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)?