The gospel at work in angry Ulster. `After every Good Friday, there is an Easter Sunday'
Belfast — THE television cameras recorded it all for a shocked world two weeks ago - the anger, the fear, the savagery of a mob. Almost all, that is. What the television crews missed on March 19 in Andersonstown, when two British soldiers were beaten and fatally shot, was a simple act of Christian charity. A local Roman Catholic woman, a member of St. Agnes' Parish, took her coat from around her shoulders and gently covered the nearly naked body of one of the dead Protestant soldiers. She bowed her head and prayed for him.
``The only part the world tends to hear about Northern Ireland is the violence,'' says the Rev. Tom Toner, a local parish priest. ``But that woman was a typical St. Agnes parishioner. I don't recognize any of the pictures of the people involved in the killings as members of our parish.... [Our parish] has been portrayed throughout the world as a savage community, and that is so very, very far from the truth.''
These are not easy times for Fr. Toner or his flock. But then, preaching Jesus' word and following his example have never been easy - for Catholics or Protestants - in a province where politics and religion can be used as a double-edged sword.
As does Toner, the Rev. Jim Rea knows the challenges of the ministry. He is a Methodist minister, whose church is in the working-class Protestant area of Newtonards Road, just across the street from a pub known by locals to be headquarters for the outlawed Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
``I've always tried to make sure that I'm not a politician,'' Mr. Rea says. ``As a preacher and a minister, I feel my role is to spell out Christian principles, not party politics. Those are principles of nonviolence, of the lordship of Christ over all things.''
For Rea, that role also includes holding his tongue at times, ``knowing when to speak and when to be silent, knowing when it would be inexpedient to say something - not because it wasn't right to say it, but because it wouldn't be fruitful or helpful.''
It can be a painful thing, he says, in stepping aside to let a member of his flock learn a sometimes painful lesson. But he knows that lessons learned by experience are often more powerful than lessons that are preached.
There is one instance, in particular, that stands out to him. A woman he knew, a loyalist (a person committed to keeping Northern Ireland a part of Britain), told him of her intention to take part in the protest march against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The signing of the accord in 1985, a controversial event giving the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the affairs of the North, had already prompted many, sometimes violent demonstrations by unhappy loyalists. Rea told the woman he would not participate in the march, but said he should not say more.
``So she went,'' he recalls. ``And on the march, she saw a protester smash a brick in the face of a policewoman. When the policewoman fell to the ground, she went to her rescue and left the march. As she helped, other women in the march kicked the policewoman as they passed.''
The woman was so horrified at the response of her peers that - even though she was a strong loyalist - she vowed never to participate in a protest march again.
``The interesting thing to me,'' says Rea, ``was that she needed that experience beyond any words I could have said.''
Both Rea and Toner minister to communities where illegal paramilitary groups are active. (Toner was also a prison chaplain to the IRA terrorist strikers who died in prison in 1981.)
Because of the confidentiality of their dealings with their parishioners, both refuse to comment on their counseling to individuals who have been involved in violence. Toner even refuses to say whether he meets with such individuals at all.
As with many other leaders of both religious traditions, however, Toner and Rea advocate cooperation with the security forces. This involves turning over any and all information about terrorists and acts of terrorism. It can be a difficult stand to take in a community where people are often reluctant to give information for fear of retaliatory attacks by paramilitaries against them or their families.
The minister and the priest also preach reconciliation between Belfast's two religious communities. This may come as a surprise to those outsiders who may believe all Catholics here hate all Protestants, and vice versa.
It is true that there are extremist religious leaders to be found on both sides - individuals who whip up political hatred in the name of religion.
But there are far more religious leaders such as Toner and Rea. In quiet, often unpublicized ways, they and many of their colleagues and parishioners meet in ecumenical situations such as today's planned peace march through some of Belfast's most troubled Catholic and Protestant communities.
Rea's and Toner's efforts are not without personal cost. Both men have received abusive, anonymous calls and letters for the positions they take and the religious demands they make. But they are not deterred.
``I don't see myself as in any way involved in politics,'' says Toner, who condemned both the killing of the British soldiers in Andersontown and the earlier killing of IRA terrorists at Gibraltar by British security forces as ``murder.''
``But that doesn't stop me,'' he says, during an interview at his home on Andersontown Road, not far from where the killings of the soldiers took place. ``And I am indeed bound by my calling to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on the events of people's lives. And what is politics but events and their bearing on people's lives? I would hope I do that consistently, and without fear of whom I might offend.''
For now, Toner tends to his parishioners, whom he describes as confused and depressed by the events of the past few weeks.
``There's an awful sense of helplessness, of hopelessness,'' he explains, ``and not being able to cope with being portrayed to the world as a savage community, which is so far from the truth.''
As in other Catholic and Protestant churches around the city, St. Agnes's Church holds ``Holy Week'' services in the days leading to Easter. Toner says his shocked parishioners can find comfort in the Easter story - in the resurrection that followed the crucifixion, in the victory of love over hate and of goodness over evil.
Toner and Rea, in fact, choose almost the same words to describe the relevance of Easter to the horror of the recent past - that ``after every Good Friday, there is an Easter Sunday.''
``That's the hope of the Gospel,'' says Rea. ``Good Friday was a very dark day, a day of despair, disappointment, and disillusionment.
``And we have had, in our community, dark days of suffering, very black days. But those days are always followed by an Easter Sunday, which is all about hope and resurrection.''