Reflection on Northern Ireland at 100 years
“So, what are you, Danielle?” asked my 10-year-old friend, Grainne as we walked up the town to deliver a message for her mum to the nun at the local chapel. We were purposefully taking our time as we felt very grown-up walking through the town without an adult or older sibling. I was probably talking too much, as usual, and had many questions about nuns…, as I did not quite understand where they fit into the church picture.
Grainne’s question stumped me. I knew what she meant, I was old enough to know that Northern Ireland had two distinct camps and she was asking me to declare which one I fitted into. The problem was that I did not really know! I answered her with the only answer I knew, “I’m a Christian”… but this did not satisfy Grainne at all. She pushed further “Yes, we’re all Christians, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” I could feel the heat rise up my pale, white, Irish freckly face as I struggled to satisfy Grainne’s need for an answer. My 10-year-old self knew I did not fit the mould but was not yet clear where I actually did fit.
My parents grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, my dad, one of 9 children in a Catholic family, and my mum one of 8 children in a Protestant family. They met at a mixed-faith school and in sixth form at Rainey Endowed school (in Magherafelt) they both became committed followers of Jesus. My dad became a Christian first when someone he trusted told him about Jesus. He began to question himself about what he believed and questioned anyone else he thought could help. Eventually, on a quiet country road outside Randalstown, without ever hearing a preacher, my dad committed to personally following Jesus. He didn’t really understand it all, but he knew something had changed inside his heart. Perhaps naively, he began telling everyone about his new faith, including my mum, who was compelled by his words. She went home from school one evening, locked herself in the bathroom and talked to God for the first time. If what that guy said was true then she wanted that relationship with God too!
Not long after the two started dating, in secret, and soon fell in love. When they could no longer hide their relationship, they faced a backlash from their families, friends and the wider community. They experienced rejection from people they loved and physical threats to the point that they fled to England where they were married without family or friends present. Their families were angry, and in the context of “the troubles”, their parents were rightly anxious for them.
Family reconciliation came slowly over the next few years. By the time I was born, my parents had returned to live in Northern Ireland and had set themselves the task of re-building relationships. They had literally to learn how to walk without causing offence to either side of the family; my dad calls it, “watching his P’s and Q’s”. To ease tension with their parents and the wider family, they had to make it clear that they were neither Catholic nor Protestant, that they were Christians. So, this is what they drummed into us as kids, and this is the answer I trotted out to Grainne.
I grew more confident in my own personal faith during my teenage years. By this time my parents were pastors in a non-denominational charismatic church, and I was part of a community that showed me how to boldly live out my faith. Our youth group was a bit of a wild child in the Christian youth group scene and emboldened my personal faith. We put on monthly events called Frontline with loud music, crazy fun sketches and visiting evangelist speakers like Mark Ritchie, who had us roaring with laughter and crying with conviction all in the same half hour.
Like my parents, I attended “Rainey” so I rubbed up alongside Protestants and Catholics with equal measure in school, and in my wider family circle. Both sides of the family provided me with grandparents that spoiled us at Christmas and plenty of aunts and uncles to provide copious amounts of chocolate at Easter and so many cousins that I cannot keep count. Religion did not play a major role in defining my family experiences. I visited Catholic and Protestant churches with similar frequency for weddings and funerals but was equally unfamiliar with both. I became more comfortable with not fitting into either camps and yet was happy to have friends and family from both.
Adult experience and perspective have taught me that NI is a complex place where religion has been mixed in with politics and culture for 100 years. All that time our people have been asking each other similar questions to the one Grainne asked me 30 years ago, and I realise the answer still matters to many. However, my original answer still stands, “I am a Christian”, only now I can say it without embarrassed blushes! I am growing surer of who I am in Christ and I want to be known by my allegiance to Jesus and identify as someone who follows Jesus, obeys Jesus and is becoming more like Jesus every day.
My vision for the next 100 years in NI is to be part of a community of believers who continue to give all their allegiance to Jesus and to show the next generation that following Jesus is more than choosing a camp, a party or a flag. I want to be part of a generation of believers in NI who stand firm in their identity in Christ alone and take the gospel to every corner of our nation confident that Jesus is good news for every heart, every home and every street in this place.
Danielle Mcelhinney is Public Policy Officer for the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland. Danielle lives in Coleraine with husband Graham and three children where she is part of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church. Danielle loves beach walks, chatting, black tea and the odd summer sea dip, and preferably all done together with great friends.