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Graih’s drop-in center in Douglas on the Isle of Man

The Gospel at the Margins

Letter from the Isle of Man

Michael Manning


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When Bobby showed up at Graih’s drop-in center in Douglas, the small town that is the Isle of Man’s capital, he had lost almost everything to alcoholism: his job, his house, his marriage. Now drink was threatening to take from him the last dregs of his mental and physical health.

The drop-in, which provides free food and emergency accommodation, was not a place Bobby (names have been changed) wanted to go. He saw himself as better than the drug-ravaged addicts that he knew gathered there. But now he was desperate.

Simply to live on the Isle of Man – an isolated splinter of land in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland, home to some eighty-five thousand souls – is to exist on the margins. As a British Crown dependency, the island has become an offshore banking haven. Those like Bobby who don’t benefit from the local financial and tourist industries find themselves doubly sidelined. It’s for them that Graih exists.

Here at Graih – the word means love in Manx, the island’s Gaelic language – we serve the homeless and those in insecure accommodation. Our focus is meeting practical needs and building up relationships. Many of our volunteers are not Christians, yet again and again, as we share food around our dining table, curiosity is evoked: Why are you like this? What’s different?

Those are the questions Bobby asked when he reluctantly arrived at the drop-in. As he told us later, it wasn’t so much what the people who served him said, but rather what he described as the “joy” and “freedom” they had. The desire to find the same for himself became a thirst that eventually proved more powerful than his thirst for alcohol.

Bobby began to recall a faith he had abandoned in childhood. The relationships he formed led him to church services and baptism. To his surprise, he began to make headway in his battle against alcoholism. With this freedom came a new way of life as Bobby began to pray and help others who struggled.

I grew up in a tradition where the gospel started with an oft-repeated assertion that I was a hopeless sinner. I needed a Savior – Jesus – and all I had to do was to accept him as my Lord.

But the men at Graih don’t need to be told they are sinners. They have already been told they’re failures by a host of others: family, friends, the courts, even themselves. Nor do they need to be reminded that something’s wrong. There is Trevor, unable to function without copious amounts of prescribed and illegal drugs; Brian, wrapped up in the memory of his children’s deaths; Malcolm, carrying the insecurity of a childhood of rejection, adoption, and bullying; and Ross, who slept in a car park following a mental breakdown.

These guys have been around all the programs and have had their fill of quick fixes, easy answers, admonitions, and promises. “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” What does that even mean?

People dwelling in darkness need light. The gospel doesn’t come into situations of pain and need as an exposition of brokenness but rather as sheer practical good news: the invitation to follow a different king.

I first became involved with the drop-in as an eighteen-year-old who knew nothing about substance abuse or mental health. A friend of mine had recently returned from experiencing extreme poverty abroad, and he was passionate about getting to work on the island. I was terrified, but also unable to refuse to join him: I couldn’t identify myself as a Christian and yet be unwilling to meet with broken people. Wasn’t Jesus castigated for spending time with the unclean, those eking out an existence on the underbelly of society (Mark 2:15–17)? Didn’t he say clearly that following him means living as the “poor” (Luke 6:20–26)?

Graih’s drop-in center in Douglas on the Isle of Man
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We started by offering food, then emergency accommodation as well. It was uncomfortable to know that we could return to our warm beds while others had nowhere to go. Some of our volunteers began to offer radical hospitality, taking people in off the streets and giving them a sense of home. Although the risks were great for both hosts and guests, the fruit was bountiful.

I soon realized that without time spent around the table at the Graih drop-in, my faith would become impoverished and sterile. To have people of different ages, races, backgrounds, and levels of wealth come together to share food as equals has always been one of the most subversive aspects of the church – and one of the most humorous.

I now live with my wife and two young sons in a shared household, seeking to live a common life and to stay open to those on the margins. Part of Graih’s vision is a community house where hospitality and a sense of belonging can be offered to the homeless, those leaving prison, or those suffering from mental illness. Over the years God’s faithfulness has encouraged us to take small steps toward his kingdom, and we continue to yearn for opportunities to embody more of what that kingdom looks like.

We want our proclamation of the gospel to be an invitation into true humanity. The way we live every day, the company we keep, and the relationships we foster proclaim more than the words we speak.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, as people of the King who took the form of a slave to dwell among us – who broke bread and shared wine, who fed the hungry and liberated the captive, who took the weight of a sin-sick world to the cross, and who trod gentle steps of hope in a garden on Easter morning. The gospel indeed.

Sliced loaf of home-made bread
Contributed By Michael Manning

Michael Manning is a coordinator with Graih, a charity based on the Isle of Man, and is the author of No King but God: Walking as Jesus Walked (Resource Publications, 2015).

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