Mission Ambassadors Sandy McKee and Lynn Sibley recently returned a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Here's the first of two reports.
“The work of our missionaries is a magnificent expression of the Lord’s redeeming love.” (Elder D Todd Christofferson)
We did a lot of reading about the struggles and conflicts in Northern Ireland prior to our visit. We agreed it was probably best to keep our mouths shut and eyes open regarding the ongoing challenges of keeping peace between Protestants and Catholics. We knew their assembly had been suspended due to differences and that Brexit posed even more difficulties for this beautiful land.
We were met at the airport, given a quick city tour and welcomed to dinner at the home of the Gilmores. Alison and Britt are missionaries assigned here by the Board of Global Missions. While both were born in Northern Ireland, they have also lived and worked in the US. Alison is a counselor at the mission and Britt, who was initially assigned to the mission, now also pastors a Methodist church.
Their radical hospitality and openness soon made it clear that the past and present problems facing Northern Ireland demanded to be discussed. As we were introduced to the countless other dedicated workers at the Methodist East Belfast Mission, it was clear that transparency was the watchword and Love and acceptance were the glue that held the many projects together and moved them forward.
The mission has been around since the early 1800s, but has grown dramatically in recent times. They moved into their expansive new headquarters in 2012. Their numerous programs offer hope to a city and nation that has witnessed decades of violence and death.
We sat in on an Irish language class, just one of many being offered by the mission. Speaking Irish was once largely a Catholic pursuit. Due to the dedication and advocacy of the mission, it’s popularity is growing among Protestants. However the role of Irish language in the nation remains very controversial.
We met with the director of the mission’s homeless projects. Along with providing hostel accommodations for 26, the mission has several apartments for those struggling, be they lifelong residents of Belfast or refugees from Syria or the Sudan. A lot of energy is put into helping people avoid becoming homeless at the mission. They help people gain job skills, find work, get sober and cope with mental issues. They also transform lives through men and women’s’ soccer leagues.
We didn’t forget to eat during our first day at the mission. The mission offers an inviting cafe with great food at reasonable prices.The building housing the mission is also called Skainos. Skainos comes from the Greek and means “tent” or “dwelling”. The concept of a welcoming tent is carefully included in the mission’s design. There is a sanctuary for regular church services, a prayer room, a theater, a dance studio, classrooms, and so much more.
As John speaks of God sending Jesus to live and identify with humanity, the volunteers and workers at the East Belfast Mission seek to continue the good works of our blessed Savior. They persistently engage with the difficult issues of inner-city life in a society emerging from violent conflict. They make no apologies for their Christianity but are willing to reach out and serve those of various beliefs or non belief.
We are both humbled and inspired by the wonderful work and dedication of Methodists around the world. The East Belfast Mission is one of many missions supported by United Methodist Women.