BELFAST, Northern Ireland

“There was a riot!”

When was the last time there was a riot outside your church because you were hosting a guest speaker? That is what happened a few weeks ago when East Belfast Mission (EBM), a congregation of the Methodist Church in Ireland, hosted Patrick Magee, a former IRA bomber. A protest demonstration outside turned violent and four police officers were injured.

EBM is located in a staunchly loyalist (pro-British) low-income district of East Belfast. As part of a series of events being held across Belfast to encourage church members to mix with those of other denominations and explore difficult topics, EBM had agreed to host a discussion with Magee, who was involved in the 1984 bombing of a hotel in Brighton, England, where the Conservative party was holding its annual Conference. The other guest was Jo Berry, the daughter of one of the two people killed in that explosion. 

The title of the event was “Listening to Your Enemy” and the topic was around the need to forgive and move on. As the photograph accompanying this letter demonstrates, while Rev. Lesley Carroll was chairing the meeting inside, police officers immediately outside were facing a quite different challenge of crowd control as those who didn’t want Patrick Magee anywhere in the district, let alone the building, were shouting abuse, throwing stones, and charging a police line.

Why did a church meeting generate such a stir? The wounds of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland are still desperately raw. No one has ever been charged in connection with the majority of deaths during 40 years of violence. Communities that bore a significant portion of those deaths feel angry that they may never see justice done for their dead or their survivors.  

And like Patrick Magee, many former combatants on both sides will not apologize for what they did or state that what they did was wrong. However, they will say clearly that violence is not the appropriate path to use now and they do seek to discourage others from choosing the path they did. 

While only a few of the bereaved are prepared to share a platform with their loved one’s killer like Jo Berry did at EBM and has done elsewhere, many are prepared to state that forgiving and moving on is essential both for their personal well-being and for the sake of peace.

The organizers’ intention was to provide an opportunity to listen to another’s story in a non-adversarial way. After both speakers told their story there were members of the audience who shared their own stories of having a family member killed and posed difficult questions for both speakers. It was not an easy conversation, but what was going on inside the room was the very antithesis of what was going on outside where the crowd was not prepared to listen at all.

In a letter to church members and others after the event EBM’s pastor, the Rev Gary Mason, explained why he had agreed to host the session. He began by describing two particular moments in his ministry. 

One when he had attended to dying victims and families bereaved by an IRA bomb in 1994 and the other when he had been at the bedside of a dying UVF (Loyalist) paramilitary leader, David Ervine, who himself had moved from engaging in bombings to be a champion of the Northern Ireland peace process. 

Gary continued, “In a sentence, if you ask me why Patrick Magee was allowed on the premises of East Belfast Mission in the loyalist heartland of East Belfast, it is simple — I do not want any more Patrick Magees. I know firsthand the pain bombers can inflict and as a follower of Jesus Christ if a controversial dialogue stops anyone else from ever planting a bomb I am going to dialogue and take risks for peace.”

While I was not directly involved in the incident described above, facilitating dialogue on difficult topics is one of the things I am asked to do more often these days. Sometimes it is around the painful legacy of the political conflict, sometimes it is around disagreement on the place of those in same-sex relationships in the church, sometimes it is around working relationships that have broken down between leaders in a congregation or members of staff in a community ministry.  

Whenever asked I seek to do so to the best of my ability, because events show that what doesn’t get talked through constructively far too often gets acted out destructively.

Perhaps more congregations both here and in the U.S. need to take risks in holding dialogue around difficult issues and even invite those we strongly disagree with to be part of them, if we too are truly serving Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Elaine and I are deeply grateful for the continued financial and prayer support we receive from PC(USA) congregations and individuals as we engage in a ministry of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. We likewise pray for your own witness to God’s reconciling love shown in Jesus Christ in all of the settings where you find yourself and amid all of the contentious issues that cause pain and require healing.

The Rev. Doug Baker is the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for Ireland and the United Kingdom and coordinates Northern Ireland’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) site. His wife, Elaine, assists in the ministries with YAVs and also helps facilitate group visits from the United States.