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Bridging Divisions in Derry

Amid Northern Ireland’s emerald-colored hills lies Derry, one of the region’s oldest cities. Founded in the 1600s on the west bank of the Foyle River, it reflects an eclectic mixture of old and new. The walls of the original city — Derry’s main tourist attraction — still stand unbroken, but most of Derry extends far beyond their confines. The Foyle River now flows through the city rather than beside it, dividing Derry into what is known as Cityside and Waterside.

Over the years, Derry’s population became divided in other ways too. Sections of the city became strictly Protestant or Catholic. Unrest and animosity eventually erupted in violence, culminating Jan. 30, 1972, when 13 unarmed protestors were killed and 13 others wounded. The tragedy, referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” propelled Northern Ireland into a period of unrest known simply as the Troubles. During this time, sectarian violence, bombings and senseless deaths were all too common. Both Protestants and Catholics suffered.

Political graffiti is common on the walls of city buildings.
Political graffiti is common on the walls of city buildings.

In June 2010, after nearly 40 years of struggle, British Prime Minister David Cameron came to Derry to offer an apology on behalf of the United Kingdom for its role in Bloody Sunday. For many, the announcement brought a sense of closure for the first time and ushered in definite progress toward peace. Last year the city opened a footbridge, called Peace Bridge, across the Foyle River to connect the predominantly Catholic and Protestant sections of the city. Derry also was named the 2013 City of Culture for the United Kingdom — the first city to receive such an honor.

While progress is evident, neighborhood “peace fences” still bear silent testimony of the longstanding tension, and political murals provide graphic reminders that conflict between Catholics and Protestants remains. Meanwhile, the emerging generation struggles with somewhat loose expectations of what the future holds.

Missionaries Robert and Raquel Suarez believe these recent events are signals that now is God’s time for the city, and they are excited to be part of the process.

Robert was called to Ireland one day when the Holy Spirit spoke to him in his bedroom as he listened to an Irish instrumental CD during his personal devotions. Raquel, who grew up in Nicaragua, says that as a young girl she had a strong desire to help the people of Europe, even though she had no idea what that would involve. Eventually she moved to the United States, and at age 21 she received Christ.

On their first date, Robert and Raquel realized that God was bringing them together for a special work in Northern Ireland. They married in 2005 and have been in Derry since 2010. They joined missionaries Tim and Lauri Inman, who have served in Northern Ireland for seven years.

Teams of Street Pastors go out regularly to connect with youth.
Teams of Street Pastors go out regularly to connect with youth.
All four missionaries currently are involved with Cornerstone City Church. The Inmans focus primarily on children’s ministries and organize the Kids Week segment of the church’s annual citywide outreach called “iHeart Derry.” The Suarezes created and lead the Master’s Commission ministry and are involved in Street Pastors, an evangelistic outreach to teens. Raquel and the Inmans also participate in Extreme Team, a ministry that goes into elementary schools to share the gospel in fun, exciting ways.

Engaging a culture where historical religious division runs deep requires exemplifying personal salvation in Jesus and authentic Christian love. For Cornerstone, sharing that love means loving the whole community.

“Derry has lots of old memories that conjure up pain,” says Robert Suarez.  “It’s very important that what we do here is visible because that will create new memories. As a result, what they think back on will be positive, healthy and life-giving rather than negative.”

As the Master’s Commission and Street Pastors teams go out in ministry across the city, their impact can be felt in a variety of ways.

“When we’re out among the people, it calms the atmosphere. Young people come over to us and want to talk. After an hour or so, they go home without getting involved in trouble. We’ve actually seen a decrease in violence,” says Robert.

Local leaders, media and the police department have acknowledged what Cornerstone is doing for the community as both Catholics and Protestants are touched by believers’ acts of compassion. This year, as part of the “iHeart Derry” outreach, Cornerstone partnered with Convoy of Hope Europe to build a playground in a Protestant neighborhood. Their effort drew the attention of the deputy mayor, who made an appearance at the site. When the project was completed, grateful parents watched their children play at the new facility until late in the evening. The church also hosted a prayer event, inviting people from the community to form a line across Peace Bridge, hold hands and pray together.

Peace Bridge links Derry's Cityside and Waterside neighborhoods.
Peace Bridge links Derry's Cityside and Waterside neighborhoods.

By offering a variety of engaging recreational activities for youth and children in both Protestant and Catholic communities, the church is reaching into new areas.

The Kids Week portion of the “iHeart Derry” outreach brought together children from every area of the city for three days of activity and a gospel presentation. Each afternoon more than 250 boys and girls arrived on buses and were greeted with high fives from Cornerstone volunteers who then led them in a time of worship, fun activities and prayer.

“Young people in Ireland consider themselves spiritual, but they don’t go to church,” says Tim Inman. “They don’t know what they believe, and a lot of them give up on God completely and decide they are atheists. But when you get down to the heart of the issue and talk to them about their lives, they say, ‘You know, I do pray sometimes.’ They really do want a relationship with God.”

