Monday, December 27, 2010

Happy New Year!

Hope everyone has a very happy and safe New Year's Eve!
(Can you believe it's 2011?!?)
Early tomorrow morning, I am flying to Frankfurt, Germany with one of my fellow YAVs to spend a week relaxing from work and exploring Germany. No worries, pictures will be taken. (FYI: we will return to Belfast on January 4th.)
I will have sporadic access to the internet most likely, but in case I don't get a chance to talk with you:
"Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!"
Happy New Year!!!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Christmas Eve!

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you are getting to spend this holiday season with family and friends. And special greetings to everyone at First United Presbyterian! I realized that this is the first Christmas Eve in many years that I won't be playing trumpet, organ, or handbells as part of the service! (For those of you who are worried: following the Christmas morning service, I will be spending the day outside of Larne at the home of one of the families from EBM. I am quite excited to experience a Northern Ireland Christmas Dinner!!)

My week at EBM primarily involved delivering biscuit tins to some of the elderly women of the congregation. As part of delivering the tins, there was an expectation that it would be a pastoral-type visit. Little did I know though that what I at first viewed as an obligation would actually end up being a wonderful opportunity that I thoroughly enjoyed. Many of these women shared with me pieces of their life stories, including some reasons why Christmas-time is often a difficult time when they miss family members who are no longer living.
For everyone who are missing loved ones this year, may you still find some peace and happiness this Christmas.

For those of you who are lamenting the 'commercialism' of Christmas, keep in mind that December 25th was not really the day that Jesus was born. Most scholars would suggest that he would have been born sometime during September. So with that in mind, we can remember that as we sing "In the Bleak Midwinter" or "Still, still, still," these songs are all part of, in essence, a holiday that even from its beginning was a part of humanity's commercialism and need for ritual.
What is important is what we are celebrating, not really when or how we celebrate it. Here is something to help you reflect on that

Christmas Begins (by Howard Thurman)
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost... feed the hungry...
release the prisoner... rebuild nations...
bring peace among all people...
and to make music from the heart.



To conclude on a more lighthearted note though, here is a glimpse of what the Christmas season involves in the United Kingdom courtesy of the Vicar of Dibley. :)
(That is part 1 of 5; you should find the other four parts also listed on youtube.)

May you survive all of your Christmas dinners and much love to you this Christmas season.
In grace and peace from Northern Ireland. :)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Worst snow in 25 years!

The headlines across Northern Ireland bear not so glad tidings about the effects of the recent snowy weather across Belfast and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Yesterday (on Sunday), Royal Mail delivered an extra 7,000 packages around the city. Thank you dedicated postal workers! http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/evening-post-planned-to-clear-weather-backlog-15034528.html
However, the snow brings beautiful opportunities... See the end of this post. :)

This past week was full of Christmas dinners and parties with groups around EBM (Mums & Tots, Friendship Circle, and then on Friday, the official EBM dinner, and Friday Fusion!)
While thoroughly enjoyable, this past week was a bit harried as I was helping plan two events: Friday Fusion's Christmas Party and Sunday's morning worship: The Nativity Service.
Both went splendidly! The Christmas party was general chaos of course (it wouldn't be Friday Fusion if it weren't), but the kids got to play on bouncy castles, get their faces painted, decorate sugar cookies, and be sent home with a selection pack of candy distributed by Santa Claus.
It was brilliant: kids on a sugar high being sent home with their parents. Recipe for success. :)

Sunday's nativity service of course included children in Biblical-themed costumes. But since I was helping out with it (lol), it was a bit different than your standard nativity. (First change: no children in animal costumes; kids can be cute as humans, no need to humiliate them by dressing up as lambs or donkeys - which also detracts from the meaning of the story. Probably read too many books as a child about the scarring of other children because of Nativity plays.)
The script was around the idea of 'Jesus as the light of the world.' So as each 'character' came out, following their bit of dialogue about the greater significance of their lives to the Gospel story, they then lit their own candle from the Christ candle.
It was a success for two reasons: 1) the building did not burn down. and 2) overall, i think it was a genuine time in which all generations could reflect on these images of light - light coming into the world and being carried out by every one of us.

