The last time I contributed a PS blog was in June 2016. Back then, I wrote about how the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland had appointed a Task Group to look at how the denomination had responded to the troubles.
One thing led soon to another. The blog was read by Gladys Ganiel from QUB who, in turn, contacted Rev. Dr Norman Hamilton and myself and before long was guiding us through an application for funding from the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund.
We were blessed to win support from the fund and were then able to employ Jamie Yohanis as a researcher. 122 people were interviewed from June 2017 to April 2018 – 50 of the interviewees were women and 77 came from the border area. Some let their names be put to their stories, but many chose to remain anonymous. At every stage of the process we were aware of God’s guidance and protection as we delved into extremely sensitive issues.
The result of the project is ‘Considering Grace’, a book co-authored by Gladys and Jamie, published by Merrion Press and now available from leading bookstores as well as online at http://www.presbyterianireland.org/consideringgrace. The book is now well into its second print run.
As we remembered the past, we were mindful that Christians are called to do so through the lens of Jesus Christ who lived, died, rose and is ascended for us. We have sought to remember therapeutically with a view to healing; truthfully with a view to justice; together with a view to peacemaking; and beyond time with a view to hope.
Ministers shared how they pastored, preached, and conducted multiple funerals under the public gaze while themselves asking enormous questions about the situations they were thrust into.
Victims of the troubles – including those who were injured, disabled or disturbed – told stories which still throb with sadness.
We also listened to those who served in the security forces, many of whom felt their lives were continually under threat, as well as First Responders including ambulance drivers, fire fighters, those in the medical professions, and an undertaker.
We heard from quiet peacemakers, who when anarchy reigned on the streets, kept order in schools, government, sporting, community and commercial life.
Politicians talked about how their faith affected their public roles during the Troubles. Presbyterians who were former paramilitaries and served prison sentences were also interviewed. The research was further enhanced by some who for various reasons left the Presbyterian Church, and we also listened to critical friends of the denomination.
At one of our Focus Groups someone said, “maybe we should move on and forget about the details of the past.” The youngest person in the room responded, “There are cracks in our wall at home. I only recently discovered those cracks were the result of a bomb in our village. And there are cracks in all our families, churches, and communities and I need to understand why those cracks are there.”
There is a need to lament the devil in the detail, the pain, anxiety, and loss caused by these cracks. There is also a need for many more stories to be voiced, written down and archived to expose the cracks in all our walls.
There was no attempt to edit out their criticism of the Presbyterian Church which included a neglect of some victims, insensitivity to victims who were made to feel they had a duty to forgive and move on, a gap between individual Congregations’ responses to atrocities and the denominational response, a disconnect with loyalist communities, disappointment that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland did not stand up to the Rev Ian Paisley’s sectarianism, and a lack of emphasis on reconciliation.
While many of the victims note how considerate and helpful their pastor was at the time of the atrocity, he or she has since moved on, or retired, and congregations and successive minsters struggled to acknowledge the ongoing needs of victims.
Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack, there is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.” Readers of ‘Considering Grace’ will notice the light shining through the cracks.
After the Tullyvallen massacre in County Armagh in 1975 Russell Birney preached a courageous sermon, which ensured there was no retaliation. Gary and Lily had the faith, hope, and humour to keep their business open after countless bombings. Gary worked for better community relations as a local councillor while his own life was under threat.
The title of the book comes from Terry Laverty, now Minister Emeritus in Portstewart Presbyterian. Terry’s brother Robert was a policeman who was killed in Belfast in 1972. The Laverty family are from Ballycastle, and after his brother’s death Terry walked along Ballycastle beach crying out in pain to God.
On the front cover of the book the photographer captures a picture of a crack through which the light shines on that very beach. Even in our darkest moments God in his grace has kept his light shining through the cracks.
On Thursday 6th February, Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry, will respond to readings from Considering Grace at a 4 Corners Festival event. The venue is St John’s Parish Centre, Falls Road; the time 7.30pm. Visit https://4cornersfestival.com/ for more details and to book your ticket.
Rev. Tony Davidson is Minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church. Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.