and is hosted in the building of the Lodging House Mission—which was an offshoot of the Church of Scotland—but it is helped by many individuals. At first, Glasgow City Council was sceptical as to whether the shelter was needed and whether there really were people sleeping rough in Glasgow but, sadly, in recent winters, there have regularly been 40 homeless folk using it each night who would otherwise have been sleeping outside. I am glad to say that the city council has become much more involved in recent times and has been engaging with those in the shelter—they are mainly men, although there are a few women—to try to get them settled more quickly into proper accommodation.
That is a good example of the public and third sectors working together.
We perhaps have to accept that the public sector will always be a bit cumbersome and bureaucratic, whereas third sector organisations, be they faith-based or otherwise, can be a bit more nimble.
Another example, which is linked to Bethany Christian Trust, is Safe Families for Children, which has a base in the east end of Glasgow. Its basic concept is to help and support families—often those where there is just a single parent—who otherwise would not quite manage to cope on their own. Safe Families for Children can step in before things go as far as fostering or other more permanent and formal options. A single parent who is looking after their children full time can get a few days respite while the children are looked after by another family.
The church that I am involved in, which happens to be a Baptist church, is in Easterhouse in Glasgow. As people might know, that area has changed a lot over the years. The needs have changed and so the church input has changed, too. For example, we used to run a breakfast club because schools were reporting that kids were arriving at school in the morning having had no food. In fact, the only meal that many children had was their school lunch—they had no other food at all. However, Glasgow City Council has started running breakfast clubs in schools, so the need for churches and other groups to do that is not the same.
Easterhouse has changed over the years. When I moved in 27 years ago, the population was almost entirely white and English speaking, but there are now many more people from ethnic minorities. We have a number of folk whose English is pretty limited, so my church has started running English for speakers of other languages classes, often in a more informal way than the colleges can do.
We run a cafe with free tea and coffee and inexpensive food, which is attractive to adults with learning disabilities and their carers. Many of them used to go to the day centres that Glasgow City Council ran until it closed them down, which left folk with nowhere to go. The carers are often on a very limited budget, so they appreciate being able to bring their client somewhere warm and dry for a friendly chat.
I argue that our church is not unusual and that many Christian and other faith-based groups do similar work. However, I wonder whether there is a bit of a bias in some quarters against church-based community groups. That is certainly the feeling of some individuals and churches. In certain circles, the feeling is that the modern way to go is secular and humanist and that all faith-based activity is second rate. However, the motion mentions a “modern, plural Scotland”, and my understanding is that the term “plural” or “pluralistic” means that we are a tolerant society that accepts that there is more than one way of doing things.
For example, if we agree that the aim of food banks is to provide food for people who do not have enough, it should not really matter who supplies the food. I come from a faith background, and I am delighted if a humanist or anyone else supplies that food, but I hope that someone from a more secular background would also be delighted that Christians were doing such work.
I again thank Kate Forbes for bringing the motion to the Parliament for debate.
I thank Kate Forbes for lodging her motion for debate and bringing the work of the Serve Scotland coalition to the Parliament’s attention. It is good to have in our gallery members of Serve Scotland, with whom I spoke this afternoon at their stand outside the chamber. We welcome them here warmly.
Churches and the organisations that they support in our communities have great capacity to bring about positive change in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation. Research by the Cinnamon Network shows that churches and other faith groups are running more than 9,000 social action projects and thereby providing more than 9 million volunteer hours and 2.2 million paid staff hours, which cumulatively contributes £93 million to our economy.
In the West Scotland region, numerous churches and Christian organisations work hard to run groups and projects that support the community, with the help of Serve Scotland. For example, the Milngavie United Free church runs a craft group that supports local charities and organisations. The church’s website highlights a few examples of the group’s work. For instance, the blankets that it has knitted have been
“given to local day care centres, care homes and maternity units.”
It has also made hats, which it has
“sent to the Sailors Society, hospital baby units, our troops on active service overseas and to the homeless”,
and support has been given to our armed forces veterans in several ways. Members of the craft group have also knitted poppies, which they have sold, with the proceeds going to Erskine Hospital and Poppyscotland.
Another example is the Way Ahead Group (A Stroke Club for Bearsden) run by Killermont parish church, which supports people who have had strokes by holding weekly afternoon sessions that include a varied programme of physiotherapy run by professional physiotherapists, board games, carpet golf or bowls and afternoon tea.
