The church was empty when I pulled open the heavy two-way vestibule door one evening in late summer. The sun beamed obliquely through the tall plain frosted glass windows, casting long shafts of sunlight across the empty pews, the front of the church in shadow. The raised central pulpit was set in a stage of blue deep-pile carpet, its only decoration, carved in a wooden relief, the Old Testament’s burning bush. It was six years since I had been there yet the place resonated strongly with me. The deep shuffling groan as the Sunday morning worshippers stood to sing. Not an empty seat. Rows of chairs brought in along the ground floor aisles. A bold choir swamped by the congregation’s massed voices, swelling in praise.
To the right of the pulpit, a solid oak door stood ajar; the Committee Room where I had arranged to meet the Reverend G.
I had left Ballymena not long after my twenty birthday. Spent three years as a student in London before going to the Solomon Islands in the tropical Western Pacific as a UNA volunteer. For most of that later three years I lived and worked in a Melanesian culture, learning the Pidgin language, making long-lasting friendships and contributing in a small way to an island country on the verge of independence. Taking cash instead of a return air ticket I travelled home by a long and complex overland route through Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and across Europe. The Troubles continued to rage when I was away. If I thought I was more aware and knowledgeable on my return, I was still confused by it all in equal measure.
Living back home while I figured out my next steps, it wasn’t too long before I got a phone call from the Reverend G. I was surprised – my church experience then seemed so distant, I wasn’t part of it, or any organised religion anymore. Yet I wasn’t really surprised – the church needed new blood and given my family background, I was an obvious candidate. My mother had often told me that I would make a good Minister. But I never had any passion for the role or the message.
I agreed to meet the Reverend G in the church the following week. And as I put the phone down, I could hear myself agreeing to his further requests. I needed a plan. Maybe this was how my father had become to be a church elder: don’t fight the inevitable, take the easy route. And so, I thought about how I would respond. Turned it over in my head a few times. And wrote it down. I knew I wouldn’t be taking up his offer. But I had to do this face-to-face.
The Reverend G was an authority figure to my father. And to the family. Like in most Irish homes the Minister or Priest’s visit brought out the good china and plates. As we grew older, we knew to clear out of the house on these occasions. If caught there you were expected, at least, to pray with him before he left. At the time we saw it as adult’s business.
“When Tom retired and went over to the other side …” The Reverend G said years later, when leading my father’s funeral service in Coleraine, before the long journey to his burial in Dromahair, County Leitrim. In Northern Ireland the term ‘the other side’ is redolent with meaning – often inferring threat or danger.
My parents had moved from Ballymena to Dromahair, near my mother’s home, after they retired. There, daddy could enjoy a cigarette and a drink beyond the judging eyes of his religious and family peers. In his Ballymena community and church, partaking in tobacco and alcohol was considered sinful and would bring its opprobrium, particularly so for a church elder. (‘Let me smell yurr breath!” Ian Paisley was often heard to roar at journalists, sniffing for signs of the ‘Devil’s Buttermilk’)
When I went to meet the Reverend G I was tanned with a head of curly sun-bleached hair and a tight beard. I drove a couple of miles to meet him in a casual top and jeans. I was confident and prepared. That was, until my soft shoes squeaked on the aisle’s shiny linoleum. I should have met him somewhere different, a neutral venue. I looked at the upper gallery and the seats where I used to sit with friends, Sunday after Sunday. I’m a teenager again, standing beside my father on a Sunday evening. The church half full. His rich tenor voice filling the space around us, never seeming happier.
I knocked and pushed open the heavy door. He was sitting one leg across the other reading his Bible, my chair beside him. Behind him a large oval boardroom table.
The Reverend G was a physically impressive man, particularly when preaching from the pulpit in his ermine-collared gown. He had a mop of dark curly hair atop his round open friendly face. The wealthy congregation looked after its minister well, and he had no ‘calling’ to go elsewhere. His sermons tended to reflect his more liberal, socially aware version of Presbyterianism. Yet he saw the trickle of church members starting to drift off to Ian Paisley’s fierier and more evangelical Free Presbyterian Church.
“Hello. Good to see you again!” He said rising from the chair, smiling, extending an open hand. Not like the village preachers in the Solomon Islands in their colourful T-shirts and shorts, I thought, his sombre grey suit and collar. “I heard that you were back and wanted to have a chat. How are you? Have you settled?”
“Thanks. I’m very well, but I can’t say I’m settled. ‘Not even sure I want to either, you get a great buzz from travelling,” I replied, and we exchanged some conversation about my volunteer work and the experience of being abroad. He talked about the challenges of being a church leader amid The Troubles, of trying to keep everyone onside.
“But I didn’t ask you here to talk about that. You have probably guessed. We need new blood in the Church. You were very involved when you were last here; a leader in the BB and the youth club. And your Dad is a stalwart elder. We need young people like you for a thriving church community. Have you given any thought to becoming a full member? Of getting fully involved? We have prayed for it. The elders too. I think it is God’s will that you give your life to Jesus in this way.”
“Yes, I thought you would ask me that.” I said hiding my unease best I could. “Since I’ve left I’ve made many friend’s. Some of different religions, some of none. Some are Buddhists, some Animists. Yet they are as ‘Christian’ as we are – in the way they live their lives. In the way they treat each other. Treated me. Where do they fit into this Church? Are they welcome as they are? Can they become church members without giving up who they are? I want to be part of something that includes them, doesn’t put them on the outside. They live rich and full lives. They are good people. If I can’t bring them with me, then I’m not really interested.” There I’d said it, unsure if it came out right or coherently, but it was done.
“I understand completely. I do.” He replied. And I believed him. “But …”
I don’t recall the rest of the conversation. A few minutes later he wound up with a prayer. Nor do I remember exactly how we left it. But a few minutes later I was on the street, breathing deeply into the warm air of a summer evening and making plans.
Shortly afterwards I moved to Belfast to take up voluntary community work. But before leaving I had heard of a job coming up in development education in Derry. To my surprise, the originators of this new project had supported my UNA work in the Solomon Islands and knew I was back home. I was bound for Derry and the North West.
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