Since I survived the past week, Monday (meeting day with the other YAVs) eventually rolled around. It was topped off with sledging (aka sledding) at Stormont. It ended up just being myself, another YAV (John), and our fearless leader Doug Baker hitting the slopes with our 'bum boards' (nifty sleds that I am sure are also marketed in the states). It was good craic (aka fun).
Enjoy the following photos from the experience**.
**Disclaimer: who knew the most epic hill that I have ever sledged on would be in BELFAST!?



Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Corrymeela Women's Retreat

Images from women's retreat in November to Corrymeela Centre, outside of Ballycastle on the North Coast. (Cross-community retreat between two women's groups from East Belfast):















Wednesday, December 8, 2010

season of being

Each day, I am continuously amazed at the wonderful interactions that I have with the "employees" of East Belfast Mission. Many have backgrounds in theology, ministry and public outreach, some have previously been employed in the shipyards, engineering firms, and other businesses, and a few have backgrounds in both. I could spend this whole post raving about these people and the work they are doing, but this post is actually about another project.
The head of the Skainos project (the current building construction project) is a theologian as well as a business manager, and he is an avid fan of William Stringfellow: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Stringfellow
During the season of Advent, he and a group of other people contribute to a blog reflecting on the time of year and the writings of Stringfellow. I was given a copy of Stringfellow's writing and asked if I would like to contribute. I went ahead and said yes.
It felt a bit like I was back in undergrad, posting my comments on an article to the class discussion board, but it was refreshing nonetheless to dip back into academia.
My blogpost is copied/pasted below; if you would like to just check out the whole blog yourself, you can go here: http://themockingbirdsleap.wordpress.com/

a season of being

“In order…to be a person in Harlem, in order that my life and work there should have integrity, I had to be and to remain whoever I had become as a person before coming there. To be accepted by others, I must first of all know myself and accept myself and be myself wherever I happen to be. In that way, others are also freed to be themselves” (Stringfellow, “A Keeper of the Word,” 38.)

A few days ago, a person reflected to me that today’s society is spiraling downhill; all great nations and civilizations have fallen because of the loss of morality. On the most basic level, I disagree. (If Napoleon had not foolishly invaded Russia, we would have had a Beethoven symphony dedicated to him.) But focusing more on the first part of that statement, isn’t that just a nostalgic way of viewing the past? Ultimately, have the needs of “today’s society” changed that much in the past 2,000 years?

We could take hours to list all of the advances of the past 10, 50, 200, or even 500 years that define today. (My mother would argue that at the top of the list should be Gutenberg’s printing press.) But despite our radically different possessions, our ‘enlightened’ way of thinking, and even being much taller than our ancestors, the phrase “people, are people, are people” still comes to mind.

During the Advent season, our vocabulary is filled with wonderful words like “peace” and “love” and “justice.” These words that are central to the prophets’ messages about the coming of Christ translate into today’s world just as much as they did 2,000 years ago.

People, are people, are people who are in need of peace, in need of love, and in need of justice. Huge concepts that are constantly addressed during Jesus’ ministry. This season of preparation is not about buying gifts, decorating trees, or creepy Santa light up statues. It’s the time for us to realize that what is holding us back from peace, love, and justice to be present in this world is so often ourselves. People for centuries have defined the “right” way to dress, the “right” sexual orientation, the “right” skin colour, the “right” way to worship God. People have striven to bring about peace through violence, love through domination, and justice through tyranny. But we have the wonderful opportunity of living in the 21st century to realize that people regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation are all fearfully and wonderfully created and are all in need of Christ-like peace, love, and justice.

In this season of preparation, Christ is calling us to be comfortable in our own skins. To love your neighbor, you must first love yourself. Kudos, Stringfellow, for realizing this as part of your daily life. Peace, love, and justice will hopefully be realized for all people of this world.

But if you believe our society is in rapid decline and lacking in hope this Christmas season, may the words of Isaiah provide you hope that out of nothing, through Christ, God can grow much.

Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [2] The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. [3] His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; [4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. [5] Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. [6] The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. [7] The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. [8] The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. [9] They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. [10] On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reflections from the Week

Happy December everyone!
This past week has been a bit of an unusual one, but also a very good one.
For those of you who have been following the weather in the UK, the British isles are currently getting socked with lots of snow. Northern Ireland has not gotten as much snow as some parts of Scotland and England, but we have gotten a fair share.
Surprisingly enough, we had 8 days of sunshine in a row. But it was cold enough, that the snow on the ground after melting slightly during the day would refreeze to ice. (It doesn't help that the sun is up for about 7 out of 24 hours.) And more snow would often fall at night.
Today, the snow is falling fast. For living in such a northern country, the Norn Irish don't deal well with snow. Think Williamsburg, VA, style of cancelling schools at the thought of snow.
But in their defense, the Norn Irish are contending with a lot of ice under the snow, lots of country roads that are hard to maintain, and lots of small city streets that few snow/ salt trucks can traverse.
Walking to work this week has been interesting as the sidewalks of one of the main streets that I walk down have been completely iced. Skating to work isn't really my favorite thing to do, so I generally ended up walking in the street, skirting around parked cars. Adventures-Belfast style.
This week has been unusual work-wise for several reasons.
The Nativity planning which started last week continues to go well! Consequently, this week has been a bit calmer compared to last week.
Due to the teacher being sick, Dance Nation was cancelled this week, and then due to icy roads, Friendship Circle was then cancelled as well.
Construction continues to go well at EBM - the church itself was torn down this week. I unfortunately did not have my camera at work the day that the roof came off, but it was quite a sight to see! (And some EBM staff were out taking pictures - hopefully they will be posted online soon, and I will share the link.)
Last night was the first meeting of Re:act, the youth group for 11-18 year olds. I hosted the gathering at my flat, and it was a resounding success!
I had forgotten how much I enjoy working with older youth. (For example: they are old enough to play some of my favorite and more "advanced" games - such as spoons. Also, in the down time, there is space for both serious and also humorous discussions.)
Funny observation:
In addition to the standard pizza/crisps (aka chips)/ soda fare of youth gatherings, I also put out some plates of fruit and veg. The apple/ satsuma plate went over really well. The carrot/celery/hummus tray did not... As I expected, most of the youth had not had hummus before. Surprising revelation: only a couple of them had ever had celery sticks before. Most had only had celery in soups... And after their first bite of a celery stick, most made grotesque faces and couldn't finish the remainder of it. I tried explaining to them that carrots and celery sticks are standard fare in America, but I am afraid most of them still thought that I was crazy. :)
Not sure yet what the weekend and next week has in store. Perhaps a makeshift sleigh is in sight for the near future. Who knew I should have brought my snow pants to Northern Ireland!?
Overall, a great week at work of planning activities for the Christmas season, surviving and even enjoying the Scripture Union at the school yesterday (there were a couple of volunteers missing), and having some free time to reflect just how quickly the past three months have flown by!

I hope you are enjoying the Advent season!
During this time, let us reflect on how we often feel like this:
But when we are able to keep life in perspective, appreciate the time that we get to spend with friends and family, and realize that we have indoor plumbing, we are called to be more like this:

In grace and peace. :)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Snow, snow, snow!

The past few days, it's been quite snowy and icy around Belfast! On a comical note, the snow as it is falling and even after it is on the ground resembles Dip n Dots ice cream.
Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! It was properly celebrated by the Norn Iron YAV family on Saturday courtesy of the Bakers' wonderful cooking. Holiday: celebrated.
Now onward to Christmas!
This past week was busy with preparations for the upcoming Nativity service, from inventorying costumes to organizing the (epic and ongoing) Christmas craft for Sunday School.
The upcoming week looks like it will be quite similar.
It's hard to believe December is a few days away!
December holidays have been booked - off to Frankfurt (and Holzhausen), Germany from 28 December to 4 January. New Years in Germany? Yes, please.
This will be my first time on the European continent!!! Ecstatic. :)

Tis a day for a lighter post. The sun is shining for the SEVENTH DAY IN A ROW.
The sun also rises in Belfast.