A third example of the sterling work that various organisations do is the work of the street pastors, who play an active role in strengthening our communities and making our streets safer. Groups of street pastors are working in Inverclyde, Kirkintilloch and Paisley.
Serve Scotland’s work is useful to those groups because it provides a network where they can share best practice, ensure that there is no local duplication of work and create a clear picture of provision and the gaps in the services that are provided in our communities. To help with those aims, Serve Scotland set up four strategic aims, which are to represent the church to national and local government on issues that relate to the great community social action work that it does; to facilitate the network of Christian social action leaders to allow the sharing of best practice; to inform the church of national and local community social action policy development; and to resource local volunteers with advice on fundraising and development work to help them to continue their work.
All those aims are welcome because, if Serve Scotland was not doing that work, it would be necessary to create an organisation to do it. When I met the third sector initiative team in Helensburgh and Lomond yesterday, I witnessed the importance of Serve Scotland to meeting the community’s needs, which demonstrates its great work.
I apologise to the Presiding Officer and members. Owing to my being required to host an event in Parliament shortly, I will have to leave the debate before it concludes.
Last night, I shared with my 80-year-old mum, who is a lifelong churchgoer, the fact that I intended to contribute to the debate. Her response was, “Well, that’ll be interesting.” She was, to put it mildly, amused by the prospect. Although I was raised in a Christian household, I have turned out to be—there is no other way to put it—an avowed atheist. I think that my mum fears another collapsing-beam episode, if not the full chamber roof falling in, should I rise to praise the activities of religious groups, but at the risk of tempting fate, I genuinely congratulate my friend and colleague Kate Forbes on securing the debate.
We absolutely should recognise good work of the nature that Serve Scotland seeks to co-ordinate, assist and promote and, in so doing, we should celebrate the contribution of religious groups to making Scottish society the society that it is. I am increasingly unsettled by the push by some people to denigrate and marginalise people of faith—any faith—and to dismiss their views and their right to hold them. I was raised to respect the reasonable and deeply held beliefs of other folk, however much I might struggle to understand them, and—more than that—to be appreciative of the positive contribution to society that they might make.
As an MSP and prior to becoming one, I have seen many examples of faith groups converting their beliefs into welcome praiseworthy actions. In Arbroath, in my constituency, churches have been running a street pastors project for the past six years. As Kate Forbes and Dave Thompson highlighted—
I apologise, Mr Stewart.
As Kate Forbes and David Stewart highlighted, when those of us who are not hitting the pubs and clubs are comfortably in bed, street pastors are out providing a listening ear and making sure that people who may well be feeling the effects of having had too much alcohol are okay. For example, they provide flip-flops to make the walk home that bit easier. Those who are involved with the scheme go through extensive and regular training, including in drug awareness.
Last year, I was delighted to attend the 10th anniversary celebration of the Havilah project, which is run by members of St Andrew’s parish church in Arbroath. Havilah began in response to the desire of some members to reach out to the many people in the local community who, for whatever reason, often find themselves excluded, isolated and unloved. It helps people who are struggling with addictions. Volunteers have also visited some of the service users who have been sent to prison, and some people, on leaving prison, make Havilah their first port of call because they know of the welcome that they will get. Angus Council and the Church of Scotland’s go for it fund provide financial support and, in 2015, the project was presented with the Queen’s award for voluntary service.
St Andrew’s church also works alongside Arbroath old and abbey church on operating a food bank in the town. As well as members of the two kirks donating food, supplies come from other churches and individuals beyond Arbroath. Having visited the food bank, I know of the invaluable service that it is providing to people who are in times of crisis.
The saying may well be that charity begins at home, but Angus South churches also play their part further afield. Kate Forbes touched on the Blythswood Care shoe box appeal, which delivers presents to children in eastern Europe who might well be going without the joys of Christmas, and Kirriemuir old parish church joins many other churches in acting as a collection point.
Returning to St Andrew’s church in Arbroath, I note that, 10 years ago, the Dalitso Project was started there after a group of seven young people visited Namisu orphan village and saw the tough conditions that the children were living in. Now an independent charity, it operates two day-care centres and orphan residences in Malawi, which care for more than 300 children and provide jobs for 30 staff. It is also working to build another classroom and pay for another teacher, and is currently working with local government to build a health centre so that people do not need to take a long trip to receive medical attention. It has responded to flooding and food shortages in the communities.
