The assignment took Michael down a path I had never imagined — and opened a door for God to use me in a setting I had not anticipated.
For several years I have been teaching a short module for Church of Ireland (Episcopal) theological students on ministry for reconciliation. It includes a weekend in Belfast exploring the need for reconciliation across many layers of alienation in this society and encountering some of those who are engaged in such ministry in some of the toughest settings.
Over the course of the weekend and afterward students are asked to write a reflective journal on the experience including how they see the Bible study and encounters connecting with their own experience and their vision for future ministry. Their personal nature makes many of the journals a privilege to read.
None more so than Michael’s. He began by stating his understanding that reconciliation is a journey and affirmed how the weekend helped him to see where he was in relation to his own need for reconciliation.
He then went on share that his birth mother was young and single and his biological father already engaged to a different woman. Unable to cope on her own, his mother gave him up at an early age. After a short time in an orphanage he was adopted by a couple who thought they were unable to conceive. However, when they then did have children of their own in his understanding he became superfluous and was rejected emotionally.
Not being able to succeed in forming a loving relationship with his adoptive mother resulted in a deep inner pain. Fortunately, Michael as a youth encountered a loving God and came to put his trust in that relationship alone. His deep personal faith eventually led to a calling to priesthood in the Catholic Church.
Sharing that with his adoptive parents, however, resulted in a further rejection. While he was a seminarian he was able to trace his birth mother and did connect positively with her for a number of years before her death. In fact, he conducted her funeral.
I met Michael years later on the ministry for reconciliation module. He was a mature student transferring to the Church of Ireland. He was still estranged from his adoptive mother in spite of having always kept the door open from his side as best he could.
As he tells it, that weekend pushed him to explore once again the need for reconciliation in his own life. Time and again the words of a speaker or the words of Scripture reinforced his understanding that reconciliation is a gospel imperative. One speaker said, “Reconciliation has to begin with yourself.”
In his journal Michael wrote: “In light of those comments I recognize the challenge to persist, to again make myself vulnerable, to risk taking the initiative toward reconciliation in my own personal journey.”
He ended with: “Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is difficult but I believe it may be time for me to do so again on this long journey into reconciliation.”
Having trusted me with his own story in the journal, he then phoned me some months later to share how he had made contact with his adoptive mother and how this time something of the response he had been looking for had been there. A breakthrough had occurred. What a joy to hear!
Several months later Michael again contacted me and asked if I would facilitate a parish visioning day in his new ministry setting: Three geographically adjacent but quite separate small congregations in the Republic of Ireland.
I met with him, then with a planning team, then preached at a combined service in one of the churches, then Elaine and I led an afternoon session in a nearby hotel for some 80 members.
We had long-timers and newcomers, elderly and young children, and those who have joined from other denominations, including quite a large number who are immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
By the end of the day we had constructed a “tree” with branches representing their various areas of common life and outreach and leaves representing new growth that they believe is needed and possible. Priorities were identified and afterward an implementation group was appointed and task teams formed for each area of ministry.
Months later they report that the link between the three churches is stronger. Where there had been competition there is recognition of how much they need each other and what they can do together. In particular, unlike some other settings, the Irish Africans are not only attending but participating in leadership.
Michael tells me the three parishes needed me as an outsider to introduce and facilitate the process. In my view what they clearly needed is a minister who sees reconciliation across all kinds of barriers as a gospel imperative and is willing to take personal risks to pursue it.
The best moment of the whole process for me was Michael walking me down the aisle shortly before I was to preach and introducing me to his elderly adoptive mother. She had made a special effort to be present to support her son in what he is now doing and both were beaming from ear to ear.
I invite you to pray for this leader, for these parishes and for others with whom I will work when this course is offered again in November. I also want to thank you for your prayers and financial support for our ministry, which are both absolutely vital. If your congregation is not already designating toward our sending and support costs it can do so through Directed Giving to DMS 500260 or you may do so personally online at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E200310.
Doug and Elaine Baker have served as mission co-workers in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom since 1979. Doug is the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for Ireland and the United Kingdom. Elaine assists in the ministries with Young Adult Volunteers and also helps facilitate group visits from the United States.
To visit the web pages of all Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission workers, visit Mission Connections.