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Baking Bread

Baking Bread

Tuesday June 11

Continuing the series celebrating 150 years of social care in the Church of Scotland, the Rev Dr Doug Gay visits a project supporting adults with learning disabilities in Edinburgh


“So Doug, which football team do you support?”

Eddie is a bit unsteady on his feet, but he is easily the chattiest person in the room. He has a big grin on his face and is not about to let this visitor to Crossreach’s Threshold Edinburgh project avoid some searching questions. “Are you a Jambo?”

I live in Glasgow, I say. “Celtic or Rangers?” As usual, I take the diplomatic route and mention Thistle. I’ve never been to Ibrox or Parkhead and did at least take my son to Firhill a couple of times when we lived nearby. Eddie gives a broad grin and I think I’m off the hook. “Thistle!” he says. “So what’s the name of their goalie?”

I’ve been exposed as a fake Jags fan. But Eddie is in forgiving mood: “So do you like Daniel O’Donnell?”

I’ve made the pilgrimage here to Gorgie, because I wanted to visit Threshold. I’ve heard stories about it from my pal Brian who works there and when I asked permission of the Crossreach high heid yins (in this case Viv, Calum and Ronnie) they couldn’t have been warmer in their invitation to come and see. Now I’m here, on a sunny Spring morning, sitting in a community centre in Gorgie, having been warmly welcomed by a group of around 12 Crossreach staff and service users. Threshold is part of the Edinburgh Learning Disability provision, within Crossreach’s Adult Care Services.

I’ve been introduced to everyone and welcomed. “What do you do?” asks Jenny. I decide to go with, “I’m a minister” and Jenny responds with a delighted “Oooh!” which produces a lot of laughter around the table. She attends her local parish church nearby and is clearly a fan of the minister there.

“Right”, says Brian, “Are you going to just sit there or are you going to help?”  He hands me a plastic pinny and I find a knife and chopping board. I’m on onions and mushrooms for the soup. “Doug’s a Thistle fan. He supports the Jags. Do you like Daniel O’Donnell Doug? She supports Rangers. They got beat 2:1 on Saturday by Celtic.”

Every Monday, this wee band of workers and service users gathers here to make bread and a simple lunch. When I say bread, sometimes it’s focaccia, sometimes it’s pizza dough, sometimes it’s naan, chapati, scones…  Today, we are making rolls. A simple recipe is there on the table on sheets of paper. The workers sit alongside, chatting and helping, sometimes gently coaxing a little bit of involvement, sometimes taking over when someone gets tired or loses interest in one part of the process.

Raymond likes to come to the group. He chooses to come. But today he chooses to stand away from the cooking table at the edge of the room, wandering gently back and forth. He likes his own space and his autism is understood and respected by the workers. He’s within the wider circle of the group, but there’s no pressure to take part. He’s here. He’s with them. This is part of his weekly routine now.

Brian keeps the activity moving, with a light touch. He’s the one who introduced the bread making. A superb pro photographer, who’s had work in the Saatchi Gallery in London, he’s also a great cook. The food is simple and delicious – mushroom soup with generous amounts of fresh parsley chopped into it.

If this scene all sounds very serene and calm, in one way you’re right. But there are choons! One of the users has her Hits of the 70s CD on rotation and whenever anything danceable comes on, the volume gets pumped up. Its 11.30am, I’m wearing a plastic pinny and playing air guitar with Eddie – most of the care staff are busting a few moves – a couple do some laughing dance steps with service users who catch their hands. Eddie takes my hand, he’s a bit unsteady on his feet, but delighted there are two of us swaying alongside him. “So Doug, do you like the Bay City Rollers? How about Daniel O’Donnell?”

The music slows a little, Eddie sits on his walking aid for a breather. There is a fabulous smell of fresh bread beginning to circulate in the room. As we sit with our soup and rolls – real butter melting into the hot doughy centres – I think of a clip I show to students in pastoral care class. Jean Vanier sitting at the lunch table in L’Arche. When you see it on film, interspersed with Vanier’s voiceover, it has a mystical, romantic quality to it. Of course he was a kind of saint and prophet in a way most of us will never be, but it occurs to me that even for him, the reality was as ordinary as this is. What makes the difference is how he taught himself and us to value the ordinary.

Around this table, some folk are sleepy, some are shy. Some have very little language. Some have serious illnesses. Some are wheelchair users, some move slowly or struggle with their balance. Some are silent and wait on the edge of the group. For the Crossreach workers here with them, all on pretty modest salaries, this work calls for immense patience and stamina. I’ve already been asked the Daniel O’Donnell question six times this morning. The Arsenal-Newcastle question three or four times… The workers here every week have responded to some of these questions hundreds of times before – usually with a gentleness and patience which makes me question myself. I think of the Maya Angelou quote about people forgetting much of what you say, but always remembering how you made them feel.

This is a very ordinary place and a very ordinary time. It’s somewhere to come. It’s somewhere to be. It’s a welcome. It’s an extended family. It’s some of the help some of us need. It’s a space for baking bread, it’s a table for sharing food. It’s time for a cuppa. It’s a time to dance. It’s a place where the small, holy work of kneading dough or chopping a mushroom, of making a card or drawing a picture is never going to add anything to Scotland’s GDP. There is a scripture in my head now. The body has many parts. The body has many parts.

Before I go, I see some of the remarkable photographs Brian has taken with service users. An older man, of few words, takes obvious pride in showing me some of his photos beautifully framed on the wall of the Hub.

Thank you Crossreach. What you do here in our name is a holy and a precious thing. Thank you Threshold Edinburgh. Thank God for all around that table that April morning.

And that I got to be there too. I will remember your work as I go back to mine.

And Eddie! The Jags goalie? You shamed me into finding out. Last week at least, it was Conor Hazard. And he kept a clean sheet.

*The names of service users and staff have been changed.

Images: Brian Fischbacher


CrossReach celebrates 150 years of social care
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This story first appeared in June's Life and Work. Subscribe