I welcome the co-ordinating role that is being taken by Serve Scotland across churches and other services, and thank all the church groups that are playing active roles in my constituency and across Scotland.
I congratulate Kate Forbes on securing this debate highlighting the excellent work that is carried out by the Serve Scotland coalition, which is a coalition of church-based community organisations that look at the needs of their local communities and provide services for them.
Ahead of the debate, Serve Scotland provided me with a list of the organisations that it is involved with that are working in the Highlands and Islands. Although I was aware of them all, reading the list I was struck by the fact that every age group is covered by one project or another. There are projects working with people from the very youngest to the very oldest people in our society.
In my region, street pastors are a common sight—from the city streets of Inverness to small towns. Kate Forbes and Graeme Dey mentioned that they are normally tucked up in bed when the street pastors are working, but I have seen street pastors working on cold, wet nights, helping people who are perhaps the worse for wear, and stopping to have a chat with people who are perhaps not clear about what they are going to do next. Sometimes, they must feel like tourist guides in the summer, because people ask them where they should go and what they should do, but they are a lifeline to people who find themselves in difficult situations. They work with other organisations—voluntary and statutory—to help people, and their presence also makes people feel safer. I have felt much safer when I have been walking home and have seen a street pastor, because I know that I am not on my own on the street. The street pastors are very hands on.
Other organisations have developed to offer a range of services. Kate Forbes talked about Blythswood Care. This might give away my age, but I remember when Blythswood Care started. Where I grew up, a local minister called Jackie Ross, who was also very active in the community, saw the plight of Romanians and decided to send practical help. A number of other people got involved by collecting goods and shipping them to Romania; I remember a great community effort to collect useful items that could be sent. I recently spoke to a friend who was one of the volunteer drivers, and he regaled me with stories of those times—some hilariously funny and some terrifying. It is hard to imagine now how difficult and trying those times were, but the volunteers brought much-needed help and practical support to the people for whom they catered.
Blythswood Care continued to work in Romania and extended beyond it to other parts of the world, but it is now better known at home for its work providing food banks locally. I am pretty sure that the founders never foresaw the circumstances in which the need that they catered for abroad would manifest itself on their own doorstep. That is something that we all wish was not required, but Blythswood Care now provides much-needed assistance at home as well as abroad. It employs 125 people and has in excess of 1,000 volunteers to provide those services. Although I truly wish that people did not need their help, many people owe their lives to them.
The debate highlights the practical impact of members of the Christian community who cater for need in their communities and beyond—often to people who do not share their religious belief. That does not matter, as long as they can help. Those organisations depend on volunteers who give of their own free time to help others. It is right that Parliament pays tribute to their work.
I thank Kate Forbes for lodging the motion and securing the debate. It will undoubtedly help to raise awareness of the invaluable work carried out by churches and other faith groups across Scotland and encourage more people to get involved in this invaluable initiative.
The topic of community empowerment has featured strongly in many discussions and debates in the chamber over the years and is certainly a matter that has always been of great significance and importance to the Scottish National Party Government. Although there are many ways by which a community can seek to be empowered, one sure-fire method is to create the necessary channels to enable people who have the ability and desire to be of help to connect with those who are in need of that help. That is perfectly embodied by the services undertaken by Serve Scotland.
After Serve Scotland’s official launch in November 2015, I have been greatly interested in following the development of its mission
“to change Scotland for good”.
The umbrella group brings together the Christian voluntary sector at both a national level and a local level, and it is inspiring to see that almost two years on it is still growing and positively influencing communities.
In challenging times, people often find themselves seemingly alone when dealing with hardship and difficulty. However, they are not alone. Churches and faith groups are there to offer invaluable support that can make all the difference, from helping people to make ends meet by setting up food banks and community cafes to running night shelters and addiction services for those who are most at risk. Their dedication to serving poor, vulnerable and marginalised people in their own communities and beyond is invaluable.
However, I also recognise the need for this national initiative to be a touchstone for the voluntary sector and those who seek to connect with it. Since its inception, Serve Scotland has helped to bridge the gap that can appear when secular groups or local authorities need to work with local churches. It achieves that by establishing networks of churches of all Christian denominations, and, by doing so, granting those diverse bodies the ability to band together to better identify community needs and joint areas of concern and to access funding streams. That ultimately allows their efforts to be more far reaching than those of individual organisations.
Although Serve Scotland currently operates only in certain pilot areas, it is a long-term project that is constantly expanding. That expansion is most welcome. I understand that it is already undertaking research to show the value and volume of work that is being carried out by churches and Christian organisations throughout Scotland.
