Volume 15 Number 3
Planting the Seed of Reconciliation
01 June 2002
We may need our enemies for our own healing, maintains Trevor Williams, the Director of Corrymeela, the reconciliation centre in Northern Ireland. He talks to Faustina Starrett.
Few of us in Northern Ireland are qualified to write even a footnote on managing an effective peace process. Yet, as broadcaster Martyn Lewis comments, 'Everywhere there is war there are people trying to build peace.' The harrowing events in the Middle East emphasize that securocratic solutions and strong-arm tactics for the most part only fuel passions.
So what does it take to get people to engage genuinely in the business of peacemaking? There are currently over a hundred groups registered with the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, working on conflict resolution physically and psychologically. I recently visited Trevor Williams, Director of Corrymeela, one of the oldest and perhaps the best known of these groups. It has a beautiful centre on the rugged North Antrim Coast just outside Ballycastle. In their outreach offices in Belfast I asked him, 40 years on from their foundation, how he now embraces the challenges.
For Williams, Corrymeela is a place where people live together and share in community, not a mere conference centre. Their founder, the Rev Ray Davey, believed that the essential prerequisite was to begin with change in yourself and your own attitudes; and that putting God's will before your own point of view could make the transforming difference. Much of Corrymeela's work centres on building relationships of trust and respect between people whose hate and fear have created the ugly, stereotyped scenes of Northern Ireland that orbit the world - pictures of children being terrorized on their way to school; and of Catholics and Protestants hurling bricks at each other on so-called 'peace lines', with the police being attacked by both sides.
'We live in a deeply contested society where it is Us against Them,' reflects Williams. 'When you ask people to describe themselves they reply, I'm not this or I'm not that. So many have little self-esteem other than that of being opposed to the "enemy".'
Coming from such a starting point of fear and lack of confidence 'makes it very difficult for them to be peace-builders. And their world is no help, built as it is on domination, on the need to be successful, judged on what they have achieved rather than who they are.
'Yet we are taught as Christians that each person is created in God's image; so, no matter their background or what they may have done, each has a dignity and worth that is unassailable. That is where we have to start.'
Each year Corrymeela welcomes several thousand people from the opposing communities to conferences, residential weeks and other activities. Trevor Williams explains, 'Our programmes begin with how you greet each person as an individual of value when they arrive. Then we seek to create a safe place where each can tell his or her own story. It is amazing how many people when given this opportunity, will say, "No one has ever asked me for this before; no one has taken the trouble to listen." '
He makes the point that the 'outer' political arguments - be they about the police, political prisoners or other contentious issues of Them as against Us - are so well rehearsed that everyone knows what will be said before a word is uttered. So you have to begin differently. 'The difficult things do have to be addressed,' he says. 'And it's not enough to say, "Let's all talk about what we have in common." That does not touch the pain and the hurt that divide.'
He believes that it is when people have the chance to share their personal, often harrowing stories, that they meet at a different level. He illustrates this. 'We had a residential week for two groups of teenage girls, 25 Catholic, 25 Protestant. They came from a tough, interface area in Belfast. Along with the usual round of varied activities, indoors and out, we set up small discussion groups, each facilitated by one of the dozen young international volunteers who join us every year. In one particular group there were eight girls, four from each side. The topic was, "How the Troubles have affected my life".
'After initial apprehension they began to talk. One girl plunged in, "My father was killed by the IRA. He was a member of the RUC [the police force]." It took great courage for her to come out with that. The rule of thumb in Northern Ireland is not to mention religion or politics if we are not sure of the company we are in. But here was a safe place, and the group listened. She went on to describe the empty seat at the table and the sense of loss that was still very raw - on family occasions it was still like the first day.
'This started a great opening up in the group. By the end of the evening six of the eight had shared stories of loss - parents, relations or neighbours killed in sectarian violence. After they had talked themselves out, those girls became inseparable. And their friendships continue to this day despite all the pressures. Why? Because everyone who suffers needs to tell their story, realistically and truthfully, into the community from which it stems. And to have it acknowledged and accepted provides release. It is the first, essential step in peace-building, for time alone does not heal.'
