Last year I was involved in facilitating an introductory peacebuilding course in a Protestant church in Belfast. We invited members from other churches to come to a meeting that did not involve worship and share their experiences in building peace. I later found out that not everyone was comfortable with members of a Roman Catholic Church speaking in ‘their’ church. This surprised me and I discussed it with the minister. He explained that many people in his congregation like to ‘feel safe’ when they attend church; having people from a different faith tradition was uncomfortable for some as the perceived ‘safety’ in being with your own was challenged by different views and experiences.
The late David Stevens argued that churches in Northern Ireland tend to reflect people’s fears instead of challenging them. Duncan Morrow has described churches as ‘protective fortresses for threatened people’. It is more comfortable to mix with your own kind than to try and build bridges, particularly if you feel a sense of threat. Of course there is a place for churches as sacred spaces for prayer and contemplation but we Christians are called to cross boundaries.
Recently I attended a talk in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church where Professor Cowie from QUB described Northern Ireland as a place with a pervasive sense of threat. He argued that we respond to threat in the following way:
‘Fear drives you to avoid the thing that you’re afraid of, and so you never learn that it isn’t as threatening as you thought.’
My journey as a peace activist has often involved facing fear – both my own fears and those of others. I can still remember how frightening it was to come from middle-class East Belfast as a young woman to work in inner North Belfast at the height of the ‘Troubles’. I felt like an alien in a new country and it took some time for me to feel at ease.
We have built walls of fear, mistrust and suspicion of each other which are difficult to remove. However, the Biblical commandment that occurs most often is “don’t be afraid”. The Bible portrays God’s nature as bringing about peace. The Hebrew word, Shalom, implies more than an absence of violence and conflict. It means well-being, health, security and rest. When we deal with our fears, we are dealing with a major barrier to finding peace. Nothing calms fear so much as seeing that the person next you is not afraid. Real peace implies something deeper than polite acceptance of those who are different. We need to discover who the other person is and reveal who we are. In developing relationships across cultural, political and religious boundaries, we will begin to see afresh God’s work in the lives of others and also in our own.
Laura Coulter currently works as a Good Relations Officer with the Irish Churches Peace Project and is based in North Belfast.