Having witnessed this first hand, I know that in my constituency of Cunninghame North such organisations play a vital role in many lives and go out of their way to offer invaluable support to many families and individuals, regardless of their background or denomination. I am sure that that evidence is mirrored in, arguably, every community around the country in which those organisations are present. I believe that the findings of the research will be welcome and effective in improving their services even further. That will be crucial, not only in recognising the positive impact of voluntary work but in gauging the future needs of communities. Serve Scotland’s mission to identify needs and to work to deliver transformational projects that meet those needs is testament to the strong sense of community spirit that drives so many people in Scotland, and it is a mission that I fully support.
With Serve Scotland’s overarching and universal goal of helping those who are less fortunate, regardless of background or denomination, I congratulate everyone involved with the group thus far and look forward to seeing what further positive influences it will bestow on communities in the future.
I also pay tribute to all those who volunteer to provide the services that have been discussed in the debate, from food banks to support work and beyond, in my constituency and around Scotland as a whole. The community work that is undertaken by churches and other faith groups inspires just that—faith. It inspires faith that Scotland is working towards an increasingly tolerant, inclusive and plural society, and that, as Serve Scotland expands, so will the abilities of the organisations encompassed within it to continue making a difference to the lives of people in need.
I thank Kate Forbes for bringing the debate to Parliament and giving us the opportunity to celebrate the huge but often unrecognised contribution that communities of faith make around Scotland.
It has been the case for some time that, when faith-based organisations make the news, the coverage is more often negative than positive, yet those organisations provide such a range of services and support in every city, town and village in our country that, if they were to go, we would not be able to cope. That is particularly true in this era of austerity, of public services being hammered by cuts and of a concerted effort to reduce the supportive role of the state.
From my own congregation at Bearsden Cross church, I know the sheer volume of services that volunteers provide. An example is our church’s mind that song? club, which is run with Alzheimer’s Scotland for those with dementia and their carers. The club uses singing to bring together people who can often feel isolated and overwhelmed, and uses the well-documented ability of music to bring back long-forgotten memories.
Over the past few months, our church has worked with others in East Dunbartonshire to welcome four Syrian families who have settled in Scotland through the resettlement scheme. Every week, the families—adults and children—come to our church halls to learn English and to discuss the support that they need to build their lives here. Working alongside paid staff from the local council, much of that activity is driven by volunteers such as my friend Peter Drummond, who has recently given up to 40 hours a week to do everything that he can to make our new community members feel welcome.
Those are relatively recent examples but, for more than 30 years, the churches in my area have also been involved in beam, which is Bearsden and Milngavie’s talking newspaper for those with sight and other accessibility challenges.
We are not the only ones, of course. Here in Edinburgh, Broughton St Mary’s church has done wonderful work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and with other congregations, denominations and faiths who want to improve the support that they can provide to LGBT members of their own faiths and of the wider community.
Those are some examples of the thousands of projects that Church of Scotland congregations are involved with, but the kirk is not the only organisation doing such work. For example, I know of the exceptional work of Glasgow City Mission, which has transformed the lives of thousands of vulnerable people in and around the city with the mission’s emergency night shelter, parenting classes and services to help those who are trying to find employment after or during periods of homelessness or who are facing addiction or other challenges. The mission’s ethos includes a commitment to unconditional acceptance, which is rooted in its Christian foundations.
Such wonderful work is far from the exclusive domain of Christians. In my region, the Jewish community, though small, provides a huge number of services. Jewish Care Scotland, for example, organises everything from kosher food banks to mental health support and projects to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into their new communities.
The likes of crossreach, which is run by the Church of Scotland, and Cosgrove Care provide high-quality care services—colleagues will be aware that I am having technical issues—for those with additional support needs, the elderly, vulnerable young people and many others and are among the largest social care providers in the country. Indeed, I believe that crossreach is the largest provider of such services outwith local government in Scotland. [
.] Members will have to indulge me for a second.
I very much appreciate that intervention from my colleague; it serves me right for relying on technology—and it takes me nicely to what I was reaching for.
For me, the Christian motivation to provide for one’s community, which led me into politics, can be neatly explained by a wonderful quote that I found in an article that was written by a young Christian social justice activist from Australia. He said:
“Jesus was overtly on the side of the poor, the excluded, the ignored, the disenfranchised and the exploited. He was on their side when it damaged his reputation, his earning potential and any hope he had of moving up the ranks of religious or political power. He was on their side when he drove out the price-manipulators and rent-seekers in the temple courts and he was on their side when it cost him his life.”
