Thursday’s Irish News featured a glowing review of Belfast’s 4 Corners Festival. Written by Jim Gibney, it praised the Festival as a hopeful sign of Christians “contributing to healing the wounds of the people of the city, wounds inflicted by the conflict and other maladies arising from poverty and excess.”
As a part of the organising committee of the Festival (albeit one who I fear made limited contributions to it!), such words are gratifying. But they don’t definitively answer two key questions the Festival raised for me, namely:
- Is the Festival merely “preaching to the choir” – Christians and non-Christians alike who are already committed to working for healing and reconciliation?
- Did the “Listening to Your Enemies” event at Skainos, the focus of violent protests by loyalists angry that one of the Brighton bombers, Patrick Magee, had been invited into the area to speak, go “too far”? And following on from that, could or should the Festival have been able to create a peaceful space in which those who felt it necessary to protest such an event could be heard?
I don’t have ready answers to those questions. Any readers who do are more than welcome to leave their comments on this blog post!
But to move forward and to live up to its vision, the 2015 version of the Festival will need to start answering them. In his article, Gibney describes the poem from which the Festival draws its name, “Four Corners of Belfast,” written in 1998 by Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian. Gibney writes:
“The poem is a wry look across the city at its inhabitants experiencing unemployment, domestic violence, child abuse and teenage crime and asks of those who work for their people inside and outside the church to bring ‘tangible support’, dignity and love to those in need.
To the affluent, comfortable and well off, and those in the church who service this community, the poem reminds them of Christ’s radical ways urging that the naked be clothed, the hungry fed and the prisoner visited.
The poem warns against the abuse of power by those privileged with a university education and the use of knowledge to exploit other people and the dangers for young people becoming victims of overindulgence in alcohol and drugs.
It calls on Church and political leaders to be fearless in pursuing social justice and to advocate reconciliation.”
Of course, a Festival – in and of itself – is an obviously limited vehicle for creating the lasting change that Stockman’s poem envisions.
It might provide support and comfort to people already engaged in reconciliation work – including those who faithfully attended a range of events, as well as the community and political leaders who received special and focused prayers at the Prayer Breakfast at the 174 Trust.
It might inspire people who had previously not thought about how their Christian faith could or should impel them to become involved in reconciliation work, to begin to see reconciliation as fundamental to living faithfully as a Christian in a society divided along sectarian lines. My own and other academic research has confirmed that the vast majority of the people in our pews have not yet caught this vision.
It might prompt those who have previously judged Christians and the churches as irrelevant and ineffective peacemakers to sit up and take notice that this is not necessarily the case, paving the way for cooperation in reconciliation across sacred and secular divides.
It is too early to know if the events of the Festival have had such effects, although Gibney’s overwhelmingly favourable review could perhaps be considered evidence that such inspiration and prompting could be beginning to happen.
But the inspiration will, of course, fizzle out if we sit around waiting for the next Festival.
“We” includes not only the Festival organisers, but everyone in the four corners of the city who is saddened that we remain a wounded, segregated, unreconciled society.
Some months ago, the Irish News published an article by Fr Martin Magill (another of the Festival’s organisers) suggesting a range of small steps that people could take in their own lives to start subverting sectarianism and modelling new ways of living together better.
Those small steps, like the 4 Corners Festival, are steps across traditional boundaries. This year’s Festival has gained a significant amount of publicity. But most small steps go unnoticed and unrecorded.
So to any readers out there stepping across boundaries, I invite you to share your stories with us. Post a comment on this blog or, if you feel more ambitious, email me a longer, more substantial blog post telling us what you and your friends are up to, and I can post it.
Sharing our stories of crossing boundaries just might inspire others to venture out into four corners of the city – before the next Festival comes around.