Back from Belfast: Missionaries who tend the scars of war
|Britt and Alison Gilmore|
Britt Gilmore’s path to mission work on the troubled streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, started in the shadow of Mickey Mouse.
He grew up in the theme park haven of Orlando and was spiritually nurtured at St. Luke’s UMC, in a climate vastly different from the religious and political forces that have torn Northern Ireland apart for more than a quarter century.
The source of a war that took more than 3,000 lives over 30 years, Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” as natives refer to the conflict, are still impacting survivors 16 years after the guns were, for the most part, silenced. The country has been left with a cold peace that occasionally erupts into street violence, and thousands of people still struggle with mental, emotional and physical scars.
Gilmore could not have been raised in a much different place. At St. Luke’s, he was president of the church youth group and then, during college, an intern with the church youth department. After college, he worked for a time as a mechanical engineer.
But he was pulled to something different, even during his college years. Rev. Dr. Bill Barnes, who co-pastors St. Luke’s with Rev. Jenn Stiles Williams, put him in contact with Dr. Gary Mason of the East Belfast Mission, an effort long supported by the Orlando congregation. Gilmore worked with youth there from 2000 to 2002.
While there, he met the woman he would marry, Alison, at a Bible college class. She is a native of Northern Ireland.
“By that time, I felt I had confirmed the call to ministry, so I came back to the States and started seminary school. So Alison and I had a yearlong courtship across the ocean.” They married in 2003.
Alison then joined Gilmore at First UMC, Orlando, where he was an associate pastor, his first appointment in the Florida Conference. His wife worked on a master’s degree in mental health counseling.
|Britt and Alison Gilmore will visit the Florida United Methodist Center in Lakeland for a Lunch & Learn discussion at noon Wednesday, Aug. 13. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
Britt Gilmore also is available for some speaking dates in August, excluding Sunday mornings. For more information on setting up a speaking engagement, contact him at email@example.com or (407) 876-3041.
You can also follow the Gilmores’ blog or check out this Global Ministries page.
So why leave the paradise of Florida for cold, wet Belfast?
“At first, in 2000, it was just exploring a calling to ministry and following a natural path between the friendship of the two churches in Belfast and Orlando,” Gilmore said.
After six years at First UMC, Gilmore and his wife were considering their next move just as the East Belfast Mission was in the process of finishing a significant new development, the Skainos Project.
Twelve years in the making, the $35 million Skainos Centre is designed as a shared space for “community transformation and renewal.” The building houses services for the homeless, employability and social economy projects, as well as youth, family and community development programs. Grant funding came from the Department for Social Development, the European Union Peace III Program, the International Fund for Ireland and the East Belfast Mission.
Though not without controversy, Skainos has been highly praised by parties from both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland for tackling grassroots problems in the surrounding community, as well as fostering an environment where Catholics and Protestants feel welcomed.
“Gary (Mason) mentioned it would be great to have another clergyperson on board and also someone to help in their counseling department, so there was a role for both of us the way our gifts had been developed to that point,” Gilmore said.
Barnes was not surprised Belfast wanted Gilmore to return.
“They love him over there,” Barnes said. “He’s very effective at building relationships with a gentle but strong manner about him. He’s a very effective communicator, and I don’t think they ever wanted to let him go to come back to the States.”
Today, Gilmore assists with preaching and leads Bible study, “but the unique role of being connected to Skainos through the mission work is that my role extends to some of the pastoral care beyond the congregation.”
As a result, Gilmore might find himself working with the residents of Skainos’ homeless project or helping with a back-to-work scheme.
“It’s just looking for opportunities to care for people and have dialogues about God and faith that extend beyond the congregation,” Gilmore said.
|The East Belfast Mission is housed in the Skainos Centre, an urban regeneration project intended to help local residents with unemployment and homelessness. UMNS photo provided courtesy of Skainos.|
The Gilmores’ work is a credit to the Florida Conference, said Mason, who recently left the mission for another job.
“Britt and Alison have given sterling service since arriving at the East Belfast Mission, where they are working in a high post-conflict zone dealing with the pain and legacy of a 30-year sectarian conflict.
“They deal with the pain with grace and immense compassion, leading and redirecting the scarred members of this community to new beginnings,” he continued. “They are an immense credit to the Florida Conference.”
Peace UMC, Orlando, hosted the Gilmores last summer, and Pastor LeeAnn Inman would highly recommend the experience to other churches.
“They are a very compelling and engaging couple and obviously enthusiastic and compassionate about what they are doing, and it’s contagious,” Inman said.
Inman, who visited the East Belfast Mission seven years ago through a trip arranged by St. Luke’s, was already familiar with the mission there.
Impressed by the mission’s ethos of inclusiveness and overcoming division, Inman knew the Gilmores’ story would resonate with her congregants.
“This is a congregation that has a real heart and mind for mission and, although it’s a part of the world that we had never really thought about for mission education, we can learn some things about inclusion.
“Inclusiveness is one of the core values at Peace Church, and we have folks that come here from all over the world; Orlando is a very cosmopolitan city. And so, although what is going on there is different, there are still some applications about understanding how different people who come from different faiths and ideologies can still sit down at the table together.”
-- Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in the Brandon area.