May 13, 2013 Embrace difference, heal division, enable reconciliation
I am once again writing backwards. It is now Monday morning, and Trish and I are on our way back to Halifax. Once again, it’s been an amazing week, filled with deep learnings and spirit filled encounters. What follows is an account of the last three days of our trip, with lots of pictures interspersed.
After Thursday afternoon’s break, and what Rachel called a “soft” time of reflection Thursday evening, we were ready for another big day. We all were extremely grateful for her sensitivity and care of us as a group, helping us work through our feelings of being overwhelmed by “information overload.” We left early Friday morning on the Corrymeela bus for a day in Belfast. Long time community member and former staff person Peter was our driver. Alistair Kilgour, also long time Corrymeela community member, joined us on the drive to point out places of interest along the way, such as the “lazy beds” in the hills - fields that had once held rotten potatoes in the famine, and have been fallow ever since, but were visible even today.
Our first stop was at Belfast City Hall, where we had an appointment to see David Robinson, another Corrymeela community member who is with the Good Relations Unit, Belfast City Council, a unit of the city council that is tasked with promoting good relations. David took us into one of the meeting rooms (pictured below) where we spent an hour in conversations. He explained the current flag protests to us.
According to the Good Friday Agreement, all current policies have to be reviewed and screened. Sinn Fein reviewed the policy of flying the Union Jack flag outside of city hall for 365 days of the year, and determined that it was detrimental to do that for the majority of Belfast’s Catholic citizens. They recommended that the flag not be flown at all. The Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power on City Council, came up with a compromise solution to only fly the Union Jack on 18 designated days, a policy that is used in most other cities throughout the Commonwealth. Sinn Fein agreed to the compromise, and the vote was carried. Even though the Equality Commission recommends the policy of flying the flag 18 days, the Democratic Union Party (DUP) reacted strongly against it, and began the protests after the vote was taken, which have led to some violence, loss of tourism dollars, and more anger and mistrust on both sides.
David also stated in his presentation (as Inderjit had the day before) that reconciliation is not an event. It is not something that just happens, or will happen in the future. It is an ongoing process. There is still a big difference in how both sides view the Good Friday Agreement. The nationalists view the agreement as part of a journey (towards a united Ireland), whereas the unionists view the agreement as a settlement.
After our conversation with David, we had a tour of City Hall - quite an amazing building, but as Frank remarked later in the evening, the flag seems like a very small symbol when the whole building is steeped in British and Loyalist memorabilia, portraits of kings and queens everywhere.
After our tour we jumped on the bus to tour the East Belfast Methodist Mission, (http://ebm.org.uk/, http://www.skainos.org/), a mission of the Methodist church for 25 years. Sara Cook, a staff member for 12 years, and Corrymeela member, gave us a “Talk and Tour.” Every member of the group was astounded (more like gob-smacked actually) by this brand new building and the programs it offers to the people of east Belfast, a typically working class area of Belfast, with high rates of poverty and unemployment.
The architecture of the building is inviting, “green”, and most importantly, built for people. There is a cafe (with affordable prices), a quiet chapel-like space, a living wall with greenery all down its side, and an adaptable worship space for the weekly worship service for the faith community. Also, they have 93 people on staff, another figure that astounded us.
There are three different types of housing in the building, including a homeless shelter. One of the really inspiring stories was about the Irish language classes that are now offered almost on a daily basis. They started with 6 interested women and a high school teacher, and the classes have now grown to include almost 100, mostly protestants, who are interested in learning the Irish language. There is also some “cross pollination”, in that some protestants have journeyed to the Catholic areas in West Belfast, and some catholics have come to the EBM – a fact that Sara says would have been unheard of until not that long ago.
After our visit to the EBM, Alistair took us on a tour of the murals of Belfast, both in the Shankill (loyalist/protestant) and Falls Road (nationalist/catholic) areas, and we stopped along the largest peace wall. Since the Good Friday agreement, the number of “peace walls” in Belfast have doubled. David Robinson told us there are 88 barriers in all – a number that surprised our group. We have repeatedly heard this week that until people feel safe in their communities, the peace walls will not come down. Below is Rachel beside the Corrymeela bus, and the quote on the peace wall from the Dalai Llama. The words on the side of the Corrymeela bus, which Inderjit reminded us summed up the work of Corrymeela, are "embrace difference, heal division, enable reconcilation."
Once again, we returned “home” to Corrymeela with heads full of information. In our reflections that evening most people expressed how inspired they were from visiting the East Belfast Mission. Although we were tired from a long day, we began to integrate our information and insights, and were already starting to imagine how to take these new learnings into our own contexts.
Friday night we headed off to “Wee Tom’s”, (actually McCarroll’s) one of the 19 pubs in Ballycastle, a tiny place with a back room that we just about filled. The musicians began to arrive, one by one, sat down at a table, and began to play. When we left at 11 (Peter was picking us up in the van!), there were not only about 8 musicians spread out around several tables, the pub was so jam packed it took us about 10 minutes to walk through ... someone heard one of the locals say “the Canadians are coming through, and they just keep coming!”
Saturday morning was spent in final reflections and furthering the process of integration. It’s safe to say that everyone in the group was not only surprised by the amount of content and information that they have acquired over the five days, but also at the transformation that each participant could feel happening within. Whether it is a new idea about how to approach a difficult situation at home, or a small intuitive “nudging” in a new direction, we each have something to continue to think about as we leave Corrymeela. It was especially meaningful to our group to hear long term volunteer Maria, who has been at Corrymeela since Sept. 1, say that this has been the best group she has worked with since she has been here. Perhaps she says this to all the groups, but she seemed absolutely genuine when she spoke about how much she has learned this week, and how much she has especially appreciated being welcomed into our nightly reflection times. Below is the whole group, with volunteers Maria and Josue, and our facilitator Rachel.
After pictures, gratitudes, gift giving, lunch, and evaluations, we were back on the bus to Farset. Although it was optional, everyone chose to meet at Robinson’s for dinner. Sunday morning we spent an hour doing our own evaluation of the trip from a Tatamagouche Centre perspective, and then folks went their own ways. Some chose to go to worship with the American group that we met earlier in the week at Corrymeela (who were also at Farset), some went to the Titanic Museum. Kathi and I went to Culturlann on the Falls Road for a look around the Irish bookstore and lunch in the cafe, and then on to St. George’s Market. Once again, all chose to have one last meal together at The Bird Cage, (think chicken in its many forms – kabobs, buttermilk, satay, fingers or “gouchons” as they are called over here –all local and organic, plus an amazing array of salads and side dishes) - a fun and funky restaurant that the students and I found in February.
Although the outward part of our pilgrimage, the trip to Northern Ireland, is over, I know that the inward part continues for each one of us. I offer buckets of gratitude to my fellow pilgrims on this journey – Wilf, Kathryn, Rachel, Trish, Frank, Anne, Nan, Bruce, Kathi, Margaret and Betty ... plus all those we met on the way. It’s been amazing!! Slainte!