Leader in local Christian Charity calls for an active response to sectarianism

August 11, 2010

Published Ballymena Guardian, 11 August 2010

A former Ballymena youth worker has called on churches to respond to the Executive’s Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration in the wake of a recent sectarian incident. Jeremy Gardiner, who now works for Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), believes that Christian leaders need to be involved in transformative action so as to prevent repeats of the paint attack in Harryville.

Only three days after Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness published their proposals to deal with sectarianism and hate crime, vandals damaged Our Lady’s Church with paint in what the PSNI described as a sectarian attack. Under the new proposals, ministers will adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to attacks motivated by sectarian, religious, racist or hate prejudice. “The attack on Harryville church on Saturday past shows even though there seems to be progress at Stormont, division is still embedded in our communities,” explained Mr Gardiner, who is the Assembly and Development Officer for CARE in Northern Ireland.

As a youth pastor with High Kirk Presbyterian church, Mr Gardiner was involved in cleaning up Our Lady’s Church in 2005 after a similar attack. “It was an act of rolling up our sleeves, reaching out and addressing the divide. It led to conversation between the Catholic Church and local community leaders, and as a result the UDA mural in the area was removed. Whilst the recent attack in Harryville was dispiriting, and one wonders if anything has changed, churches in the area can once again take a lead.”

A public consultation process on the so-called shared future strategy has been launched and will run until the 29th October. Meetings on the proposals which can be attended by anyone will be held throughout September. Jeremy Gardiner, who in this year’s General Election helped organize a debate for the candidates in a local church, believes that church leaders and members need to seize this opportunity to respond. “As Christians, we can engage with the consultation process and take seriously our call to pursue justice. The church needs to think about its role in this process, and to speak with a prophetic voice.”

Building from his own experience of working with different communities, Mr Gardiner believes that churches have a physical response to play within contested communities. “We can’t simply say our piece and expect everyone to listen. We need to follow the biblical principle to love our neighbour, in how we respond to the attacks that happen in our neighbourhoods, and in how we interact with those who are different to us. The vision of the church is to speak good news to the circumstances it faces daily, and we ought to be doing that with our hands, as well as our mouths.”

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Reaching out…

April 23, 2009

Published: Coleraine Chronicle, 23rd April 2009, page 17

In scenes resembling the TV shows Ground Force and Changing Rooms, local church folk – many of them teenagers – spent part of their Easter holidays carrying out acts of kindness in the Triangle Area last week [15-17 April]. For three days over 80 volunteers picked up litter, mowed lawns, weeded gardens, painted fences and stripped wallpaper free of charge as part of a programme called StreetReach, run by several of the local churches to demonstrate love to the local community.

After the success of the programme last year, local church leaders decided that it would be beneficial to run StreetReach again this Easter. Volunteers met each morning for a debriefing and time of worship, before heading into their local areas to help anyone who needed it in what one leader described as ‘The most relevant act of worship we will carry out’.

One of the co-ordinators, Jonny Doey explained what it was they were doing. ‘Streetreach is were we get people together from the local churches to go out into the community and to show acts of kindness and to relate the love of God in word and deed.
‘We’ve had young people involved from the age of 14 who have been coming in and serving during their holiday time. Not only that, but the Council and the Department for Social Development have got involved too.’

Having advertised their services via leaflet drops in Ballysally, Dhu Varren, Portstewart and the Heights area of Coleraine, the job list had mounted even before they began. In Ballysally the team spent much of their time picking up litter in the area as well as spending time with people in the community over cups of tea. In Dhu Varren, around 20 folk dressed in red and yellow t-shirts from the Elim and Presbyterian churches cut grass, painted fences and stripped layers of wallpaper. In Portstewart the young people learnt just in time the difference between a plant and a weed as they tidied up gardens in the Mullaghmacall and Lever Road areas. And in the Heights area, some of the young people decided to paint the park at Kylemore Nursery School as a way of brightening up the area. Robert McMullan, a 17 year old from the town had had the idea. ‘It was really old and there were names scored on so we just sanded it down and washed it and started painting it with bright colours and you can see a big difference in it now, it just shines so much more.’

One woman who StreetReach had a big impact on was Linda McAuley, who had just recently moved into Ferndale Avenue in Portstewart. She had responded to one of the flyers, as she needed help to chop large amounts of timber she had received into blocks for firewood. Initially four people had turned up to help on the first day, but as time went on the rest of the team followed. ‘ I looked out the back window at one point,’ Linda says, ‘and it was like a flurry of wee birds and worker fairies had come in in brightly coloured t-shirts. At that stage there were about 15 young people then working incredibly hard, and they ended up giving the garden a complete makeover, cutting the grass, trimming the back bushes, not just chopping the wood.’

‘The thing that I was noticing and that I couldn’t get over,’ Linda continued, ‘is that they were all so happy doing it. They were young people that were genuinely happy out helping other people and it just warmed me through to the soul. I cried and l laughed all in the one day. It was a lovely sight and I will never forget the kindness because it wasn’t done in a way that made me feel bad about asking for the help. Everybody has been so friendly and kind and happy and chatty and normal. It didn’t feel like there was an act of charity being done – it just felt like really genuine people coming out to help other people.’

With little reward, organisational chaos and extra responsibility, why would those who organised StreetReach do such a thing? ? ‘In the book of Jeremiah,’ Jonny explains, ‘it says to seek the welfare of the city and we believe that God here is calling us to seek the welfare of our cities and in the upkeep of them as well. We also want to go out and be hands and feet of Christ in the community, to let people realise that being a Christian is about serving and that the church is interested in people and the church wants to be real with people. We want people to see that the church is alive, but more importantly that Jesus Christ is alive.’

