Belfast: Community Split, Community Shared
I have been serving here for a month. The words seem strange to me as I utter them, and as I realize that I have been here in Belfast, Northern Ireland for nearly half of my time given to working with this congregation. Through Candler Advantage I’ve gotten the opportunity to spend 10 weeks with Skainos and the congregation of East Belfast Mission (and reaching beyond).
This place is unique. As a Methodist Mission it is the umbrella organization that encompasses Hosford House transitional housing, Stepping Stone employment guidance and training, Compass community and family outreach, the East Belfast Mission Congregation, Re:Fresh Café social economy café, and countless Re:Stores and charity shops around the city of Belfast. This place is also unique in that it is housed in a new building and the new Skainos Square, which is focused on the idea of shared space. With architecture based on the vision of the tent of meeting, there are apartments, classrooms, offices for other organizations such as Tearfund, AgeNI and New Life Counseling, a dance studio, a sports hall, roof terraces and vertical gardens, and plenty of space for use by anyone who needs it.
Now, this idea of sharing is unique because it is very unconventional here in Northern Ireland. So…some history…Northern Ireland is still in the peace process that began with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that marks the end of the ethno-national conflict that is well known as “The Troubles” that took place from 1969-1998. This conflict was political with religious undertones, based simply in the idea of nationality. The Protestant Unionist Loyalists and the Catholic Nationalist Republicans had different ideas of whether the country of Northern Ireland should be Irish or British. Paramilitary groups of the IRA, INLA, IPLO, CIRA, RIRA, UVF, UDA, RHC, UR, and LVF fought each other with car bombs, petrol bombs, guns, fire, and even rocks and bricks. With over 3,000 deaths and approximately 47,000 injured throughout the near 30 years of conflict, many scars were left in the community…particularly here in Belfast.
Now that’s the history, but here’s the present: today there are “peace lines” that run through pieces of Belfast, separating the Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Nationalist neighborhoods. These are walls resembling the peace walls separating Israel and Palestine. I look out my office window and see Union Jacks and 1913 UVF Flags (Ulster Volunteer Force) flying. I am in UVF territory. Murals are on nearly every corner. The one directly to my right under those flags says “We owe it to the future and the victims never to forget the past.” A few streets down there is a UVF mural of two men in balaclavas poised to shoot, with the statement “We seek nothing but the elementary right implemented in every man: the right if you are attacked to defend yourself.” The whole city is filled with murals, ranging from peaceful and celebrating Belfast to violent imagery. You become conditioned to seeing them and walking straight past each day. The mentality that exists here is still separate and unequal. Each side believes the other has something they don’t, and the peace process is difficult. But the thing is, you can walk into town, go into Victoria Square and not know the difference from one person to another. There is no visible difference between the parties, they are the same, but have different political and religious leanings. It is when one party begins to march, to protest, or to riot that you can see the tension that underlies the everyday life of all these people who look the same.
Part of the ministry and mission here at Skainos and East Belfast Mission is to be a safe space for all walks of life and every part of the political and religious spectrum. This is to be neutral ground. With this mentality, the building is host to Irish Language Classes. Nearly every day of the week, members of the community come to learn the language of their heritage, the language that is readily seen in Catholic communities, and the language that I now know very few verbs in…and I can only tell you things I did in the past tense. The building is also host to children and youth from the community, home to FridayFusion for primary aged children and Drop-In on Wednesday and Friday nights for the teenagers of the community. Women’s Group combines with a women’s group from a local Catholic church, and kidzGAP is a safe space for moms and tots from the community (and a few dads). The outreach programming here is endless. While I participate and help with a handful of these, I realize the congregation of East Belfast Mission is far beyond the group that meets for church on Sunday morning, but is rather the entire community of East Belfast, and every person that comes through this building and can feel the effects of its ministries.
But for that congregation that does meet on Sunday mornings, the transition into Skainos Square has been a difficult one, sacrificing the old church building, making shared space a necessity, and creating some insecurity about ownership of the church within this space. Part of my job as a response to this is to administer a congregational survey that seeks to hear from every voice of the congregation, understanding how they feel in this place and what can be done in the next year to help with the process of settling in. This is a big undertaking in the final 5 weeks of my time here, but I have become a part of the congregation and I am invested in letting each one of them understand that their voice matters and is important. This is the body of Christ, feeling the pains of change and transition, feeling the pains of trying to be open and accepting in a city that is so divided. And even while the body may be feeling some growing pains, this does not deflate the meaning of 1 Corinthians 12:14-31. Each person making up the fuller body of Christ plays an important role, and I am working to empower this congregation in the knowledge that their roles are truly important.
This is a difficult task, but as the G8 summit meets here in Northern Ireland this week, and Obama has given the youth of Northern Ireland the message to keep up hope and to keep reminding everyone that this place is dedicated to peace, we can look hopefully toward the future for the congregation, for Skainos and East Belfast Mission, for Belfast, and for the country of Northern Ireland.
Thanks to Candler Advantage I am able to be in this place and see how communities can react to the ideas of sharing space and embracing change and peace. I look to my third year at Candler hopeful that I can bring my experiences back and look at community development in the United States with a new perspective and vision. Until then, and until I’m back in Hot-lanta in August, cheers!
Carrie is a rising third year MDiv student at Candler. Read more about her summer experience with Candler Advantage in Belfast at her blog: www.carrieisbelfastbound.blogspot.com