That is what has always motivated me in my faith and my politics: the desire to serve others.
Our faith communities have given so much—and are still giving so much every single day in this country. In almost every case, they do so without asking for recognition and often they do not receive any. So, again, I thank Kate Forbes for the opportunity to stand here today and say thank you.
The technical issue did not mean that your time was cut, did it, Mr Greer?
On that note, due to the number of members who want to speak in the debate, I am minded—and the minister has agreed—to accept a motion without notice to extend the debate for up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[
Motion agreed to.
I now call—I cannot remember who came next. I call Stewart Stevenson.
I thought I was nearly as memorable as Kate Forbes, whom I congratulate for providing the time for the debate.
Serve Scotland aims to empower the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. It unites local churches and community organisations. It facilitates communication among those organisations. It documents what has been done so that churches and organisations generally can learn from those experiences.
The beauty of Serve Scotland is that it is a nationwide organisation but it facilitates local actions. For example, in my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast, the River Church has been a presence in Banff since 2001. It houses a thriving food bank, which is stocked both by donations from local people and through a partnership with Tesco supermarket in Banff. It also has a Well Café that offers a weekly hot meal and company for those in need. Services like that, in Banff as elsewhere, require the local power of volunteers—people who sacrifice time and bring their talents to make the efforts possible.
Another example—as in Inverness, as referred to by David Stewart—is the Peterhead street pastors, an organisation that began in 2003. I was privileged to attend the induction of some new street pastors recently. It is a living, expanding, terrific organisation. They walk the streets of Peterhead during the wee small hours of the night. I have been out with the police several times on a Saturday night in the environment in which the street pastors work, and I know the challenges that they are inevitably meeting. Without any side and without any bias, they care for, listen to and help those who may be out and about and in difficulty of any kind.
True to the goal of Serve Scotland, these groups are a light that shines
“in the darkest places of society”.
These particular groups help to secure the basic needs of food and safety for people who are on the margins. Other groups provide shelter, education or addiction recovery support, to name a few services. Among them, again in Peterhead, is the Salvation Army that I visited recently at the weekly lunch that it provides for precisely such disadvantaged people. I must say that the soup and pudding were first class. The group works with others to get the raw materials that it prepares for those who need them.
Groups do much more than simply address people’s basic needs. By reaching out in love, they anchor themselves and the people whom they serve to their communities. They create ties that strengthen the civil fabric of our towns and of Scotland as a whole.
Serve Scotland assists local organisations by exchanging information. It links groups together to share experiences. It helps churches and voluntary bodies to get the word out about projects so that they get the help and support they need. We are in uncertain times, and it is heartening to see that effort: to see engagement and education, not elitism; to see generosity and altruism, not greed; to see service and tolerance in place of self-interest.
In our contributions, we all gratefully acknowledge the local volunteers and organisations for their time and efforts to reach out in their communities. We commend the wider coalition of Serve Scotland for its bold vision of a tolerant, contemporary and co-operative Scotland.
I am delighted to speak in this members’ business debate on Serve Scotland, and I congratulate Kate Forbes on giving us the opportunity to speak in it.
Serve Scotland, which was launched less than two years ago, is a passionate movement that brings inspiration and creativity to encourage the Christian faith community to serve the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. It helps to highlight the invaluable role that church-based organisations can play in our modern world.
I will never forget a sermon that was delivered by a minister of mine who will remain nameless. He said that it was really important for Christians not to expect thanks or praise for the work that they did in the community on behalf of the church. He was often seen as very ungrateful, although I know that he certainly was not. That sermon sat uncomfortably with lots of people in the congregation, because words of praise and thanks can be a spur for a lot of people. I know that they did not do things just for the glory, but a little pat on the back often helps.
Serve Scotland has become the champion of those individuals and groups. It does not exist to promote any one church or organisation; rather, it promotes all the good work that is being done by churches and organisations for the good of all people and communities in Scotland.
I thank Serve Scotland for its briefing and allowing us to thank communities and individuals who help. I also thank it for giving us some idea of the work that is carried out across Scotland. It has been estimated that, in Scotland, there are 9,000 social action projects that are run by churches with £93 million-worth of economic impact, 9 million volunteer hours and 2.2 million paid staff hours. All those numbers are massive but, as Kate Forbes said, we must remember that they relate to individuals.
