BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — Tom Hannon, a Catholic, says he "served an apprenticeship in trying to understand feelings of hatred and revenge." In October 1975, his eldest daughter was on her way home from the movies when she saw the car drive up and the gun come out. She was crippled in the sectarian shooting. And when she had to be sent to England for a long hospital stay, his mostly Protestant co-workers at the Macke factories in Belfast saw to it that he had airline tickets and some spending money to visit her.
Today, Mr. Hannon is director of Cornerstone Community, a group of 17 Protestant and Catholic members situated on the interface between the troubled Falls and Shankill neighborhoods in West Belfast. It has been there since 1982, having evolved from a cross-community prayer group.
"We consider ourselves 'a parable of possibility,' " he says.
In its symbolic role, Cornerstone shares with several Christian communities the aim of being an instrument of "God's reconciling grace," comforting the distressed, providing safe places for people to come together, and quietly removing ignorance. Corrymeela is the oldest, largest, and most famous; others include Columbanus Community of Reconciliation, Christian Renewal Centre, and Currach Community.
In the most difficult times, Hannon says, Cornerstone was much involved in bereavement visiting. Whenever someone was killed, two members - a Protestant and a Catholic - would go together to the home, despite the sometimes obvious danger. If you can begin to share the pain and fears of the other community, he says, you are starting on the way toward reconciliation.
Cornerstone is now a venue for joint study and prayer groups between Catholic and Protestant churches. Together with Currach and a local church and community association, they have formed Forthspring, a cross-community center at the Springfield Methodist Church.
They have a senior citizens club (which is publishing a book on Springfield Road memories); three youth clubs (Protestant, Catholic, and one joint); a cafe and drop-in center; and dialogues on many themes (including "What kind of society do we want?") "Now, we are planning Springforth 2000," he says. "We'll have several events in different parts of the community over the year."
There are challenges: Someone set the church roof on fire; the young dynamic minister was threatened; peers have pressed some teens not to interact. "In conflictual situations," Hannon says, "people who cross the line frequently come under pressure."
Cornerstone's presence is felt. Mari Fitzduff, former head of the Community Relations Council, says: "They've gained tremendous loyalty from people in their neighborhoods who knew they would never betray them, they would treat as sacred any dialogue. And on social issues, they could be depended upon. They've lived very simply with the people of both communities, as a symbol and as a connecting factor between those communities."