After the morning service last Sunday, I drove past An Lanntair, where a small group of journalists had gathered. The arts centre is opening for three Sundays in the first quarter of the year, in an attempt to establish demand for the particular brand of entertainment it provides. This is newsworthy, I imagine, because people from outwith Lewis lap up news stories about how weird the island is, and how anachronistic. We get the same thing with Gaelic too; we’re used to it.
Sadly, there are local people who all too happily play up to the stereotypes, however, telling the media what they want to hear. They talk broadly of oppression and bullying by the church, of ministers apoplectic with rage because they are losing their death-grip on the local populace. One person even tried to tell me that the opening of leisure facilities on a Sunday would alleviate social exclusion.
Bear in mind that one of the main causes of social exclusion in Scotland is poverty. And bear in mind, also, that a film ticket for An Lanntair costs £7.
But, flawed logic notwithstanding, Sunday was an epiphany for me. I found myself driving home that afternoon, reflecting on the plight of young people in a community which offers them scant opportunities. Leisure facilities are few and far between, and access to these often prohibitively expensive. Political corruption further restricts their chances of personal development and fulfilment. And the church does not want to loosen its hold on them.
The Eastern Orthodox church, that is.
You see, I didn’t go straight home from church but, instead, listened to a presentation from two young Christians to our Sunday School kids, about their trip to Moldova last year. They spoke of a country which is difficult to live in, a society which hardens people because they have to put self-protection ahead of anything else. The teenagers they met at the church camp, funded by donations from Lewis, were getting a week out of a sometimes challenging home life.
The speaker laughed as he recalled seeing the campers arriving. He expected primary school age children, but instead was shocked to see tall, strapping lads with beards disembark from the bus. Later, one of them threw him bodily into the swimming pool, just because he could.
In my head, I knew how the rest of this talk would go. The leaders would tell how they were intimidated by these rough teenagers, but ultimately the week went fine and they themselves returned to Lewis with a renewed sense of thankfulness for having so much, not least a safe place to live and be themselves.
I was wrong.
‘By the end of it we felt quite envious’, the speaker continued. Despite the many challenges in their lives – the poverty, the political corruption, the brutality of society – they were accomplished musicians and sportspeople, each one seemingly full of aptitude in everything they tried. And the people were generous with the little they had. Our speaker mentioned visiting old ladies in the local church congregation and he paid them the highest compliment that anyone can:
‘It was like visiting a cailleach from Lewis, we were plied with so much food’.
Triumphing over adversity; being generous with what little they have; welcoming the stranger. For those of us who are conversant with the Gospel, this is familiar territory, at least in theory. How wonderful to have it illustrated in these teenagers and their wider community; and how wonderful to hear about the tough young man, the ‘trouble’ of the group and the change which was wrought in him through closer acquaintance with Jesus.
These tough exteriors, they are cultivated by the harshness of this world – layer upon layer of resistance builds up over time so that no one can get in.
No one, that is, except the Saviour.
We are all too easily fooled by a façade, but He never is. I see only your outward demeanour, the face you choose to present; and if you try to act tough, or unconcerned about something, I will accept that is who you are.
Jesus, though, He doesn’t even see your exterior. His relationship is directly with your heart. If you are lonely, or afraid; if you are hurt, or angry, He knows.
The folk who went to Moldova were shown something startling while they were there: a fire engine which had once served Stornoway. Emergency services in Lewis and elsewhere in the Gàidhealtachd donated equipment. Works of necessity and mercy, you see, go on wherever we are in the world. Hearts in one place go out to those in another, far away.
There actually is no far away in Christ, though. If we are in Him, then we are brothers and sisters. We do for one another, not because we are good, but because He is. We love because He first loved us.
That love gives the youngsters in Moldova a chance. It is not that their lives are hard, or that they live in dire poverty; though those things are certainly true. The camp is not merely a lovely week of just being young, free from responsibilities and cares, though it is all of that also.
It is actually a chance to see the Saviour’s work in the love of strangers from Scotland. These volunteers go to Moldova, not because they believe in children’s rights to leisure, but because they believe in the children’s need of the Saviour.
They believe because they have seen it in themselves. Charity like this truly means love; how good would it be if that kind of charity really could begin at home.