Last November, Irish Methodists opened an impressive community center in the neighborhood where they have worked for years through the East Belfast Mission to bridge the divide between Catholics and Protestants.
Over the past six weeks, as new tensions have developed over a decision by the Belfast City Council, violent protests by Protestant loyalists have come close to the new Skainos Center on Lower Newtownards Road . So, the Rev. Gary Mason and the East Belfast mission are using the space to bring the community together.
During a Jan. 17 news conference, church, community and paramilitary leaders joined in issuing a statement supporting peaceful legal protests, but calling for an end to the “pointless violence, fear and wanton destruction being caused by a few.”
“The primary plea today is that we’re asking that the violence within East Belfast comes to an end,” Mason said. “It’s not serving this community, it’s demoralizing this community, it’s creating unemployment, so the violence must stop and that’s the key message we want to get out.”
“We who live, work or have a vested interest in East Belfast may have our differences of opinions about many matters, but we are UNITED in our determination to stop this community from suffering further,” concluded the statement, which was being distributed in leaflet form.
“At the moment, there is a hope the violence will end,” Mason told United Methodist News Service in a telephone interview before the news conference. “The protests, I imagine, will continue for a while.”
Long after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which Mason describes as a detailed document of “incredible compromise,” the journey toward peace in Northern Ireland continues to be a protracted experience.
The Dec. 3 decision by the Belfast City Council to fly the “Union Jack” flag of the United Kingdom only on designated days rather than every day outraged some loyalists who, Mason said, already“ felt there had been too many investigations into their community.
As Mason pointed out during a 2011visit to the New York City offices of the Board of Global Ministries, the key elements to the conflict resolution necessary to heal East Belfast are “compromise, flexibility, understanding” and “real, hard, meaningful conversations.”
That has been the work of East Belfast Mission since it was founded in 1985 through a local Methodist Church to work on economic development in the Newtownards Road, Ballymacarrett district. The mission has received significant financial support from United Methodists over the years. A missionary couple, Allison and Britt Gilmore, is assigned now to East Belfast by the Board of Global Ministries.
The Skainos Center, named from an ancient Greek word meaning tent, reflects the fact that the building shelters the mission’s wide variety of programs and services, including a worship space, child care and eldercare, arts programs, college classrooms, a café and a vertical garden.
Mason, whose parsonage is a mile away, calls it “an urban village in the inner city,” with some 150 people, including the homeless, actually living on site.
As Mason told Irish television in November, the Skainos Center is “a tangible sign that there is a dividend of the peace process for this area.”
Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, praised the church’s commitment at the center’s official opening on Nov. 23. “We have people here, clearly, from the Methodist Church, who recognize the importance of inclusion and of reaching out and of creating very, very important shared spaces for the entire community,” he told UTV.
In recent weeks, Irish Methodists have been “reaching out” to others to find a way to address the violence sparked by the flag issue. “It’s shown that the church, in difficult situations, can step up to the mark,” Mason said.
On Jan. 16, East Belfast Mission hosted a meeting of church and community leaders with Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state.
The statement those leaders crafted recognized the right to protest but not violently, Mason said during the news conference the next afternoon.
In a Jan. 15 blog post, the Gilmores said they had been checking on those connected to the East Belfast Mission and congregation who live in the areas affected by the protests.
They asked for prayers for protection for those residents, for meaningful dialogue within the community, and for young people, some as young as 10, caught up in the disturbances.
“In many ways, they do not understand the complexity of the issues or the consequences of their actions, but are captive to the circumstances and emotions of these moments,” the missionary couple wrote.