With dirty hands, paint in their hair and wet clothes from Wednesday’s rain, what inspires young people to give up three days of their Easter holidays, and get involved with StreetReach? Robert, who was volunteering for the second year, concludes, ‘I guess it’s for the love of Jesus. He’s got such a big part to play in all our lives. For me he’s changed my life. I would never have dreamed of painting a park, or helping someone clean up their garden just for the complete love of Jesus. He’s got so much to share and he wants to share it with everybody and to use us.’


The Dispassionate Student?

March 12, 2009

Published: UFOURia Spring 2009

Robin Peake attended the Students’ Union protest against fees at UUC and was taken aback by what he saw.

Students have a history of making a stand, and making a difference. In 1941 the White Rose movement was formed by students in Munich, making a defiant stand against the Nazi Regime. The chain of events leading up to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was started by peaceful student demonstrations. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed, spurred by Catholic Students who were benefitting from the free education that had come into Northern Ireland in 1947 under the new ‘Welfare State’ and who were now disenchanted with discrimination from local authorities. The Tiananmen protests in China, culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 came off the back of students dissatisfied with the Chinese method of governance. Around the same time in Europe, students were holding pro-democracy protests in Soviet states, which can be argued to be a catalyst for the rapid downfall of communism.

Yet where is the passionate student today? Last year, a protest organised against fees was held at Stormont. Some 30 students bothered to turn up. Not so long again at UUC, the Union General meeting attracted only 40 people, though this was twice as many as the considerably larger UUJ campus. Talk about issues of Fairtrade and the student is interested in change, but only if someone else will do it for them. Speak about poor parking facilities, and the threat of doing away with Sunday train services for which many students on this campus rely on, and there are complaints, but no action.

It disheartens me to see a vast number of young people here, affected by various issues but so dispassionate and apathetic that they don’t want to see anything changed. Maybe it all comes back to selfishness? Why bother campaigning if by the time we have change I won’t be here any longer? Why lobby on Fairtrade if all it does is ease my conscience a little?

Tuesday, 2nd December seemed different though. The Students’ Union organised a protest against Fees. At the minute in Northern Ireland, tuition fees stand at £3,145 per annum, the maximum which Universities can charge. There is a short term proposed move to increase this by £80, to help ‘deal with inflation’. On top of this, Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists is calling for a removal of the cap, meaning that Universities could charge as much as they like. This would lead to an increase to £5,000, £10,000, £20,000…who knows. Ultimately it would weed out the last remaining students from low-income families, and ensure that our institution-educated people are those people who come from middle class backgrounds. The Bible talks about campaigning for the poor, lobbying for justice.

Isaiah says;
“Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
(1v16-17)

He goes on to say;
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
(58 v 6)

Ultimately the majority of students are not coming to protest because of any God-given command, but I was shocked to see the numbers who started arriving from 12.30 in the Students Union, ready to make their voice heard

Why? The increase is unlikely to affect us, especially for those of us who are in our last year; it’s more for those teenagers who will be coming to Uni in the years to come. And yet students wanted to speak for those who couldn’t speak. Students wanted to stand up for their brothers and sisters who would be coming to University after them, and didn’t want them to be labelled with an even bigger financial burden.

There were probably around 150 people gathered in the Students Union building. Councillors Billy Leonard (Sinn Fein) and Barney Fitzpatrick (Alliance) spoke well and passionately. Their calls for students to continue to be active and to hold politicians accountable (all 5 major parties in Northern Ireland committed to a removal of students fees in 2004) were greeted with loud cheers.

Followed thereafter a march from the Students Union building to the Central building. Shouts and chants were heard. Upon entering the front entrance of the University, these grew louder. Classes were disrupted. Students and staff stopped to watch. Security men stood on the steps of the stairs.
“What do we want?”
– “No Fees”
“When do we want them?”
– “Now!”
We all sat down on the floor, the local photographer clicking like crazy, the media students grabbing their soundbytes for their voxpops as the chants continued, growing louder. Adrian, the Site VP tried to make a speech but could barely be heard above the racket.

I was in awe. Here were students, doing what students do best. Having their voice heard. Making a stand, against perceived injustice.

The Assembly should be listening. The University should be scared. And I think they were. The poor security chaps didn’t seem to know what to do. As I made my way up the stairs for the class I was late for, I was grabbed on the arm and told I could not do so, that I wasn’t allowed up there with a sign (which was a mock of a Father Ted protest). When I went round and used the lift, there the little bald man on an ego trip was again, having cleverly scented my devious plan. In the end, my class was cancelled, presumably due to the Lecturer being unable to have herself heard as the deafening roars continued.

If we students ever realise the potential to change the society we live in, the world will be an exciting (for some) and scary (for others) place.

I am a happy man. The Revolutionary Student isn’t dead. He’s just having a break


Top marks for clean-up students

May 22, 2008

Published: Coleraine Chronicle 22nd May 2008

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A group of students have been praised by Portstewart Residents for volunteering to pick up litter after Saturday’s North West 200 races. Around 25 young people sacrificed their Saturday evening to pick up bottles, tins, cigarette butts and other litter on the old golf course which stretches from the starting grid to York corner on the race track.

One lady who lives on the Portstewart Road said “Students get such a bad press and its so refreshing to see them cleaning up this mess. The amount of litter that is left on that course is a disgrace.”

Rachel Logan is the 20 year undergraduate whose idea it was to mobilise the students, many of whom go to the Christian Union at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. She said; “We saw a need and we just felt that it was a good way of showing and being an example of God’s love. We saw a practical need and I think that at times us Christians can be too airy-fairy.”

Rachel, who studies Psychology, praised Coleraine council who were only too happy to assist this free offer of help. “We contacted the Council who were really pleased and welcoming of our help and they provided us with bin liners and gloves and assured us that they would take away the rubbish and they were really helpful.”