In grace and peace! :)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Turkey Day (2 days early)

Hope everyone has a FANTASTIC Thanksgiving in two days! Our YAV team will celebrate the holiday a few days late with a giant feast at our site coordinator's house on Saturday. (Since Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, we are blending in with the natives.)
Missing all of the folk in Virginia very much!
My apologies for the time between posts. Last week I missed a couple of days of work due to a nasty cold, and already having a busy weekend in store, I have not had time to sit down and write a blog post.
Some highlights from the past few weeks:
Two weekends ago, I went on a retreat to Corrymeela with women from a cross-community small group that has been meeting the past year. (All of the women had grown up in East Belfast; some in the Short Strand - the Catholic section of the inner East - and the rest in Ballymacarrett/ Ballyhackamore.) It was a GREAT time!
I wasn't too sure what I had gotten myself into when I showed up to EBM on Friday night, but the weekend turned out to be wonderful. Corrymeela is a Christian retreat center up on the North Coast outside of Ballycastle. It sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean. (Pictures to come.)
The retreat consisted of lots of free time for the women to socialize. (Slumdog Millionaire was viewed, humorous games of Green Grass Valley were played, the X Factor was watched, etc.) The best section of the retreat though was Saturday morning when we met with a mediator from Corrymeela. Over the two hours, we did two main activities.
First, we would be shown a picture, and then we were to stand as close or as far from the image as reflected our feelings towards that person. The pictures were of the Pope, Ian Paisley, etc.
Then, we split into Protestants and Catholics, and each group was handed two large pieces of paper. We were told to write about things that we associated with each faith practice on the separate pieces, and we then came back together to discuss them.
Overall, it was a healthy time to discuss the stereotypes (some true, some not so much) about the two faiths. And the best part of it all, since these women have been meeting throughout the past year, there was quite deep discussions allowing these women to reflect on and express their beliefs. (Most of these women would very rarely get an opportunity to do so during daily life.) I really enjoyed the time, and the women seemed to as well. It was a comfortable and safe place for these women to see that while there are differences in their beliefs, there are also many similarities.
The weekend was topped off with some of the women running to the town's chippie, and consequently, a late night snack of chip butties happened.
Chip butty:
Literally, bread, butter, chips (french fries), ketchup and vinegar to taste
People from the inner east of Belfast eat so unhealthily, but none are really obese. I think the trick is in the portions - instead of eating a big mac with an extra large serving of fries, they might just eat fries with gravy. (Plus, their fries are thicker, instead of the shoe strings that soak up more grease.) But, pure speculation on my part.

So having survived the retreat, I returned to fight sickness during the week, then the busy weekend arrived.
I led Friday Fusion (youth club on Friday night for 4-11 year olds), so we did a variety of Thankgsiving crafts and games. :)
SATURDAY NIGHT SAW HARRY POTTER 7.1. Enjoyable.
Then on Sunday, I got to lead the small evening worship service at EBM.
(Once a month, I have also been teaching the 4+5 year olds Sunday School class; this along with a music team meeting, kept me on my toes this past Sunday.)
This week has been busy planning out the upcoming Nativity service which is on the third Sunday of December. In trying to make it more meaningful and less about children wearing costumes, I have been helping one of the EBM staff members rethink the standard nativity scene.
So, children will be dressed only as 'humans' (no five year olds in sheep costumes), and the general theme will be about Jesus as the light of the world.
Costume inventory, planning of Christmas crafts, organizing music for the service, etc. is taking up a lot of this week. (Sunday School starts various preparations this Sunday!)
Tonight was Dance Nation - a healthy living/hip hop dance class for youth in the Inner East. Not teaching it, but help to facilitate, and do occasionally participate. :)
Life in Belfast has been busy but still good. The past two days have been sunny, so that is quite a treat from last week. (Wind and rain is the best combination for a miserable mile walk to work.)
The YAV group is continuing to get along. We had our weekly meeting with Doug this past Monday, and before we headed out of City Centre, we stopped by the Continental Market which is in Belfast for several weeks. It truly feels like the Christmas season... Time to watch a Muppet Christmas Carol.
For those of you who are wondering, my return date has been set for July 27th. Mark your calendars!
In grace and peace.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

We returned from Donegal last Thursday to find that storefronts had begun to be filled with Christmas decorations. My flatmate Jo (whose favorite holiday is Christmas) was overjoyed. I was rather not too excited. (I am a bit of a Christmas purist; please save the commercial Christmas decorations and radio tunes until at least after Thanksgiving.) Granted, no one in Northern Ireland - except for us YAVs - will be celebrating Thanksgiving in two weeks, so now is as good a time as any to start. Plus, with the really grey weather and torrential gale force wind and rains that we have been having, Christmas decorations provide some warm and fuzzing feelings to be felt when walking home at 5 o'clock and it's already dark.
So Donegal! It was a fantastic four day retreat during which we ate a lot (courtesy of Doug's cooking and Elaine's planning, there was a constant supply of homemade desserts), hiked Slieve League, and visited some of the beaches along the North Atlantic. (I did not take a dip into the ocean, but did put my hand in - surprisingly not that cold compared to the Outer Banks in June.)
When we got to the top, this is what it looked like:
If you were wondering, the sign says something to the effect of "Danger! Do not wander past this sign! You will fall off a sea cliff!" Please note, the view was basically the cliff edge fading into clouds.

