When a team of six members of Grace Presbytery traveled to Northern Ireland recently for a study mission, they thought they were ready. They had done their homework and studied about the history of religious and political conflict in the region, also known as “The Troubles.” But no amount of preparation was enough for what they learned during the course of their visit.
“It’s not as clear as it seems. I prepared for it and I thought I had it,” Perryn Rice, senior pastor at Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church in Dallas, said. Tom Boehmer, ruling elder at Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson, had a similar experience. “I had no idea of the complexity of the problem.”
The team that traveled to Northern Ireland consisted of Ellen Boehmer, ruling elder at Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson; Tom Boehmer; Elizabeth Callender, pastor at Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church in Dallas; Perryn Rice; Miatta Wilson, director of children’s ministries of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas; and Joanna Kim, director of cross cultural ministry and mission for Grace Presbytery.
Striving for reconciliation
The theme of the trip was reconciliation, and the group spent a lot of time with mission co-workers Rev. Doug and Elaine Baker, who help Presbyterians from the United States become involved with and learn from ministry in Ireland and the United Kingdom and maintain relationships with partner churches.
The itinerary included worshipping with Presbyterian congregations in Belfast, studying early Celtic Christianity and how it is significant today, studying Celtic spirituality, and spending time in Armagh. Armagh is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. It has a strong association with St. Patrick and with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland (Anglican). The trip included a study of the religious, ethnic, and political conflicts in Northern Ireland.
The team encountered many local practices that they found ironic, especially when it came to maintaining peace.
“Faith is not present in what we saw. It was more economics, political, and educational,” Callender said. “Everyone is growing up totally segregated. The way they go about reconciliation is to build 30-foot-high peace walls. The irony is that there are three times more peace walls after the peace treaty than existed before. A wall between you and your neighbors is supposed to keep the peace, and that’s the sad irony. It’s so contrary to Jesus Christ, who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility.”
Ellen Boehmer had a similar impression about what she learned. “There are not just two parties, but extremes on both sides that go toward the middle,” she said. “And when the bishop of Derry said this was largely about power and so long as those in power wanted it to remain so—that to me was stunning, because the more we learned, the bigger the problem looked.”
Tom Boehmer said the many signs, memorials, and murals throughout the area “keep the narrative going” and do not allow problems to be solved.
Callender said there is room for common ground but many people spend time pointing out differences instead of focusing on similarities. She said the group was told about invisible walls that local residents know not to cross. While the people of Northern Ireland all look the same on the outside, those who live and work there can spot subtle differences among one another based on what people say, how they dress, businesses they frequent, schools they attend, and where they live. This has built up over the last 400 years.
Rice said one of the people they spoke to explained that achieving peace means being willing to give up something. “Everyone was very nice, but what I didn’t hear often enough was people talking about what they were willing to give up in order to have peace—true peace,” Rice said. “We saw a lot of peace walls, but that is not peace.”
Still, the group said they saw many reasons to be hopeful even in the face of heartbreak, but they said success is focused and incremental.
One success story is PeacePlayers International, a peace-building organization that uses basketball to bring together young people from Protestant and Catholic communities.
“That is what impressed me the most, the work being done with young people like PeacePlayers because that’s where you have to start,” Tom Boehmer said. “That’s what’s encouraging.”
Another success story is Lagan College in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s first planned integrated school, founded in 1981. Prior to this school, Catholic children attended Catholic schools, and Protestant children attended state schools. No other options were available due to religiously divided communities. Lagan College has high academic standards for students of any religious or cultural background.
“The success is being built by individual relationships,” Wilson said, “and that’s where I saw the most hope, with young people creating relationships.”
Other ministries the team learned about include a cross-community lunch club for older adults and the Skainos Project Belfast, an urban regeneration project to address extreme poverty in East Belfast, which has been devastated by violence. Another successful ministry is Root Soup, which helps people with diverse learning needs and those transitioning out of homelessness learn life skills through growing vegetables and through cooking. Root Soup also provides work placements and temporary housing for those in need.
“The depths of division were so complete on every level,” Callender said, “and yet, God’s work is still present.”
Lessons learned and next steps
Everyone on the team said they were deeply moved by their experiences and they want to apply what they learned to their own lives.
“My mind made connections to home, to situations in my own congregation, in my life, and in my country,” Wilson said. “When we saw peace walls, I thought of the wall between Texas and Mexico and of gated communities, and I thought about who we’re keeping in and out. That was the value of a study trip, to take you out of your own situation and your culture and making those connections.”
Callender said reconciliation must be intentional but is not always easy, especially when people limit who they come into contact with in their daily lives.
“If we pull back into talking only to those who think just like me, then I’m going to get entrenched in that viewpoint. But if I am willing to engage people across the aisle on any subject, I’m going to be changed by that interaction. It’s about building relationships with people you don’t necessarily agree with—that is intentional.”
Ellen Boehmer said she thinks about reconciliation in her own life.
“The focus of this trip was to learn about the issues, the progress, the lessons, and figure out what to do with it when you returned. What does reconciliation look like and what should it look like now that we’re back?”
Rice said he internalized his experience in Northern Ireland and feels he is a part of the struggle.
“I became part of the struggle when I went to Northern Ireland,” he said. “I am not the answer, but I have applied what I learned to situations I am dealing with, especially when I am trying to mediate. What I think about often now is: What am I willing to give up in order for peace to take place and reconciliation to take root?”
To see photos from the team’s visit and to learn more about the trip, visit the Grace Presbytery Facebook page.
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Judy Everett Ramos is director of communications for Grace Presbytery.