The church has been an important part of my life, as I know it has for many people in the chamber and across Scotland. It is now about much more than Sunday mornings. Of course it is about faith, community and responsibility, but it is increasingly about churches without walls. It is not about damp and dingy walls; it is about getting out into the community. That has always been the case; it is not a new thing. We have heard about loving our neighbour and the story of the Good Samaritan.
Organisations such as Serve Scotland are an important part of the church community. Thousands of volunteers take time to serve those who really need a bit of help, whether in food banks, with debt advice, in night shelters or in refugee support. Such social action is important to a prosperous and compassionate society.
I want to touch on two fantastic examples of that Christian social action through Serve Scotland in my Galloway and West Dumfries constituency. The good companions project, which is run by Maxwelltown West Church of Scotland in Dumfries for its senior members, provides regular meetings that give its members lively companionship, speakers and entertainment for the young at heart.
There is also the new life church in Castle Douglas. As well as its regular services, it provides a range of groups and projects for the local community, including the helping hands food bank, the elderberries lunch club, the hub youth club, parentalk and the cap debt centre.
I always remember getting little tubes of Smarties in my own church. We ate the Smarties and filled the tubes with 20p pieces for WaterAid abroad.
Gatehouse community church provides music and youth club events for all the young folk in the village.
Those people are examples of people who have contributed. It is important to recognise that they are showing their Christian responsibility to help the poor and vulnerable and that they are taking action. Serve Scotland is empowering those organisations to ensure that their work has the best possible impact on our communities.
I wish Serve Scotland all the very best in its continuing journey.
I, too, thank Kate Forbes for her motion and for securing the debate. I also congratulate Serve Scotland on its establishment and the work that it does. It is fitting that the debate comes on the back of last week’s members’ business debate on the Boys Brigade juniors 100th anniversary.
As I say regularly in the chamber, my constituency sits in part of Scotland’s old industrial heartland. Unfortunately it has—this fate has befallen many such areas—fallen into deprivation. Although we are all working towards changing that, the community still struggles. However, out of that adversity—as is always the case—springs good. The church and faith groups are very much leading that work.
Since I became an MSP last year, I have learned first-hand exactly how much work is going on. I could not possibly mention in the three minutes that I have left everybody who has contacted me or whom I have had contact with in my constituency who is involved in church-based community groups, so if anyone is watching this I ask them, please, not to be offended if I do not mention them.
I will mention a few of the organisations in the time that I have, starting with Teen Challenge’s project in Coatbridge, which is a team of volunteers from churches within my constituency. Its bus ministry is a place where vulnerable people with addictions can meet for a couple of hours for food, company, advice and support. Addiction support workers are on hand to support people who are in the beginning stages of recovery. Upwards of 40 people can attend the individual sessions, which take place outside the high-rise flats at Jackson Court. I mention that area specifically because it was recently placed in the top 10 of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation. The church groups, having noticed that information, responded to it. I have been to the bus ministry a couple of times and witnessed its work.
Another example is the helping hands soup kitchen. In 1996, the Society of St Vincent De Paul in Coatbridge realised that the town needed a soup kitchen. The purpose is to relieve the need, the hardship and the distress of people by offering practical assistance—especially by providing a meal of hot soup or sandwiches free of charge. The soup kitchen is open 361 nights of the year. The main service users are young men and women with alcohol or drug addiction issues. The volunteers come from churches throughout Coatbridge.
I will touch on the Conforti Institute, which is a global interreligious and intercultural organisation that promotes integral liberation. I am proud that that global organisation is based in Coatbridge. Its work includes a volunteer prison ministry and faith-rooted social justice activism. It also operates a food bank in the town. In 2016, the food bank supported 1,389 adults, 924 children and 338 pets.
I will stick to food banks—a topic that other members have mentioned. The Basics Food Bank for Lanarkshire, which is based in Coatbridge, is run by the Coatbridge Baptist church. I understand that 51 per cent of all referrals are benefit and/or state-welfare related. In August 2017 alone it gave out 148 food parcels, of which 48 went to families and 100 to individuals.
I want to mention the Coatbridge community orchard, which was set up initially through the Hope church in Coatbridge, which is involved in a range of other activities. The orchard helps a lot of people who are struggling with addiction issues to come together to find and to use other skills. I attended the opening of the orchard and am proud to have planted a tree.
