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Dundee youthwork: Hot Chocolate sprinkled with love

Charis Robertson explains how a pioneering project in Scotland is giving young people a hope and a future ...

CHARIS ROBERTSON explains how a pioneering project in Scotland is giving young people a hope and a future

The centre of Dundee’s landscape is dominated by an ancient church and its soaring steeple. On its doorstep there is a large grassy area where ‘alternative culture’ young people have been congregating for the past 20 years or more.

These young people tend to dress in black, dye their hair and are heavily tattooed and pierced. They often struggle with issues including mental health problems and engage in high-risk activities such as substance misuse.

They are also amazing, intelligent, creative, caring, considerate and a philosophically and spiritually open community who are created in the image of God.

In 2001, a part-time youth student was employed by The Steeple Church, a Church of Scotland congregation, to develop its youth work. Recognising the two neighbouring communities – one inside and one just outside the church walls – she asked if she could take her youth work to ‘the grass’.

Seeing the exciting missional potential of this, the church agreed and so a small team started taking out cups of hot chocolate on cold November days to get to know the community of young people.
There was no other agenda than to build relationships – and follow the Spirit to see what might happen.

As relationships were established, trust was built and these encounters became known as ‘Hot Chocolate’. Next came the question: “If you had some space inside, what might you use it for?”
And so the young people started using the church to practise their thrash metal music.

The foundational principle has always been to ask the young people what they want to do and find ways to support them.

In 2004 the Hot Chocolate Trust became an independent charity although still closely partnered with The Steeple Church.

Today the Hot Chocolate team (seven staff and 40 volunteers) help around 150 young people each week (300 each year) to develop emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually.

The team hosts regular drop-in sessions incorporating art, music and sport, as well as group work on issues identified by the young people, activities, residential weekends, projects and one-to-one support.

Since 2001, thousands of young people have been impacted by the Gospel of Jesus as they have been fed when they were hungry, visited when in prison and given shelter when homeless.

These young people have also discovered their God-given talents and found a community of acceptance, love and hope.

Over the years several young people have found faith through involvement with Hot Chocolate, and some now consider it to be their church.

Hot Chocolate also attracts many team members who have struggled to find their place in mainstream churches.

Hospitality is a key part of Hot Chocolate and it’s over shared meals that much of the ‘God chat’ happens. And in this context Hot Chocolate seeks to grow indigenous Hot Chocolate Christian leadership and worship resources.

These young people have heard from many sources that they are bad, stupid and worthless. Hot Chocolate has learnt to give as much of the responsibility and ownership to the young people as possible.

This results in a deep commitment and respect for both the place and the relationship. Many describe Hot Chocolate as their ‘home’ where they can make a cup of tea, hang their art on the wall and find a place of belonging.

Hot Chocolate is not a ‘service’ and there are no ‘service users’. It is a community and there are ‘young people’.

It works as a team and doesn’t try to ‘fix’ the young people. Hot Chocolate walks alongside them and is open to learning as much from them as they might from the team.

Hot Chocolate is not afraid to experiment – or make mistakes. There is a strong culture of reflection, vulnerability and learning together here.

Hot Chocolate has learnt that it’s God’s mission to transform the lives of the young people, not theirs. He is already at work and their job is to get alongside him – not the other way around.

Hot Chocolate’s vision for the future is to stay true to its roots – to listen to God, listen to the young people, and respond accordingly. It really is as simple as that.

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