Hot chilli and warm laughter. A hoodie-clad Presbyterian minister and a collar-wearing Catholic priest. “Best friends”, they tell me. I’ve since learned that when they send you a rather cryptic message, you should always be suspicious. One such message had landed me there, having lunch with the dynamic duo that I’d often admired for their courage and generosity in bringing peace to our beautiful city. I was intrigued and ‘sure it was just a chat’ but after an hour of story-telling and dream-casting, I was in.
‘Millenials’, as they call us, have a complicated relationship with church. Some of us were raised in it, some of us don’t know it, some of us have always avoided it. Some of us love it and some of us were hurt by it…perhaps at the same time. We question, we lead, we fear, we explore, we build, we love, we run, we try. We pick apart teaching that has harmed us. We are wary of the smoke and mirrors that are there to appeal to us. We reconcile theology with its outworking, wishing they had never been divorced. We thirst for space for our questions. We want to learn from older people who have journeyed through faith and come out the other side. We don’t think in black and white and enjoy nuances of grey. We need our seat at the table to be kept for us, even if we are away for a while. We are uncomfortable with labels. We want to throw away the sugar-coating and stare darkness right in the eyeballs knowing the light will come. We look for an authentic form of spirituality that brings us closer to the divine without taking us away from the world. We search for the Jesus we “invited into our hearts” when we were kids in the messy blend of conflict, relationships, Sunday afternoon picnics, doctrine, abuse, opinion, hymns and drum cages, power, retreats, service, language, hurt, fundamentalism, liberalism, and everything in between.
And we find him, over a bowl of chilli. In denominations who should, if history has a say, be at war with each other, listening
and building together.
4 Corners brings together people from across the denominations and from no denominations at all in Northern Ireland to promote peace in each corner of the city. It hosts an annual festival, and this year, it was a privilege to be a part of it. You can find out about all we got up to by clicking here. We had a City Hall banquet, a BBC debate, film screenings, a gig, an event for 6th formers, and a lot of other things. And it was wonderful. Each event was attended by people who may not usually sit in the same room – sometimes, slightly uncomfortably. We talked about difficult things, important things, interesting things. And as we invited people out of their corner of the city into a shared space of listening and understanding, we found ourselves, again, in the middle of a story. A story that has a beginning, but that hasn’t ended yet. A story with many different characters, many different backdrops, many different ups and downs. A story of Belfast.
This morning at 7.10AM the PSNI received a call about a bomb that had exploded under a prison officer’s car in the east of the city. The attack was thought to have a political motivation. We were saddened and shared stories about how we used to live on that street, or how our friend was also a prison officer, or how we just couldn’t understand it and didn’t want to go back to division and ‘us and them’.
That is a part of our story. But it isn’t the whole of it. The arc in the story is not defined by what happened this morning. It doesn’t need to be. The story is changing. It is being written by people like that dynamic duo I told you about earlier. Or by millennials who are asking the big questions. Or by the neighbours gathering together tonight in Hillsborough Drive, mustering up the courage they need to wake up tomorrow and move forward with hope.
Religion has a big part to play in Northern Ireland’s painful past, and, in many ways, present. But it also has a part to play in breathing peace, and hope, and value into our future. The story isn’t over yet, and there is room in it for everyone.
Come, have some chilli.