East Belfast mission has lessons to share

Signing a peace accord is just the first step in reuniting a country where conflict has divided the population.

The Methodists of the East Belfast Mission in Northern Ireland have been living into that reality ever since the 1998 Good Friday agreement declared peace between Catholics and Protestants there.

The Methodist mission can offer those in other countries a template for the daily work needed to reintegrate a society, said the Rev. Gary Mason, whose leadership on the mission’s behalf was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II when he was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2007.

With the opening of its Skainos community center last November, the mission has continued to work on issues of employment, homelessness and community and family support, along with “social enterprise” projects.

The mission’s programs allow it to connect with several thousand people a week and provide further support to those who need it. A missionary couple, Allison and Britt Gilmore, is assigned to East Belfast by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries

“The model we have, worldwide, has a lot to offer,” Mason said.

During an April 11 visit to the New York offices of the Board of Global Ministries, Mason, mission superintendent, and Gary Crooks, the mission’s lay leader, explained that a successful peace process demands three key steps — demilitarization, decommissioning of weapons and  reintegration of combatants and society. But in many places, they pointed out, the process stops after the first two steps.

The biggest issue is reuniting a society is handling the legacy of the dispute and the danger in passing along grievances to the next generation.

“How do you take people from being prisoners of history to being prisoners of hope?” Mason asked. The story of the past must be told, he added, but the framework of how it is told is important.

Watching the mission grow

Crooks, a part of the mission for 30 years, said he has “had the great privilege of watching it grow.”

The homeless ministry started with one man from Scotland who stayed in the choir room and a second man from Bosnia who slept in the office. It soon became clear that this was an acute need in the community.  The temporary accommodations provided through Hosford House at Skainos average 30 people at any one time and address social needs and drug and alcohol strategies. “From Day One, we’ve never had an empty bed,” Crooks said.

Through a relationship with the Belfast City Council, a focus on rubbish removal has led to a project refurbishing and selling discarded furniture and bicycles. “It’s now a very big part of our income,” he noted.

Forty meals a day are delivered to shut-ins through a meals-on-wheels program.

Living out Wesleyan theology is not just about proclamation of the word, Mason declared. “It’s also about presence.” Skainos Center has a worship space, and the congregation serves as the “spiritual heartbeat” of all that happens there.

That heartbeat has been felt by others. A woman named Sandy, for example, who had no previous religious affiliation, first came to their church “because no one else would baptize her baby,” Crooks recalled. She now is a valued member of the staff.

Both men agree the violent protests that grew out of the Belfast City Council’s decision late last year regarding a flag were a wake-up call. Legacy issues or symbols, like a flag, “can actually derail a peace process,” Mason noted.

On Jan. 17, church, community and paramilitary leaders joined in issuing a statement supporting peaceful legal protests, but also calling for an end to the “pointless violence, fear and wanton destruction being caused by a few.”

The protests have dwindled. Mason hopes, in the future, that people will register and use the power of a vote. “There’s a democratic framework that allows them to have a say,” he said, but does not promote violence or destroy the economy.

The larger lesson learned from the flag protests: “You have to take the temperature on a daily basis after the peace process,” Mason said. “There must be constant check-ins.”

Mason and Crooks can be reached at [email protected].

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe and contact her at (646) 369-3759 or[email protected].

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