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Visitors say Irish Methodist church is in midst of revolutionary change

Visitors say Irish Methodist church is in midst of revolutionary change

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Visitors say Irish Methodist church is in midst of revolutionary change

Dec. 1, 2005  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
800-282-8011   Orlando {0405}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — (Left to right) East Belfast Mission staff members Peter Quigley, Linda Armitage, Susan Bennett and the Rev. Dr.  Gary Mason share a moment with Florida Conference staff member the Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin (second from right) while visiting the Florida Conference Center in October. They were here to spread the word about Skainos, a project to build an urban village on a two-acre tract of land in a district of Belfast. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #05-281.

LAKELAND — The images of bombs exploding, violence erupting in the streets and words of hatred flowing freely is nothing new to the staff of the East Belfast Mission. They live it every day.

Some of those staff members visited the Florida Conference last month to tell their stories and share the work they do in the midst of the war still taking place in their country and the deprivation of the area they serve.

The mission, an inner city initiative of the Methodist Church in Ireland, is in the heart of a conflict seemingly forgotten in the face of recent world events. That conflict began in 1921 when a small portion of Ireland, about six counties, broke away from 26 other counties. The smaller group became known as Northern Ireland, and the larger portion took the title Southern Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland is 45 percent Roman Catholic and 55 percent Protestant. During the 1960s, violence between the two groups erupted. Although they share a country smaller than Connecticut, tensions brewed over the desire of Catholics to reunite with Southern Ireland and become independent and Protestants' wish to remain under British rule.

The hatred born from that dispute still exists today, and the East Belfast Mission is attempting to bridge the gap between both sides.

The mission was founded in 1985 to engage in community development and service in the Newtownards Road, Ballymacarrett district of Belfast. It grew from the work of Newtownards Road Methodist Church, which has a history of community service stretching back to 1826. The mission is the oldest and one of the largest community organizations in the area, utilizing a staff of 50 and an even larger volunteer team.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, the mission's superintendent, said the problems of the area are more far reaching than Catholics pitted against Protestants. He cited rampant unemployment in an area once renowned for its gigantic shipyards, numerous linen mills and other industries. An industrial area that once supplied 30,000 local jobs now provides a meager 100. The district has an overall rank of 10 out of 890 wards in Northern Ireland in terms of employment, health education and poverty, according to the mission's Web site. Homelessness and an unstable political and social environment contribute to the area's deprivation.

The East Belfast Mission is trying to tackle those issues, particularly on behalf of those who are less affluent and often forgotten.

"The peace process has worked for the middle and upper class, but it has yet to work for the disadvantaged areas," he said. "A significant part of delivering peace is from the ground up with jobs."

That's where Peter Quigley, the mission's director, focuses his energy. He helps coordinate the mission's 22-bed hostel, which assists about 70 people a year. Staff and volunteers assess the residents' needs and help them improve their employability. Many stay at the unit for anywhere from a week to a month to a year.

"There are lots of families suffering," Quigley said.

For peace to really grow, Linda Armitage says its seeds must be planted in the youth of those families.

Armitage is director of youth and community for the mission and a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries. She said the mission uses arts and events to reach the area's children and youth, who are often lured into violence in the absence of better choices.

"We are concerned with their personal development and giving them Christian ethos," she said. "We want them to know there are alternatives to joining the militia and getting involved with petty crime."

The mission teaches youth critical elements of articulating what and how they are feeling because violence often stems from feelings of being overwhelmed and not having adequate ways of expressing emotions, according to Armitage.

"We want to build bridges with a pastoral presence," she said. "We want the mission to be a credible place where they can be heard, listened to."

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The East Belfast Mission operates a number of community service programs, including this jobs center in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has high levels of teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and chronic unemployment. A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera. Photo #05-282.

Susan Bennett is the mission's public relations and fund-raising manager. It's her job to find creative ways to fund the mission's programs, which also include a welcome center, meals on wheels program and shops that provide inexpensive clothing and furniture.

She said she often confronts people who question why they should help heal the area's generational wounds.

"People need to catch the vision so we can break the cycle," she said. "People buy into the violence and hatred because it's the only thing available to them. I remember just the other day I saw a little boy on the shoulders of a man who was spray painting something vulgar on a wall, and I thought, 'This is how it starts.' "

Feelings of anger, hurt and resentment could be something of the past through the work of the mission's Skainos Project, which Mason says will "put hope into people's lives."

The project, an Advance Special, is an attempt to build community in Ballymacarrett. It's name comes from the New Testament Greek word skainos, which means tent or tabernacle. The goal is to create an urban village on a two-acre site in Lower Newtownards Road that will bring peace and economic and social justice to people in the district, regardless of their background or age.

It's a partnership of public agencies, the private sector, community groups and churches and includes several charity organizations devoted to improving the social and economic fabric of the community.

Organizers hope to build a number of centers on the site, including one for elderly residents and youth, another providing information, advice and guidance for people farthest from the labor market and an inner-city centre for post-high school education. The site will also include retail, restaurant and office space, hostel-style housing and apartments, community and conference centers, and a place of worship.

"This will be a significant part of delivering the peace process from the ground up," Mason said. "This will allow the gun to be removed from the lives of people and placing hope in it."

The ambitious project is estimated to cost between $18 million and $20 million, according to Mason, and groundbreaking is projected for 2007, with an opening date of 2010.

"This could be flagship development for peace," he said. "It will be the largest urban Christian area in western Europe."

Mason said it will create about 50 jobs and be a physical place where healing can begin and grow.

"People who have experienced loss from decades of fighting will be able to live and love again," he said. "What we will do is the right Christian thing to do."

Mason is confident the Skainos Project will lift up the downtrodden community.

"The idea of pitching a tent in the middle of this chaos is more than a symbol. It's a presence to be there with the people," he said. "We want people to be able to come under God's tent and find peace, reconciliation, healing and faith."


This article relates to Peace With Justice and Outreach Ministry.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.