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.