Each Sunday Renata Hughes sings in the choir in First Armagh. She is 83 years old. On the surface Renata appears as the typical Presbyterian choir member. However Renata grew up in Germany before the second world war. She was a member of Hitler Youth. Her father served as a doctor in the German army. It is difficult to imagine the loyal church choir member in a uniform attending indoctrinating mass rallies in the Olympic stadium in Berlin.
The last funeral I conducted was that of Jack Parks. He grew up in Markethill, Co Armagh. During the second world war Jack joined the RAF Bomber command. He was a rear gunner, surviving 37 daylight sorties over France, Holland and Germany.
Renata’s son Geoffrey, met Jack’s daughter, Jacqueline in Armagh. A few years later they were engaged. As their wedding approached Jack knew he had dropped bombs on Renata’s home city, Berlin. The past was catching up on them. However Jack, a reserved understated man by nature, courageously approached Renata saying, “Look we all did wrong during the war, but thankfully it is over now. Let’s get on with life.” Thus the two families became close friends. Jack and Renata share three granddaughters who now live in the south of England.
As Richard Haas spends time in Northern Ireland, seeking to find a way forward with the past, parades and symbols it is incumbent upon us all to scan our communities for Jack and Renata narratives. Northern Ireland is full of stories of love, faith, hope and courage as well as stories of hate, bitterness, despair and revenge.
I acknowledge that the second world war is different from the Troubles. Adversaries in international wars are more anonymous than in civil unrest, where enemies can be up close and personal. Nevertheless many of the veterans of war have witnessed enough of the destructive effects of violence to know that they have a duty to work together to create a better future for the next generations. The Hughes and Parks families intentionally avoided being caught up in cycles of hatred during the Troubles, although both owned businesses which were bombed.
Jean Paul Lederach recently intrigued us with this remark, “The challenge of walking from war to peace requires that we re-imagine the past and remember the future.”
Jack Parks was able to imagine what it was like to scurry through the streets of Berlin to escape bombs falling randomly from the sky. Renata Hughes was able to imagine what it was like to squat in the back of an airplane, waiting for the slight change of sound from an engine indicating imminent death or capture.
Does our failure to understand the past reveal an inability to imagine any other past but our own? Can we reimagine what it was like for someone from the Nationalist / Catholic community in 1970s to be stopped by a UDR patrol and wonder if the UVF were lurking around the corner, about to shoot you down simply for coming from another religious tradition? Can we reimagine what it was like to be a part time UDR soldier, working as a postman, dropping a letter through a door then waiting for a machine gun wielding IRA man to emerge around the corner?
Can we remember a better future for our grandchildren when they are learning together and bringing out the very best in all traditions? Can we imagine each other as potential partners in working for God’s Kingdom rather than as rivals? Can we imagine a future where it is common for lambeg drums to be heard in Crossmaglen square and uilleann pipes played on the Shankill Road; when Roisin and Sean are common names on New Horizon badges and orangemen from Portadown attend alpha courses in St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Armagh?
Isaiah imagines a better past and remembers a better future when he writes in chapter 65 v 25,
“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Tony Davidson is Minister in First Armagh Presbyterian Church.