The “iHeart Derry” outreach and the Kids Week activities do more than bring people together. They bring people to Christ.

“Just last Sunday I heard a family say that their children went to ‘iHeart Derry’ and are now enjoying coming to Cornerstone,” says Robert Suarez. “Parents are bringing their kids and staying for the services. We hear a lot of stories like that.”

Brian Somerville, Cornerstone’s pastor, says, “People in our church are about 50/50 from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. If we can plant churches and reproduce this kind of even mix, we will have a valid part in the peace process in Northern Ireland. In addition, we will be planting Pentecostal churches in communities with no Pentecostal witness.”

Cornerstone recently purchased a building that will enable it to host thousands of people for services and engage surrounding areas. A nearby community, Omagh, is a planned site for a new church plant in 2014. Already, people from Omagh are traveling regularly to Cornerstone for services.

“The concept of sides is changing,” says Somerville. “We feel that part of our voice over the city is to declare an end to sides.  There’s no Cityside or Waterside. There’s just one side.  We’ll start that conversation as a church and use this building as part of theprocess.”

Peace Bridge links Derry's Cityside and Waterside neighborhoods.
Within the Cornerstone congregation are people who exemplify how God is bridging religious divisions in Derry. Billy and his wife, Linda, began attending the church four years ago and now serve together in ministry. But their journey of faith was anything but smooth.

Billy joined a Protestant paramilitary group at age 16 after his grandfather was killed in a bombing. He thought he was doing his part to protect his Protestant community, but he eventually discovered that the group was committing violence toward Catholics. The turmoil inside him grew when he met his future wife, Linda, a Catholic living in a neighborhood where he was assigned. As time passed, Billy withdrew from his paramilitary involvement and married Linda.

Although Linda grew up knowing about the Bible and had a deep sense of God’s existence, she did not know Christ as her Savior. She and Billy had no connection to a local body of believers, although they sent their two children to Sunday School. They carved out what they thought was a good life, but it was spiritually empty.

Life changed dramatically when their son Ryan fell into deep depression, drug use and a life that Linda says was “off the rails.” In his desperate state Ryan found his way to a meeting at Cornerstone and received Christ. Billy and Linda were shocked by his profession of faith but could not deny the change in his life.

“He was transformed!” Billy says. “He stopped drugs. He stopped alcohol. His aggression stopped.”

Concerned yet eager to see Ryan continue on the right path, Billy and Linda decided to visit Cornerstone with him. “We wanted to keep him where he was,” says Billy. “He was having such a good, happy life.”

At first, Billy and Linda were confused, especially during the worship time when people raised their hands and cried out to God. Billy told Linda he was uncomfortable there, and they wondered if Ryan was involved in a cult. Still, they kept attending.

Worship time at Cornerstone.
Worship time at Cornerstone.

Eventually their daughter began attending Cornerstone with her Catholic boyfriend.  Although Billy never raised his children with an anti-Catholic perspective, watching his daughter date a Catholic man brought him to a breaking point.

Sensing the rising tension, Linda asked her daughter, “How could you bring a Catholic into my home?” Turning to her daughter’s boyfriend, Linda asked, “Why are you going with a Protestant?”  

Despite the opposition, the young couple married, and soon afterward they received Christ. Billy was baffled at how his new son-in-law could come to faith before him, and after a time of soul-searching, he fully surrendered both his hostility toward Catholics and his heart to Christ. Linda also gave her heart to the Lord.

Today Billy and Linda are eager to share their story of transformation through Christ with both Catholics and Protestants. Their tender hearts and authentic love for people have made them bright lights in their community. Linda now leads a ministry of Cornerstone called Christians Against Poverty.

The sight of believers from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds standing side by side in worship to the Lord at Cornerstone is a clear example of how the power of God can transcend the horrors of the past. According to Pastor Somerville, some within the group “would have shot at each other just five years ago,” but today they are reconciled by the gospel. Empowered by new life in Christ, they are following His command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

And the people of Derry are taking notice. People on the streets know about Cornerstone and its community outreach. “They’re everywhere!” says a man named Gerry. “They’re out every Friday night in front of the pubs giving out free coffee and tea …and we love them for it.”

Worship time at Cornerstone.
Others tell of the difference they have noticed in people. They say, “There is a small number of people, and they are a minority, who want things to go back to the way they were 30 years ago. But that’s changing. People are upbeat.”

In honor of Derry’s distinction as a U.K. City of Culture, banners of welcome hang as greetings on buildings. Their slogans reflect the city’s hope for the future: “Derry. Our City. Our Time.” The Inmans and Suarezes, Pastor Somerville, and the people of Cornerstone have taken this slogan to heart in a spiritual sense. Believing that now is the time for Derry, they are proclaiming the Prince of Peace as the only way to bridge deep-seated divisions and bring true reconciliation to their city.

 

Andrea Idol
is a reporter for Assemblies of God World Missions.

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