Trevor's own background gives point to this: 'I am a Protestant minister. My views belong to the Protestant community. My questions and opportunities have been different from those of Catholics. After 30 years of violence and hundreds of years of fear, I have to face the truth of the past, acknowledge the wrongs that happened and expose them to the air. And the only people who can help me in this are Roman Catholics. We need each other for our mutual healing.'
What comes across from the Corrymeela experience is that individuals matter - and can make a difference. But what of its political impact? Trevor Williams defines their contribution as 'to help people break the deadlock of hate and enmity that wrecks political initiatives'. The latest issue of their regular magazine, Connections, brings this home in its interviews with such polemicized figures as Martin McGuinness who has moved from the IRA to become Minister of Education in the new power-sharing Executive; Ronnie Flanagan, just retiring as RUC police chief; and Gusty Spence, former hard-line Protestant paramilitary. 'To bolster our own position, we demonize those who oppose us,' says Williams. 'We need to reclaim their humanness as individuals, perhaps not so different from us.'
Although Corrymeela has a huge outreach facility, and works in partnership with the civil service, trade unions and a great range of community groups, its core is a small group of about 200 Catholics and Protestants throughout Northern Ireland. Williams explains, 'One of the founding principles of Corrymeela is not to build an empire. When you're working on the same patch as someone else you have two choices: to be their rival or their partner. We believe in smallness, in supporting others in their initiatives rather than expanding our own structures.
'The challenge of community is continually tested for us,' he goes on. 'Much publicized incidents such as Holy Cross School [where children walking to school have been subjected to sectarian abuse], or events in the past - such as the 13 hunger strikers starving themselves to death in protest over government policy - can pull us in opposite directions. Then we have a choice: for each of us to be willing painfully to acknowledge our ingrained judgements and preconceptions, letting the Cross of Christ cut across our self-will at the deepest level of our being; or to throw in the towel. It becomes, first and foremost, not what we can do for others but what we allow God to do for us.'
The Corrymeela Centre has, as its iconic reference point, 'The Croi', a place of informal interfaith worship. On my visit it struck me as somewhat like an underground bunker. But getting to the heart of things is a journey down under the conscious mind to confront often hidden unpleasant facts and attitudes.
John Morrow, a former Director of Corrymeela, reminds us that it is easy to dream a dream of community in idealized relationships rather than work with the real brothers and sisters God has given us. 'We have to learn to call forth the gifts of those who tread on our toes rather than to crush them,' he says. 'And because we continue to hurt one another and often fail to listen, community life is only possible through forgiveness.
'Perhaps it is dangerous to speak of models because each undertaking is more a developing story,' he continues. 'The important thing is what we are prepared to risk together in response to the Holy Spirit.'
Corrymeela emphasizes the importance of always looking outwards. In the aftermath of the 11 September attacks and world-wide tensions, one forthcoming event Trevor Williams highlights is an interfaith gathering including Muslims, Jews and Hindus. Crisis in the world signals a renewed urgency for dialogue. In the current world climate, Williams reminds me, 'it is easy to retreat into the siege mentality that we in Northern Ireland understand so well'.
And while such dialogue may not provide the solutions to deep-rooted political conflict it can correct misconceptions about one another. Corrymeela's work is also evidence that dialogue can do something more. It can open up a space for the miraculous, a place to plant the seed of reconciliation. Clearly, this may be a long and painful process but one where courage and generosity of spirit can provide an alternative to the voices of hate that threaten to destroy our humanity.
Somewhere in this equation I find myself remembering my own complicated roots. My father, an English Protestant Petty Officer in the Royal Navy; my mother, an Irish Catholic from Derry; and myself, as one of six children, a cocktail of their different attitudes, backgrounds and psychic histories. And so we are all placed in a time and place that requires us to work out complex mergers in our relationships: in families, in workplaces, in communities, local and global. So maybe we all understand something about this process of peace-making.
'We all have a role in peace-making,' Williams assures me. 'When Jesus says, "Love your enemies", it wasn't to paper over the cracks. Some of the most important things we need to learn about ourselves and about others are only accessible through those who have named themselves as our enemies. So the challenge of peace-making extends beyond politics to each of us. Some ask, "Has my contribution any value?" I would say, "There are some differences that only you can make." '