This week it could be easy to get caught up in the whirl of events that are part of Belfast’s 4 Corners Festival. Deliberately held in and around the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this year’s Festival focuses on promoting storytelling – and storylistening – across all parts of the city.
In the midst of all that, on Tuesday the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University hosted a discussion on Religion, Peacebuilding and the Past. Two of the world’s leading conflict transformation scholars – professors John Paul Lederach and Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame — were the featured speakers.
Both Lederach and Appleby’s work has been foundational in the development of my own research agenda, so I was familiar with many of the ideas they put forward on the day. And I hope to blog further about the content of their lectures.
But in the week of 4 Corners, perhaps it is fitting that it was one of Appleby’s stories that caught my attention.
He related how, on his first visit to Belfast in the 1990s, he had been impressed by the commitment of the Christian activists he had met, and the scope of their activities.
Indeed, he told us that from an international, comparative perspective, the story of Northern Ireland’s religious activists is one of success – even if it doesn’t look that way to us. For him, Northern Ireland is saturated with religiously-motivated peacebuilders.
(Although I would hasten to add that most of those activists operated on the fringes of the institutional churches …)
Appleby acknowledged that it is difficult to prove that the work of Northern Ireland’s faith-inspired activism was actually effective. After all, how do you prove a negative? How do we know if the violence would have been worse without those religious activists?
Appleby told us that on his last day in Northern Ireland, he found the proof he was looking for.
The taxi driver who picked him up to take him to the airport was from the Shankill Road. With the naivety that only an American could get away with, he asked the taxi driver if he had ever joined the paramilitaries.
The taxi driver told him, ‘no,’ but that his brothers had. Appleby pressed further, and asked why he hadn’t.
‘Well,’ the taxi driver told him. ‘When I was young my mother sent me to Corrymeela. I made friends with Catholics. And after that, it didn’t seem to make sense to fight them.’
So there it was: the simple story of one life changed through the activism of the group of ecumenically-minded Christians who originally founded Corrymeela, and those who have come after to carry their work forward.
Even if the example of one life changed can’t be used to ‘prove a negative’ or generalize to the whole population of Northern Ireland, Appleby got us to laugh – for asking questions of a taxi driver that a local would have never dreamed to utter, if nothing else. But he also got us to think.
Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, was asked to respond to Appleby’s talk. Wardlow told us that what Appleby had said reinforced for him that:
‘faith-based work has value.’
Wardlow added that the challenge of spreading that ‘value’ throughout society is to ‘join the dots’ between the different groups that are working on the grassroots level … the very level that diverted Appleby’s taxi driver from a path of paramilitarism.
When those dots are joined, social scientists still mightn’t be able to definitively ‘measure’ the impact of the work.