What does ‘real’ friendship look like in an inner city housing scheme?

What does ‘real’ friendship look like in an inner city housing scheme?

By Andy Constable

As I have worked in Cape Town and Niddrie a question that I have often asked myself is what does friendship look like in these places? What does it mean to be friends with people here? We naturally build relationships around our socio-demographic. We are friends, generally, with people who are like us, who hold a similar worldview or have a common interest with us. However, it’s a bit different when you come to an area from a completely different culture. I am not from Niddrie. I am university educated. I talk differently. I think in a different way. I can’t relate to a lot of the experiences that people have been brought up with in Niddrie. What does a friendship look like on an estate for a person like me?

Let me begin by asking the question: ‘what is a friendship?‘  A friendship as defined in the dictionary as a “person with whom you have a mutual bond of affection.” This means that there is care and concern on both sides. In other words a friendship is not a one way thing but reciprocal. Let me say three things about these kind of friendships on a scheme.

Firstly, on a positive note, if you genuinely care for people then they will be drawn to you. Christians, after all, have been moving across cultural boundaries for centuries. People on estates aren’t aliens! They have hopes and fears. They have dreams. They like football and food (amongst other things). There are plenty of ways to build ‘real’ relationships and share the gospel. What Christians working in schemes need to think about is their attitude. We shouldn’t come with superiority but rather to build bonds of mutual affection. Many believers will come and share the gospel with people very often without getting to know them. On the other end of the spectrum there are those who build relationships without sharing the gospel. We want to build relationships naturally, share the gospel as part of our friendship, but love them whether they turn to Christ or not.

Secondly, I think one of the biggest keys to building real relationships on schemes is to live on them. One of the big reasons that we have been able to build real friendships on this estate is because most of the staff and many members of NCC now live in Niddrie. When people ask where you live and you say Niddrie they immediately give you that bit more respect. One young man recently said to me: “you live in Niddrie!? You’re one of us. Proud of you mate.” When you move into the area it’s a sign that you are committing to the people and that you are going to be in their lives for a long time. Too many churches and organisations do work in the ‘poor’ areas but fail to live there, thus fail to establish meaningful, gospel relationships. We also have to be there long term for people. People come in and out of our lives all the time. We may meet someone and start to hang out with them but then something happens and they disappear again. Very often they will pop up again and seek us out. Living in the area means that people know where you are and where you will be if they need you.

Thirdly, there is also an adaptation that has to take place. In order to build friendships you will have to change. The thing that church planters have to realise is that moving  into an estate to work is as much a cultural leap as someone moving to the Arab world to share the gospel. The culture is different. There are do’s and don’t. There are places to hang and places not to hang. There are certain things you should and shouldn’t talk about. Those who choose to move to schemes must be ready to adapt. The problem that some have is that they are not ready to put this effort in or are too stuck in their own ways or are blind to their own cultural prejudices. You will fail to make real friendships if you come in with any of those attitudes. The Apostle Paul says this: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” Paul adapted his language, his persona and his practice to suit the culture he was trying to reach. He never changed the gospel, just the way he presented it. We, in much the same way, have to adapt to reach these areas. When interacting with people we have to look, listen and learn. How do people talk? What do they enjoy doing? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they struggle with? If we know these things about our friends from church then we should know these things about the real friendships we are trying to build on the scheme.

Let me end by saying that the friendships on these schemes may look slightly different to the ones you have at university or work. The friendships that we build with people here can be high intensity. The friendships that we build will mean sacrifice as they come into our lives and take up our time. The friendships that we build mean that you won’t always feel comfortable. But that’s the effort that we have to put in if we want to work here. The fact is that we are coming to a different culture and living, adapting, and loving people here is tiring. We want to win these areas for Christ and in order to do so I believe there will need to be real friendships. Remember, the gospel changes our attitudes to schemes. Instead of looking down on these areas the gospel helps us to see their great potential and rich, cultural heritage.

Pray for us and pray for our many friends in Niddrie. Give thanks for those who have come to know Christ and pray for many others that God, in His mercy, would ‘lift the veil’ and that the scales of spiritual blindness would fall from their eyes.