There are so many more organisations that I could mention, including the Chryston parish church, which provides a clothes bank, and the go between project in Townhead, which provides a job club.
I will end with a point similar to that which was made by Ross Greer. Where would Coatbridge and Chryston be without those organisations? It has taken my becoming an MSP to realise the full extent of their work, and it is my job to speak in debates such as this one, and to promote the good work that they do and to do everything that I can as the local MSP to help them to continue. I leave it at that, Presiding Officer.
I congratulate Kate Forbes on securing the debate and commend her for her opening speech. The length of the debate and the number of members who have participated in it are perhaps illustrative of the volume of interest in Parliament on the topic. We are aware that hundreds of church organisations and faith groups work across Scotland to make it a better place, and we want to acknowledge their efforts.
I echo the thoughts of everybody who has spoken and join them in welcoming Serve Scotland. It is creating a formal place for church-based community groups to exchange ideas and best practice, and it provides a forum to highlight projects that are making a big difference to people across the country. The good work has been going on for many years, if not decades. All that Serve Scotland is doing is shining a new light on it, which is very welcome.
There is a general view that, across Scotland, church congregations are dwindling—at least, that is what recent censuses and surveys have told us. However, perhaps what we are learning from the debate is that, as Finlay Carson said, bums on pews—if that is not unparliamentary language, Presiding Officer—on a Sunday morning might be less important than the holistic work that churches do, particularly in the wider community, in reaching out with the gospel and in their other outreach work.
Such work is a practical illustration of the Christian faith, in offering help and relief to, and demonstrating love for, those who are less fortunate. The nature and shape of relief has changed over time, and some of the partner organisations that have been mentioned in the debate are helping Scots with debt, poverty, hunger and mental health problems. In times of crisis, the church is often the crutch to which people turn.
I want to mention three projects in my area, which Serve Scotland has identified. We do not traditionally associate beautiful rural areas such as highland Perthshire with poverty, but poverty is just as aggressive and damaging in places such as Aberfeldy and Pitlochry as it is in the bigger cities. Residents in Perth and Kinross have some of the highest levels of personal debt in Scotland, and a recent citizens advice bureau report revealed that there has been a 60 per cent increase in the number of people who are seeking charitable support in Perth alone.
In response, Christians Against Poverty was set up to provide people with the tools to deal with their debt and to give them the precious perspective that is difficult for a person to have when they are in debt over their head. As a result of its work, Christians Against Poverty has won numerous awards and has been recommended by organisations including Money Saving Expert.
In 2016, I had the privilege of visiting one of Christians Against Poverty’s centres, in Aberfeldy, which serves highland Perthshire. I was struck by the support that the charity offers and by the number of clients who were making use of its resources. There are no conditions on that help: a person does not need to be associated with a church or even to be a Christian to make use of the charity’s services. There is no judgment—there is just a place where people can be listened to and helped. That is the Christian faith at its best. I hope that the Aberfeldy centre can continue to grow and provide vital services.
Ross Greer mentioned that his church has been welcoming refugees from Syria. Last year, St John the Baptist episcopal church in Perth started an enterprising initiative to make migrants and refugees feel welcome. St John’s produced more than 3,000 little postcards with the words, “You are welcome here” and “Thank you for your contribution to the life of the community” in a number of different languages, and distributed them to homes and businesses across Perth. It is a simple and effective way of improving community relations, and it is just the sort of message that is needed in the wake of public discussions on immigration.
Finally, I congratulate Perth street pastors. David Stewart, Graeme Dey and Stewart Stevenson talked about their experience of street pastors, so I need not say much more about the excellent work that they do. A short time ago, I had the privilege of spending some time with street pastors in Perth and seeing their excellent work. There are street pastors in many towns and cities across Scotland, and I look forward to hosting a reception in the Scottish Parliament in December to mark the 10th anniversary of the Ascension Trust, which runs the street pastor programmes across Scotland. I will invite fellow members of the Scottish Parliament to attend, and I hope that many of them will be able to come along.
This evening’s debate has shown how important Christian organisations and the Christian faith are to many communities throughout Scotland. I wish Serve Scotland all the best as it continues its important mission.
I congratulate Kate Forbes on securing this important debate to highlight the work of Serve Scotland. I thank all the volunteers who are here in the public gallery and, more important, I thank them and all Serve Scotland’s volunteers for the time that they give. The Government appreciates their efforts.
