Ewan Aitken: Help others to help themselves

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The festive season can sometimes feel as if it’s all about excess – be that alcohol, food, presents or even bonhomie. 
Here at Cyrenians, we see a different type of excess, an excess that’s not just around at Christmas; the excesses of welfare reform which stigmatises those in poverty, the ideology that drives austerity politics and devalues people by reducing them to commodities, an economic recovery built on low wages and zero hours contracts; all of which have meant 
that the demand for our services is growing.

Last year, we journeyed with over 4300 people excluded in some way from family, home, work or community.

We fed over 1500 people every week, we worked with 220 families in conflict, we supported over 550 people whose tenacity was at risk, we helped over 380 people into work, we walked with over 290 people on their journey out of addiction and much more. All the signs are that all those numbers will go up this year as need increases and resources reduce.

Yet there are signs that give us hope when facing these challenges.

For example, more and more people are volunteering to work with us. When they work with us, they discover it’s not others that are changed – it is everyone who is transformed by the journey.

We create communities where there are no labels, only people with whom we share the task. And those unexpected relationships, people who would never normally meet working together to serve others, change everyone.

Like the senior executive who said to me: “Now we support Cyrenians because for us to succeed, we know we need to be more like you”.

Or the recovering alcoholic who told me “What I like about Cyrenians is I get to be a helper not just be helped”.

And so more people are saying, what matters is the neighbour and the stranger as much as myself.

When my neighbour struggles, I struggle.

When my neighbour is helped, I am helped.

Through the excesses, these wee glimpses of hope suggest that this response to these austere times, a consequence of the greed and the politics of a few, is changing our culture from the veneration of the individual 
to the valuing of community. There is an understanding that “there is no them and us, there is only us”.

Now there’s a Christmas gift that an excess of would be no bad thing.

Ewan Aitken is a minister of the Church of Scotland and chief executive officer of the independent Edinburgh charity Cyrenians