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.”