East Belfast Mission, one of the project sites in Northern Ireland where Brethren Volunteer Service workers are placed, was in the news early this year when a peacebuilding event it hosted was met with violent protests. Here, BVS volunteer Megan Miller explains the groundbreaking work of the mission, which is related to the Methodist Church. Its extensive social service center is located in a traditionally Protestant area of East Belfast near the shipyards made famous for building the Titanic. As Miller reports in this interview conducted over Skype, EBM’s combination of practical social work, community development, support for local life and culture, collaborative efforts with others, and strategic and grassroots peacebuilding, makes for an amazing story:
Megan Miller: East Belfast Mission and the Methodist Church has had a presence on the Newtownards Road, which is a predominantly Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist part of Belfast, since the 1800s. Throughout its history it has been involved in community outreach work and in meeting the practical needs of people in the area.
A main area of work at the moment is employability, one-to-one mentoring with people who are out of work and need help looking at their resumes, job skills, interview skills. We do group work around the areas of life skills and self esteem.
Then there’s the homeless hostel. That came out of a need that was being met even before we had a site designated for housing. At this time we have a 26-bed homeless hostel onsite. As well as actually housing people we have two tenancy housing workers who work with people who have recently moved out of a hostel or people who are at risk of becoming homeless. They each have a caseload of 20 clients. In the hostel there is a lot of emphasis on life skills, not just housing people but giving them the tools they need to be able to live independently.
Compass is the department that Hannah Button-Harrison, another BVS volunteer, and I both work in. Compass does community development work. We really have looked to work with local people as much as possible and equip them to run programs on their own. The ethos of good community development work is trying to work yourselves out of a job! Empowering people, and not only giving them services but also giving them tools to address the issues that they personally are facing and they feel their community is facing.
A small community counseling service has come out of working with people who are affected by the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland, people who have either been involved directly or who lost family members, or who even just on a community level are feeling the effects of the legacy of conflict.
As well we have a women’s group, a men’s group, and do work with older people in the area who are risk of being increasingly isolated by offering structured activities where they can be with people, they can get out, and try new things.
All of these programs started from a community development sort of ethos, but have evolved to include some element of cross community work and reconciliation. For example, the work with the seniors: in December we did a Tea Dance with seniors who are coming from the Protestant Loyalist area as well as a nearby Catholic neighborhood. And just from those social activities, seniors from both communities have expressed interest in doing more focused reconciliation work. We’ll be doing a residential retreat with them, where they can tell their own stories and share their own feelings, talk about their own heritage and about the conflict and about where their communities stand today.
The women’s group has been meeting on a cross community basis for over three years now. At the start they did a lot of dialogue, they did residential retreats, they did work separately examining their perceptions of other communities. But now they’re so well integrated they don’t like to call themselves a cross community group. They just call themselves a women’s group.
Newsline: So this is bringing Protestants and Catholics together?
Miller: Yes, and some of the men we work with have expressed interest in exploring that. Not to be stereotypical, but I think men traditionally in Northern Ireland are more hardened and more reticent to talk about issues around the conflict, and their experiences. But just in the past year or so the men have been thinking that’s something they would like to do. In the months ahead we hope to work with a Catholic/Nationalist group, first doing some separate work, talking about their experiences and their stories, and then eventually meeting.
The Irish language work also is a huge piece of reconciliation work. Since the conflict, the Irish language has been associated with the Catholic community. A lot of Protestants and Unionists and most politicians would have really disassociated from the language. A woman named Linda, who was part of our women’s group and who is herself from a Protestant, Loyalist background, became really interested in the language and ended up doing some research. She looked at census data from the early 1900s, finding that many people in this part of Belfast were bilingual and many of them would have spoken Irish. She went from being a teacher who was studying Irish on the side, to a fulltime staff member who does Irish language development work in East Belfast. She does presentations talking about the history of Protestants and the Irish language.
We have 10 Irish classes running each week. That’s grown from one class when I started at EBM two years ago. That includes an Irish language singing class that Hannah has been involved with using her musical talent. A few people bring their instruments and then everyone just learns Irish language songs and sings. It’s been one of the most amazing things.
