Dr Joram Tarusarira, Assistant Professor in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has written a post on ‘The Religion Factor’ blog in memory of the first anniversary of the death of Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard Monastery in Belfast.
The post, ‘Remembering the Peacemaker Priest in Northern Ireland: Fr Gerry Reynolds,’ draws on Joram’s experience when he was a Master’s student in Belfast. As part of his course, on which I was lecturing at the time, he had a community-based learning placement at Clonard Monastery. Through this, Joram got to know Gerry and participated in the Unity Pilgrims initiative.
Joram, who is from Zimbabwe, did his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig and has recently published a book, Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe.
Joram’s ‘Religion Factor’ blog draws out some of the wider lessons from Gerry’s life, which could be applied to the transformation of global conflicts. While I recommend you read the full post, I quote selectively from it below:
Joram Tarusarira on Remembering the Peacemaker Priest in Northern Ireland – Fr Gerry Reynolds
… The passing away of Fr Reynolds is a sad event, not only because many would have wanted to have him around and will miss him, but also because he would have wanted to do more in a world that continues to tear apart instead of coming closer together. However, his sad passing provides us with an opportunity to reflect deeply on the values that he pursued during his entire life. These values live long after his death and remain imperative in today’s world that is replete with one conflict after another, mounting terrorist attacks and the inevitable humanitarian crises engendered by all this. Northern Ireland, where Fr. Gerry dedicated his life, has known division between the Catholic and Protestant communities, and has experienced violence and terrorist attacks during the ‘Troubles’ (1960s – 1998). But Father Gerry dedicated himself to building trust and restoring relationships between the two communities despite their different cultural, religious and political orientations.
… While it may seem out of place to discuss terror attacks in the light of Fr. Gerry’s death, it is my contention that his work in peacebuilding by bridging communities of different cultures, the Catholics and the Protestants, has wider implications beyond Northern Ireland to other parts of the world struggling to deal with diversity and pluralism, religious or non-religious. The Northern Ireland experience tells that diversity and pluralism need not lead to mutual animosity, but is consistent with dialogue and engagement. It also suggests consideration for the ethnic or religious identities that are empirically present in a particular context, and respect for the value they hold for their bearers. This does not imply uncritical respect or unreserved admiration. It is a call for engagement, contact and consideration, rather than the knee-jerk exclusion from the public sphere that is too often the order of the day, and which, in turn, makes the minorities that protest against it seem like troublemakers. Multiculturalism also lies in moments of contact, mixing and cultural exchange. It may speak of the hybridisation of culture and the creation of spaces that allow for relatively effortless encounters. Its ethical core is the creative adaptation of culture under conditions of uncertainty and crisis.
… The Unity Pilgrims project was started by Fr. Gerry seeks to generate trust between Catholics and Protestants. It is associational in nature. The rationale behind it is that increasing contact between enemies or former enemies facilitates generation of trust. Contact theory has its limitations, but it cannot be denied that increased contact allows for dialogue and communication which are central elements towards multiculturalism. The initiative has a very simple approach. Members of the Catholic community from Clonard Monastery, after their mass go to join a Protestant church service in a Protestant neighborhood. Arrangements would be made ahead of time with the pastor and leadership of the respective church. There is not much expectation from both communities. The Catholic members join the service, spreading themselves amongst the Protestant church members during the service. After the service, there is often a sharing of tea or coffee and cookies. A member of the Unity Pilgrims once remarked: ‘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 as the worship itself. It is a case of small things but with big repercussions. The Catholic members interact with the Protestant communities over a cup of tea or coffee in a very informal way as a strategy to bring down mental barriers that have separated the two communities. It is worth noting that to this day physical walls, euphemistically called ‘peace walls’, separating Catholic and Protestant communities still exist in Northern Ireland. The idea of the informal meeting after the church service is simply to get to know each other as human beings and as fellow Christians. In his own words Fr. Gerry said:
‘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.’
… Fr. Gerry wanted to make borders between people permeable, shared and complementary by stressing their reciprocal enrichment and the humanity of all. There is a need to expose oneself to the ’unknown’ other, and to reject myths and unfounded stories. This will allow the shedding of new light on both groups and for the transformation of stereotypes. This process will break and rupture culturally exclusive boxes and compartments and build bridges across different sections of society. Such a process reverses negative psychological repertoires at both individual and community levels that stand in the way of multiculturalism. Fr. Gerry walked the path of peacebuilding and mutual understanding, a path that must be trodden now as our world is becoming transformed by wars, bigotry, famine, global degradation and population migrations. Reaching out to the other is one way to start the journey. Fr. Gerry is reported to have visited more Protestant churches than any other Catholic priest in Irish history.
(Image: Clonard Monastery)