21–27 March is my church’s week of duty at the Overnight Welcome Shelter and it’s getting very near now. The number of guests has been high this winter and it is taking longer than last year to fix more permanent accommodation for them. In the sort of weather we’ve had recently, nobody should be sleeping rough, but some still do. Our team will be serving hot meals to the guests and chatting to them to help them relax and feel welcome. This befriending is very important as that evening may be the only experience some guests will have of Glasgow City Mission’s Christian love. And you never know where the conversations may lead. Here’s one I had some years ago at the evening Drop-in.
George was middle-aged, weary and worried, not really keen to talk, but I discovered gradually how he came to be at the Mission. He had been a successful senior administrator in a London firm, married, with three children, and comfortably off. Then in the economic mess of 2009, he lost his job. He couldn’t get another one, so had to sell his house and car and move his kids from their fee-paying school. He got clinical depression and, though that improved with the help of a London psychiatrist, after a few months, his wife and children left him. Being a Glaswegian, he had come back north but was still jobless and homeless. Altogether, he felt a complete failure with nothing left to hope for.
Routinely, I asked if this was his first visit to the Mission. No, he came every Wednesday afternoon and yes, he had had help from the staff about applying for jobs – but no joy. So why did he come on a Wednesday? For the chess, he said. I was surprised as I hadn’t known the Mission ran a chess club. Well, he said, they had asked him to start one and he had. Really? So he was keen on chess, was he? My late husband had been too. In fact, he used to play through the games in The Herald chess articles every week. Nigel Short’s articles, George nodded. Yes, I said, and he once got a draw against a fellow at Glasgow University who developed a computer chess program in the ‘60s. He nodded again. Wasn’t that David Levy? Yes, I replied, startled. Do you play yourself? he asked me. Well, my husband taught me the moves but said I had no sense of strategy. In fact, he once turned the board round when he had lost about four pawns and I had only four pieces left – and he still beat me! George burst out laughing and looked almost animated. I asked how many other members there were in the club. Six, he replied, and they’re all beginners. So you’re teaching them from scratch. How are they getting on? They quite like it and a couple are coming on well but the rest need a lot of help. So they don’t play full games yet? No, I set them easy problems to solve. I paused and looked at him hard. You’re really good at chess, aren’t you? I asked. His face fell again. No, I’m just a fail…. He paused, looked straight back at me and then, in a different tone, said “Yes, I’m a very good chess player.” He smiled and I smiled back. By saying that, he had taken the first step back to self-respect and he knew it. He had to leave shortly afterwards but he did so with his head up and his shoulders back. I wished him well with the club and his search for a job and said I would pray for him.
I never saw him again and don’t know what happened to him. I hope he got a job – and still plays chess. Not all chats at the Mission are like that – but you never know where God will lead them.