Kate Forbes has told me that people whom Serve Scotland supports often go on to volunteer. That is a tribute to the volunteers and to the organisation as a whole. In my experience as a constituency MSP, I have found that folk who have benefited from others volunteering often take on the role of volunteer, and long may that continue.
I thank Shirley Berry, who was at the Serve Scotland stall earlier today, for the leaflet that shows the projects in my patch of Aberdeen, many of which I am aware of. Like other members during the debate, I have nothing but praise for the Aberdeen street pastors, who do an amazing job in my city. I am always struck by how church organisations rally round. The living well project cafe that I recently attended at Ferryhill church is another prime example of people doing good things.
Our country has a strong sense of social justice, and faith communities, including Christian communities, play a key part in that. Often, they are among the first to speak up for social justice and against poverty and inequality and to set up charities or projects to take practical steps to make a difference. We still see that today, and their role is vital.
I pay tribute to the range of projects that Serve Scotland covers. It provides, on average, 10 million hours of volunteering and paid work annually across Scotland, which is a truly remarkable achievement. Its approach to engagement with communities nurtures and encourages the historical and theological concept of selflessness and encourages loving one’s neighbour—words of faith put into action. The work of projects supports local organisations to grow effectively in their work of providing services in areas of poverty and debt advice, homelessness, addiction, refugee support, food banks and night shelters, as well as the many other areas that we have covered in the debate.
Partnering with organisations that adopt a faith-based but not faith-biased approach allows Serve Scotland to use best practice from existing projects to respond to the pressing and particular needs of local communities. I am sure that we all agree that the power of volunteers provides tremendous strength to the work in communities across our country. Those helpers and volunteers are taking positive action and giving their time up for others—not for fanfare or reward but because it is right and because of the rewards that volunteering brings them. That is the golden thread that runs throughout our families and communities; it gives pace and innovation to change and makes a difference every day.
We continue to face challenging economic circumstances and, unfortunately, people continue to live in poverty in Scotland. With further UK Government welfare cuts due to bite deeper, and with the roll-out of universal credit and certain policies due to push more families into poverty, the reality is that such work will continue to be important in reacting to local need.
A fairer and more equal Scotland is at the heart of the Government’s ambitions. Last year, the fairer Scotland action plan included the key message that it will take all of us to build a fairer Scotland. However, we are clear that our actions need to go hand in hand with those of community-based organisations, among others. Serve Scotland is an important part of those efforts and actively works to achieve equality for all by alleviating food poverty and building more connected communities day in and day out. That kindness and compassion is helping to improve the lives of people all over Scotland.
Glasgow’s and Dundee’s local Serve networks are unique, with many churches—including the independent churches and Christian organisations—involved in community projects. The networks create bridges between councils and faith groups, and the richness is that volunteers can attend and share their experiences directly with council representatives.
The networks contribute to greater interfaith dialogue. The launch event for Scottish interfaith week, which this year is taking place in Dundee, creates an opportunity for different faith communities to connect and engage in dialogue to foster mutual understanding and acceptance. The focus this year is on creativity and the arts. Scottish interfaith week will commence on Sunday 12 November and end on Sunday 19 November. It is an opportunity for people of all faiths and none to highlight their way of life, whether it be through artwork, architecture, music or dance.
We have heard from many members about the role that Serve Scotland has played in helping refugees and newcomers to our country. Serve Scotland’s contribution in that regard is clear. Scotland has a strong reputation as a country that welcomes people of all nationalities and faiths, including those who are seeking refuge and asylum from war and terror elsewhere. I pay tribute to the response of faith organisations and communities in supporting refugees who have come to Scotland. Our nation’s values are clearly apparent in the humanity that has been displayed to those who are most in need. People who have fled persecution, war, rape and displacement have found a warm welcome in Scotland, and the way in which our communities have responded has played a big part in that. I am immensely proud that, under the Syrian resettlement programme, we have received around 1,850 Syrian refugees since 2015. Serve Scotland and other similar organisations should be proud of their endeavours in making folk welcome here.
It is powerful to hear that more local networks will be developing in the coming months. Faith groups and community organisations such as Serve Scotland will continue to play a vital part in creating the Scotland that we all want to see. Modern Scotland is a strong multifaith and multicultural society, and I believe that our fundamental commitment to diversity and our celebration of difference will help to make this country a better place for everyone.
Finally, I thank all the folks who have volunteered for Serve Scotland—more power to their elbows.
Meeting closed at 18:17.