Clonard’s Unity Pilgrims: Picking up the Pieces in Northern Ireland

image‘If only they had known him, they would never have killed him.’ Not long after he had been posted to Clonard Monastery in West Belfast in the 1980s, that’s what a Protestant woman from the Shankill Road said to Redemptorist priest Fr Gerry Reynolds.

In the third of RTE Radio One’s ‘Picking up the Pieces’ in Northern Ireland series, Fr Reynolds shared that story with presenter Barbara Walshe, saying that it is something that has stuck with him as he has helped develop Clonard’s Unity Pilgrims.

The Unity Pilgrims are a group of ‘ordinary Catholics,’ as Walshe describes them, who after an early mass each Sunday, visit various Protestant churches to worship together with them.

Many of those churches are on the Shankill Road, on the other side of the peace line that divides West Belfast.

The programme features the Unity Pilgrims’ visit to Townsend Street Presbyterian Church on Remembrance Sunday last year. It conveys the very strong sense that one of the key aspects of peace building is simply getting to know each other – as human beings and as fellow Christians.

Rev Jack Lamb, the minister at Townsend Street, has served the congregation for 16 years. He describes how the church is located ‘ten steps’ from a peace line, saying:

We’re at an exciting time now, when … the gates [on the peace wall] are open for many more hours than when I first arrived in 1995. And it’s just such a sense of privilege to feel you are part of working towards the bringing down of the walls and the barriers, [that you can now recognise] a shared humanity and a shared faith.

One of the Unity Pilgrims – who as far as I can tell in my listening remains unnamed during the programme – also talked about the peace walls, describing how people from Clonard had to take a ‘long way around’ to get to Townsend Street Presbyterian, due to being forced to travel around the walls. He said,

I don’t think the physical wall is that important because the tourists love it – they absolutely love it!

I think the wall within your mind is more important … the walls in people’s minds are coming down, slowly but surely, and I think to be totally honest it’s more a grassroots thing … Reaching across the divide in small steps has a lot more effect than people preaching or politicians.

…. This peace line has been here for 30 years, but lately this gate is open during the day to let both communities travel back and forward … It’s still locked at night because people still fear the darkness, the darkness of the night, the darkness of their mind.

His comments convey hope – while recognising that there is still a long way to go before relationships between the two communities are healthy.

Within Northern Ireland’s churches, there recently has been some soul-searching, as Christians have attempted to assess just what they did during the Troubles to foster peace – and what they might be doing now to contribute to a better future.

A new book by sociologists John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney praises the contributions of Clonard, including its facilitation of high level political negotiations, as well as the activities of the Unity Pilgrims (while being quite critical of most of the institutional churches overall).

Indeed it can be difficult to gauge the effectiveness of ‘small step’ initiatives like the Unity Pilgrims, to ‘scientifically’ measure their wider impact. But Isobel Hunter, a member of the Townsend Street congregation, is in no doubt about the Unity Pilgrims effect on her community:

They’ve done more good than almost anyone. When they started to come to our Presbyterian church … people were polite to them but not overly delighted to see them I felt. But then as they got to know each other they developed a great warmth between them. And I would see some of the ladies of our church with bunches of flowers taken form the communion table – they would give them now to the Unity Pilgrims.

Ed Peterson, a lay worker with Clonard’s Reconciliation Mission, told Walshe that the long-term commitment of the Unity Pilgrims has been key to their mission:

We’ve made incredible friendships over time in the congregations and I think the advantage of doing this over a number of years is that there is very little pressure … it just frees you up to be very relaxed and not to have to force anything, just to be there. … After their service, and sometimes before … there is an opportunity for a bit of fellowship with a cup of tea or coffee …. Some would say that time together … is almost as important being together as the worship itself.

The Unity Pilgrims could also be considered an example of what Fr Michael Hurley called ‘ecumenical tithing’ – an active commitment to fellowship with other Christians for the good and unity of the overall church. Ecumenical tithing of course takes on added significance in a place like Northern Ireland, where the peace walls are a constant reminder that the sectarian structure of society remains intact.

Fr Reynolds also spoke about how in his early days at Clonard, Fr Alec Reid counselled him that:

The only way forward is the conversation, the meeting, the dialogue, [and to] create space for the spirit of God to work in human history.

Each Sunday as the Unity Pilgrims cross over West Belfast’s peace walls – the walls on the streets and the walls in their minds – they are travelling with God into that space.

Barbara Walshe is a graduate of my School’s Reconciliation Studies Programme. You can listen to the full series here.

My blogs on the series so far:

Picking up the Pieces Through Sport in Northern Ireland

Ex-Prisoners: Picking up the Pieces in Northern Ireland?

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