At age 17, Martin Johnstone was rescued from a bowl of boiling soup being thrown at him when two homeless men jumped in front of him, absorbing the burns themselves. From then on, he’s followed a call to ministry with those living in poverty.
Now a member of the Church of Scotland’s senior management team, the Rev. Johnstone first discerned a call to ministry as a teenager. To convince himself that ministry wasn’t the right path, he decided to spend a year working in the hardest conditions he could imagine: a shelter for homeless alcoholics.
But when the two men saved him from the soup’s burns, Johnstone realized that serving among the poor wasn’t a chore, but a privilege.
“That was almost a conversion moment for me,” he said. “There was a Jesus act — and the sort of Jesus act that I would have found very hard to do for others.”
Johnstone was in Louisville last week during a three-week trip to the United States. His visit had two goals: to talk about the Church of Scotland’s work with its poorest and most marginalized citizens and to explore partnerships between the Church of Scotland and U.S. denominations, especially the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Johnstone has continued his ministry with the poor since his time at the shelter, serving as a pastor in one of Scotland’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods for 11 years. In 2000, he began working with the national church, whose General Assembly mandated one year later that the church shift its resources to the poorest neighborhoods — at the expense of work in other, more affluent neighborhoods.
“Priority for the poorest and most marginalized is the Gospel imperative for our church,” Johnstone said, paraphrasing the GA mandate. “You don’t need to scratch very hard when looking at the Gospel to know this is the right thing to do.”
Another Church of Scotland GA mandate is that all pastors earn the same salary, regardless of where they serve. This can be a real struggle for pastors, but the mandate is a recognition that people are seeking to do the best possible job wherever they are, Johnstone said
“We can’t live with the Gospel’s claim of a priority for the poor and live with an economic model that chooses to reward those who minister among the rich,” he said.
Johnstone also serves as chief executive of Faith in Community Scotland, an interfaith anti-poverty agency.
“I’ve learned that we need to find ways of working with people who don’t necessarily share all of our faith values but share our passion for a better world,” Johnstone said.
As with U.S. denominations, the Church of Scotland is facing a deep sense of regret that its position in society is being eroded and that it’s often treated as being irrelevant. And while the church continues to fight against this, it’s also important to concentrate on the church’s true calling, Johnstone said.
“If we’re doing the right thing, then government and lots of other agencies will want to speak to us,” he said, adding that the church must rely on its impact rather than its history.
In addition to working with other faiths, the church must also listen to and learn from those who are directly affected by poverty, Johnstone said. He facilitates Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission, which brings together the country’s poorest citizens with some of its most influential to advocate for changes in how the symptoms and causes of poverty are addressed.
Johnstone sees the root causes of poverty as both structural and relational. In Scotland, he said, there’s not a problem of poverty, but a problem of wealth. People think it’s possible to grow out of poverty, but we live in a world of finite resources — we must distribute them so that everyone has enough.
“It is our inability to share equitably that creates poverty,” he said. “The way that you tackle poverty is to tackle greed.”
Relational issues come into play through the chasm between the rich and the poor. It’s easy to dismiss people when you don’t know them, and “we’ve lost the places for those people to be in relationship with one another,” Johnstone said.
Johnstone is looking for ways to build new relationships between the Church of Scotland and U.S. denominations.
One idea is to bring long-term volunteers from the States to live in Scottish communities, where they could dig deep and learn more about the issues and work being done in Scotland, then bring that information back home.
“We would learn from them but they might also learn some of the specific work that we’re doing,” Johnstone said.
He envisions two kinds of volunteers — younger people who are setting out in church or societal leadership roles and older people who can use their experience and influence to help their churches and neighborhood operate differently.
The Church of Scotland is also looking for U.S. donor groups who are interested in its work.
Johnstone said much of his work can be based on John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
“One of the biggest challenges is constantly trying to help people see that God’s love and compassion are for the world and not just for the church. We only really discover what the church is called to be when we recognize what God’s passion for the world is,” he said.
The challenge, Johnstone said, is “to be able to recognize Jesus in the communities that we live and work in. I see the church trying again and again to take Jesus to neighborhoods that He’s been in for an awfully long time.”