I spent a few years as a member of the Church’s Art and Architecture Committee in the 1990s. As I travelled around, about the most common aspiration of congregations was to remove the pews and replace them with softer, kinder and more flexible seating. Pews are often made from lovely wood but are hard and often quite uncomfortable, (perhaps made deliberately so to keep the poor worshipper awake during the sermon!)
I started to ask what people were going to do with the pews. To my horror, I discovered that some were being put in a skip and others just broken up. I started to suggest that if people were getting rid of pews they should give me a call. So, in about 1999, I collected my first batch of pews from Woodside Church in Aberdeen. Then I collected some from Peterculter Church. Pretty soon my garage was full, but the session clerk of my former parish, Walter Ewing, had a barn in Perthshire he said I could use. Little did he suspect that 10 years on he’d still be giving me space to store pews.
When I moved from St Machar’s in Aberdeen to Greyfriars, Tolbooth & Highland Kirk in 2003, it was the ideal place to fulfil a cherished dream of making something beautiful with old discarded pew wood and making something of the lives of people who had been blighted by homelessness.
We began, slightly illegally, in a portacabin in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, just a day a week with the gloriously named Tommy Steel, a former joiner now working with homeless and vulnerable young people for Edinburgh Cyrenians.
The guys began to make some lovely pieces of furniture and, as skills progressed, so did the quality of what was produced. Now Tommy works for us full time in what we now call the Grassmarket Community Project. This is a new charitable company set up as a partnership between the Grassmarket Mission that has been supporting vulnerable people in Edinburgh’s Old Town for 130 years and Greyfriars Kirk. In addition to the wood shop, we have a herb garden and are developing an allotment to grow our own food. Our aim is to grow as much of the food we prepare at the project as we can. We have a weaving studio, a craft classroom and a cooking project teaching people healthy eating and good nutrition, a music group and much more besides. All in all, we support about 150 people and now have three full time staff members and a further 5 part-time and an army of volunteers from churches and community groups all over Edinburgh.
Tommy and the15 volunteers who work at GRoW are helping us to build a social enterprise that we hope will be self financing within three years. Our vision is to be a bit like a 21st Century Monastery, a place where the Gospel is preached and work is undertaken as a kind of sacrament. Where better to do this than on the site of the original monastery of the Franciscan Friars, who traditionally walked with the poor? We want to recover and cherish craftsmanship and enable people whose lives have been blighted to discover skills and create something beautiful. We have recently refurbished the Greyfriars Kirkhouse and are well on our way to raising the funds we need to build an extension that will enable us to develop our work cherishing some of our most vulnerable citizens.
If you have pews you are planning to dispose of, please think of us. Or, if you would like to commission a gift, then visit our website www.growgreyfriars.com or better still visit the workshop itself in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, you will always be made welcome.