'In a situation of historical division and conflict, to meet people of the other grouping face to face and talk about some of the knotty problems is a good thing," says the Rev. Allen Sleith, of Whitehouse Presbyterian Church. For two years, his congregation has joined in a project called "Moving Beyond Sectarianism," one of several efforts in Northern Ireland to face the causes of its deep division (see story, left).
Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg run the project, which includes bringing small groups of Protestants and Catholics together for 10-week programs to discuss "identity and sectarianism." In each case, the two groups meet first for some hours on their own to discuss identity issues and then together, sharing stories about their experiences and feelings, and considering what can be done.
"There are people for whom this is a relief. It allows them to say, 'At least I can do something,' " says Ms. Clegg. "There are those for whom it is positively an affront. And there are those in the middle who have a sense of this as presenting something new they have to struggle with."
People readily point at someone else's sectarianism, Mr. Liechty says. This helps "turn it into an issue where we deal with the one party that can possibly be changed - myself and my community."
At the end of the program, the groups take a month off to decide if they want to go on. "Almost inevitably, where they choose to go is some sort of faith-sharing," Clegg says. "That can go for three to six months. When they get toward the end ... they want to attack the sectarianism issue more directly."
Mr. Sleith sees strengthened relationships. His interchurch group is holding "Come and See" nights in which they learn about each other's faiths and intends to deal with political issues this fall.