There are people in class who even just a couple of years ago would have said, “No way am I ever learning Irish.” Who really had a disdain for it, who felt it had no relevance to their culture, their background. Now it’s just natural because of their shared interest in a native language and learning part of their own heritage. This really is something people from both sides of the community can relate to and have an interest in.
Someone from the Orange Order came out with a statement saying that Protestants who learn the Irish language were playing into the Republican agenda. They were basically being very negative about that sort of work and about Protestants learning Irish. But as a result, the classes that we run here have actually gotten a lot of very good publicity. The broader Orange Order has come out with a statement saying that it’s the right of every person if they want to learn Irish.
There are so many things happening. From time to time we organize a community service day particularly for older people and people who aren’t mobile and able to do things themselves. Every year we do a food hamper project. We give out vouchers to local businesses, which generates income for the smaller shops. And then we work with other food banks year round to link people in with those sorts of practical services.
Newsline: That’s a lot!
Miller: Yes, there’s a lot that goes on at EBM. And there’s the whole Skainos Center project. Gary Mason, who’s the minister here, and some of his colleagues had a vision of building an urban village that would allow the church to expand its social work and involve partnerships with other local organizations. It took time, but it’s funded by the European Union, by the International Fund for Ireland, and some other Northern Irish government bodies. In 2010 they started building and then the building opened in the fall of 2012. Skainos not only houses all that work I just described, but also a number of community organizations such as Age Northern Ireland, onsite apartments, the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, and others. It’s really massive.
Newsline: In the context of all that work, explain the background to the protest?
Miller: Peacebuilding has been a major work for EBM. Since Gary Mason’s been at the mission, which has been over 10 years, he has done a lot of strategic peacebuilding. He has good relationships with different former combatants on the Loyalist side, with Republicans, and has done a lot of work at bringing those two groups together for dialogue. When the UVF, a Loyalist paramilitary organization, decommissioned their weapons they actually made that announcement from our building. That would have been in the early 2000s.
The event that was protested was organized by a group of Belfast clergy, it was part of the Four Corners Festival which included events throughout the city with the idea of all the four corners of Belfast bringing people together.
The two speakers, Jo Berry and Patrick Magee, have been doing reconciliation theme talks together for 14 years. The decision was made that this community had come along enough, and that Skainos would be a secure venue, for someone like Pat Magee.
Jo Berry is from England. In 1984 her father was killed in the Brighton bombing which was a high profile part of the IRA’s campaign. Patrick McGee was one of the bombers convicted in that case. Jo and Pat ended up wanting to meet and talk and hear where each other were coming from. From there they have gone on for 14 years to tell their stories together. Pat would talk about how at the time he was involved in the IRA it was very easy to see a faceless enemy in the British people. After meeting Jo, it’s been much harder for him because now he sees people. He sees individuals, he sees people he respects and gets along with. And he knows that he’s caused pain for people, not for a faceless enemy.
That’s still a very pertinent message that really resonates with Northern Irish society today. Even though it’s post conflict there are still a lot of wounds and a lot of issues around forgiveness, around dealing with the past, and inquiries into the past violence.
I don’t think any of us were expecting the backlash. We arrived that Thursday morning to see some sectarian graffiti painted on the windows of the Skainos Center. Obviously the directors of Skainos and EBM had to make some tough decisions about whether to go ahead with an event even though there was potential for protests or for violence. Especially at that late hour they decided to go ahead, because they knew that the story was one that needed to be heard and for local people who were going to be in attendance it was going to be valuable, potentially a source for healing.
It’s the notion that you don’t let dissenters stop you from doing good work and doing what needs done. In the days since, we’ve had some conversation as staff about how if people aren’t angry or challenged by what we’re doing, then we’re probably doing something wrong. I feel very proud to be part of that sort of heritage. Of being willing to put your head above the parapet and do things that are challenging and that are difficult.
— Megan Miller is one of two Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) workers at the East Belfast Mission, along with Hannah Button-Harrison. Currently there are seven BVS project sites in Northern Ireland. For more information about serving in BVS go to www.brethren.org/bvs or contact the BVS office at 800-323-8039 to request a BVS Project Book. Find a BBC report on the Jan. 30 protest at www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-25957468 .