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The Streets of My Dreams:
Overcoming Divisions in Belfast
by W. James White
Clonard Monastery in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Photo by Jayant Magar.
|Author's note: As a United Methodist pastor and mission executive, I have long been convinced that the search for restorative justice includes naming and exorcising the demons in both the systemic and the personal dimensions of our social order. Liberation, like holiness, is both personal and social in character. "The Streets of My Dreams" is a brief account of a moment of grace in which I was surprised by liberation in a deeply personal sense while in pursuit of a much larger goal: the search for peace with justice in Ireland, the land of my birth.|
The purpose of my visit to Belfast was clear. As Executive Secretary for Europe at the General Board of Global Ministries, I was to accompany my colleague, Michael Hahm, and interpret the situation in Northern Ireland. We were to consult with fellow Christians (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) who were actively engaged in the work of reconciliation and peace with justice. They had learned peacemaking skills that might be applied in other conflict zones, such as North and South Korea.
Our weeklong mission was arranged through the good offices of two pastors in Belfast. The Rev. David Kerr is superintendent of the Belfast Central Mission, whose City Center Church facilities had suffered bomb damage on more than 30 occasions. The Rev. Gary Mason was then pastor of the Springfield Road Methodist Church, which engages in a unique cross-community ministry between Protestants and Catholics.
Soon after my arrival, I called Gary Mason to ask about the schedule for the day and was told that our first meeting would be with the Rev. Gerald Reynolds at the Clonard Monastery. For me--a mature 60-year-old United Methodist mission executive who had been born on the Shankill Road, just across the Peace Wall from the Clonard Monastery--this invitation to meet with Father Reynolds evoked both a deep sense of privilege and a strange anticipatory anxiety.
Not long after I hailed a taxi and told the driver to take us to the Clonard Monastery, I became aware of the source of my anxiety. A frightened young boy was still living inside a mature and reasonably sophisticated 60-year-old man. The young boy began to recall his grandmother's pointing to the same monastery and imprinting him with stories of priests in the 1920s hiding guns there for the IRA. She also told of other unspeakable acts supposedly practiced behind the monastery's fortresslike walls. Clonard dominated the skyline at the end of my grandmother's row-house street. It formed a boundary between two religiously and culturally segregated communities that shared island space in an ancient dance of anger and mutual suspicion.
When the taxi reached the Catholic Falls Road (the contemporary antithesis of the Protestant Shankill where I was born), I suddenly became aware that these were the streets of my dreams.
In these dreams, I would always be walking quickly through Catholic neighborhoods on my way home from a football match at Windsor Park (the sports citadel of Protestantism). Although nothing harmful ever happened to me on these journeys through no man's land, I always awoke with a sense of relief that "it was only a dream!" In later years, in my ongoing search for restorative justice, I would become aware that these dreams signaled the presence of unresolved fears instilled during my earliest and most formative years. They included fear of the unknown, fear of those who were different, fear of violence, fear of the bogeyman, and fear of losing power.
Even with the beneficial effects of a life of travel and the intentionality of a variety of spiritual disciplines, the streets of my dreams always held within them the same fearful specter to remind me of an unresolved need for healing at a profound level.
As we passed onto the Springfield Road, I suddenly exclaimed: "Michael, these are the streets of my dreams!--and Michael, I am no longer afraid!" Before Michael had a chance to respond, the young man driving the taxi exclaimed: "But, I am!" He was a Protestant and was afraid to be in that area. He was afraid for his life because he was living daily the questions of the convulsed history of cultures in conflict in Northern Ireland.
When we arrived at Clonard Monastery, I could hardly wait finally to walk across the threshold of a place that held so much hidden baggage for me. Father Reynolds welcomed us warmly. In his rich Irish accent, he asked Michael: "And where do you come from?" Of course, Michael told him of his birthplace in Korea and of the purpose of our journey. Then he said to me: "And Jim, where do you come from?" With a tear in my eye, I said: "Father Gerry, I come from just across the Peace Wall!" (The Peace Wall is a euphemism for the wall of separation between the two communities.)
As the conversation wore on, I was empowered by Father Gerry's spirituality to share with him something of my own journey. I told him about the streets of my dreams and of the powerful fears that must surely underlie the psyche of children born on both sides of the Peace Wall.
At the end of our meeting, I asked that we go into the Clonard Church. When we entered, I was overcome by a sense of the Presence of the Holy. I remarked to Father Gerry that I was quite at home in such beauty and was feeling "my heart strangely warmed" in the mysterious hush of the sanctuary. He told me that this response was not unusual because the Clonard Church was a place filled continuously with prayer. He suggested that we pray together a Unity Prayer used by groups of courageous Protestants and Catholics who dare to stand against the tide of violence. So we closed our visit to the Clonard Monastery by praying the prayer together.
When the taxi came to take us back to the center of Belfast, I found myself looking at the streets of my dreams through a different prism. The young man who had driven us to Clonard was quiet and calm, and the 60-year-old who had returned to the city of his youth was energized by anticipatory joy. A burden, carried for so many years, had been lifted by the hospitality of a fellow Christian pastor--one whose own ministry carries him through the Peace Wall to worship on Sundays with Protestant congregations as a sign of reconciliation and the quest for restorative justice.
In the months that have passed since September 8, 1997, I still have dreams that take me back to Belfast and to the streets of my boyhood. But, strangely enough, I have never again experienced the haunting fear that has always been my dark companion.
who on the eve of your death
prayed that all your disciples might be one,
as you in the Father and the Father in you,
make us feel intense sorrow over the infidelity of our disunity.
Give us honesty to recognize, and the courage to reject,
Enable us to meet one another in you.
Make us find the way that leads to unity in you,
This surprising moment of grace has only strengthened my resolve to pursue the search for restorative justice in its systemic and structural form, especially for the present-day children of Northern Ireland--and Kosovo, and Rwanda. In these places, the streets of dreams still provide much haunted space for societal and personal demons that must be named and exorcised.
The Rev. W. James White, now retired, formerly coordinated United Methodist projects and personnel in Europe as an Executive Secretary with the General Board of Global Ministries.
Text and photographs copyright 1999 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/.
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