I started volunteering with Christians Against Poverty (CAP) in 2008. It’s an award-winning charity that partners with the local church to offer free debt counselling. It’s a very flexible way of delivering expert financial advice across the country, allowing local churches to have an active role by supporting people like me to be the debt coaches. It empowers churches to meet the needs of the poor in a very practical, professional way.
I was working shift work in ICU [an intensive-care unit], and couldn’t commit to a lot of what my church was doing, as it involved being at events every week. I loved the idea of getting alongside someone who was struggling, and simply being a supportive friend, as I knew that was something I could already do.
I originally signed up as a befriender, but, in 2012, I was asked to take over the management of the debt centre at Central Church in Edinburgh. I decided it was the right time for me to take on the role and reduce my hours in ICU.
In Scotland, we have five financial advisers. They support 24 CAP churches here. CAP has debt centres across the UK and even runs other courses to help families in poverty. We’ve introduced job clubs to help people back into employment, and money-management courses. [The work has] expanded into different countries, and increased the number of people we help across the UK. It’s been exciting to be a part of that journey.
I’m employed by the Central Church in Edinburgh. Despite the general impression, there’s certainly poverty in our city. As a nurse and as a debt coach, I’m very much on the coal-face, and see people in so much distress. No two stories are the same. Part of my role is trying to build a bit of a network of different support agencies that we can refer people to, because debt can often be just one problem alongside a lot of different issues that people are experiencing.
In normal times, I’d visit clients in their own homes, collect information from the client about their circumstances, and relay it on to our advisers at CAP head office. They compile this and liaise with creditors, and then I go back to the client with their suggestions.
People often have a low level of debt that they manage and keep on top of. Then a life-event happens that upsets the balance. For example, they suffer a bereavement, an illness, or lose a job, and they can’t make the payments any more. We fully expect many people to be hit even harder because of the pandemic.
I have seen how generous those who are on the breadline often are. They often offer things to others — but then I look at their budgets and find they can barely afford to feed themselves. Neighbours look out for each other in poor communities and help each other out week by week, as benefits get halted and different family members need help. So many people are desperate to give back and return the help they have received. Poverty definitely does not negate the ability and desire to be generous. In fact, I think it often amplifies it.
We try our very best to find a solution for everybody. I don’t recollect not being able to offer some kind of option, even if not everybody goes forward with what we suggest. We always strive to find the best solution for a person’s situation, and then walk on the journey with them as they head towards becoming debt-free.
We believe no one should wake up wondering where they’ll find money to feed their children or heat their home. We want to restore hope for those who are lost and hurting, especially during these difficult times. The main thing we want to get across is that there’s help available. People often try to manage their debts on their own, but we are ready and waiting to get involved to help people get out of debt. We’re able to see people very quickly if they contact us.
I’ve done a little bit more overtime in ICU in this last year, but the charity work is extremely important as well, and I still think it’s the right balance for me. How to handle the pandemic isn’t a black-and-white issue to me, because I see the importance of both the health concerns and the economy.
Balancing the two roles is a challenge at times, but it’s something I’m passionate about, and both jobs are hugely rewarding. I have great support at home from a husband who works for CAP as well and understands what I do. I also get plenty of time off to enjoy with my family. I think it’s so important to have moments of rest, especially during this period of challenge.
I grew up in a town on the west coast of Scotland. As I was growing up, my mum drove into Glasgow to work with girls my age who were in poverty and suffering hugely. She used to tell us stories of children in care without their families, and of the relational as well as material poverty they lived in. I remember at a young age feeling deeply sad for them. I can see now that God was starting to sow seeds in my mind and heart that he would bring to fruition as an adult.
I’d been to Sunday school for a few years as a child, but the idea that you could have a relationship with Jesus was new to me when I did an Alpha course as a student. When I heard Christians talk about the experiences they had of God and how they related to him, I immediately knew I wanted to have this kind of relationship myself. I asked him into my life on the Alpha weekend away. I don’t think I experienced anything dramatic at the time, but knew it was a turning point, and that my life would be different going forward.
My life has been very different since then. Over the years, I have learnt to pray, and to try to distinguish God’s voice and to listen when he talks to me through his word. Many years ago, my husband and I felt sure we were called to serve those in poverty in Scotland and try to live out that calling through our work and with our lives.
I am not sure what else I would like to do. I am just learning God’s calling on my life step by step, as he reveals it. I don’t have any ambitious five-year plans. I’m just trying to be faithful to what he has asked me to do now.
Poverty does make me angry: the injustice of it, and how starting off life in poverty can — and so often does — affect your whole trajectory in life. That makes me very angry. But also determined: I’m determined and committed to helping as many people as I can through my work. I see how CAP is helping to change so many lives and free people from the chains of poverty. I’m pleased I can play a small part in that work.
Family time makes me happy. I love spending time with my kids. I grew up by the sea and feel at home as soon as I am near it.
My hope is just that God can continue to use me in working with and for the poor in some capacity. It’s incredible to see how God can use all different people with different skills to make a positive change to the lives of others.
I pray for specific situations and people I hear about. For forgiveness when I don’t live the way I know I should, and for continued transformation in my life.
Maybe I’d choose Mother Teresa of Calcutta to be my companion, if I was ever locked with someone in a place of worship. I’m sure she knew how to worship.
Mairi Giles was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
CAP invites anyone struggling with debt to get in contact on 0800 328 0006 or visit capuk.org.