Over the weekend a friend gave me a copy of some programs on Ulster. There were three on Loyalism, by Peter Taylor (BBC); four on the Provos, again by Peter Taylor (BBC); and one entitled 'Blood and Belonging,' by Micheal Ingatiff. These documentaries got me thinking about my own time living in the North.
From August 1996 I worked as a lay assistant on the Dungannon Methodist Circuit. These people were warm friends for those two years and I missed them when I left. They were almost all moderate unionists. On occasion I spoke at services in Orange halls, which I thought would amuse my more political friends in the south. While I was no fan of the Orange Order, most of the Orangemen I met seemed to be very decent law-abiding people. During that time I shared a regular Friday lunch with the local Church of Ireland curate, the Presbyterian assistant and one of the Catholic curates. I suppose I saw this public friendship as doing something to express friendship across a divided community, although I can't take credit for initiating it.
Among my friends I would have argued for a very mild form of nationalism, but in reality I was very naive and uninformed in my politics. I was warned by some people not to preach politics from the pulpit, but in hindsight I think those people only had a problem with those who preached politics that didn't represent their views. Durimg the tension surrounding one of the Drumcree parades I did speak on loving your enemies, simply expounding verses from the Sermon of the Mount. I did not mention Drumcree, although some people later referred to it as my 'Druncree sermon.' I shouldn't give the impression that I was particularly brave or idealistic, in truth I was something of a people-pleaser who did not want to upset anyone.
After three years in Belfast, at theological college, I went to the Upper Erne circuit in Fermanagh. One of the churches was situated in a predominantly Republican town. A number of the men had been involved with the part-time police force and had terrible stories to tell of their experiences during the years of violence. One of the men in the congregation had been shot in his farm yard. The terrorists would have finished him off but their gun jammed. One fact that sickened him was that it was probably his neighbours who had tipped off the IRA as to what times they could catch him out of the house.
I arrived with my new wife to Richhill in July 2003. Caroline felt very uncomfortable about all the flags and paraphernalia that were out for the Twelfth celebrations. I told her to remember that feeling because people would soon tell her that there is nothing provocative about such bunting. The church in Richhill was very moderate in its political outlook. In a new Northern Ireland there was a growing number of communities, rather than the traditional two. It was great that the church began to run English language classes and, although few Eastern Europeans joined the church, the involvement with new residents helped foster a sense of tolerance in people.
Watching the programs about loyalism got me thinking about my own involvement with Orange services. I had been influenced by some very decent Orangemen right from Dungannon to Richhill. These were people who believed that the Orange Order had nothing to do with paramilitary violence. Yet I was never that comfortable taking Orange services for I disagreed with their reading of history (which I felt was too black and white), am not a fan of fraternal organisations (apart from the fraternity of Christian belief), and struggled with the fact that more bitter stripes of Orangism seemed to attach themselves to their Order's marches. To be fair I have to also say that some of the people I meet articulated a tribalism that made me uncomforatble, for I did not see myself as coming from their tribe. I always justified doing Orange services on the basis that I would speak about the Christian faith to anyone, however I also didn't want to pick a fight on the issue.
On the occasion when Richhill village was hosting the area's Twelfth celebrations we decided at the leader's meeting not to allow the mission committee to have a fund-raising stall (for an overseas trip) to sell burgers. The thinking was that being too closely tied to such an event would make us look like a solely unionist organisation and damage our ability to reach out to the new resident and Catholic populations. This hurt a few of our members who felt that it said it showed a lack of interest in those from a unionist background. The leader's meeting altered our decision, suggesting that rather than using a stall as a fund-raising effort we would encourage the mission committee to organise an outreach event for the twelfth (where they would give tea and burgers away along with Christian literature). However, the people who had opposed the original decision had lost heart. One friend slagged me off about this for a long time.
I want to finish with that friend. Mucky is my evidence that paramilitary violence has nothing to do with true Christian faith. He had been involved in the UVF. He was 'lifted' and brought for questioning. He asked for a paper to read and was laughed at. They did, however, give him a Bible to read. He opened it and saw Paul in jail. That night he cried out to God and his life was changed. Christianity led him away from violence. Indeed when he reported to his commanders that he had been born again they accused him of talking the easy way out. One of my fond memories from those years in Richhill was having him share his testimony every year when I was assigned a church to visit for 'home mission Sunday.'