On the way to Donegal, we stopped in Armagh at the Celtic Spirituality Centre there, and on the way back, at Lough Derg where a Catholic retreat centre established by St. Patrick himself is still in use. Overall, it was a great trip with great people, and as always, a learning experience.

In peace and grace!

Friday, November 5, 2010

2 months in, some reflections.

Hiking in Northern Ireland: the tough climb up a mountain is not always rewarded with a fantastic view at the summit.

First with climbing Slieve Donard and just this past week with climbing Slieve League in the Republic of Ireland, both trips were cold, windy, rainy, and treacherous. (As one YAV commented during the trek up Slieve League, “The word epic is overused. But it definitely applies to this climb.”) At both of the summits, we could see at most 20 feet in front of us and nothing of the fantastic view that was advertised on brochures and websites.

Trying to comprehend my experiences in Northern Ireland – what I have seen and heard – is comparable to these hikes. Like the tough climb up the mountain, with a strong headwind against me, I struggle to process what I see and here during my days here. And often when I think I have reached an understanding – similar to reaching the summit - I am quite limited in my viewpoint (20 feet) and feel like I am not able to take into consideration the breadth and variety of what is happening around me.

To help myself organize this blogpost – which also helps you the reader to process it along with me – I will organize it around three topics/ questions: 1) The Troubles – what are the aftershocks still present in Northern Ireland? 2) What does peace and reconciliation really mean? 3) What is the future for Northern Ireland?

Please keep in mind that these reflections are simply those of a volunteer who has been here 2 months. (I will likely revisit the topics several times throughout the year to see how my opinions change.) During those intense two months though, I diligently kept my eyes and ears open throughout my daily life. No outside research was done; it was just learning through being in this society.

The Troubles: A Vocal Minority and a Silenced Majority

This pattern of the troubles continues through this day. After 30-odd years of open hostilities, the various political parties (Sinn Fein, Progressive Unionist Party particularly) have committed to promoting peace. So at a macro-level, the peace process is at the best stage in many years. Yet while the official position is for peace, certain members do not wish it to be so. While most of the society yearns for peace, the vocal minority is not ready to let peace happen and are making their voices heard through continued bomb threats and rioting . The basic political loyalties of Northern Ireland: Nationalist – Republican – Unionist – Loyalist: are the same today as the past few decades. The thing to bear in mind is that the Troubles were not a simple affair of one side versus the other.

In addition to the political sides of the conflict, the police force was and is often viewed by the multiple sides as the enemy – whether as an occupying force or simply distrusted in their allegiances. (The NI police do not have so great a track record of human rights towards citizens.) While they have been renamed the PSNI (Police Services of Northern Ireland, formerly Royal Ulster Constabulary - issues right there in the name), there are still visible signs of the uneasy relationship between the police and the people they serve. Such as: police stations are well-barricaded with giant walls around them. The few random police checkpoints that I have seen, the police are at the ready with semi-automatic rifles. (Not just sidearms in their holsters; semi-automatics ready to fire.) Another major sign: If you have followed any news in Belfast recently, in North Belfast (not too near where the guys are living), there was a police raid in Rathcoole (one of the estates – government funded living subdivisions in essence) where they were looking for drugs. [Rathcoole is a heavily Loyalist neighborhood, once - and probably still - controlled by a loyalist paramilitary organization – Ulster Volunteer Force - UVF.] In response, there were several days of rioting. Courtesy of half-term break, children were available and unoccupied, and likely by the encouragement of parents and support by other leaders in the community, mostly youth – even as young as 9 years old - were involved in the violence. As a result, along with other property damage, two city buses were burnt, and bus services to the city were halted until things calmed down.

Of all the Northern Irish people that I have interacted with, they have all expressed the desire to see peace in the nation. (But just what that peace might look like is to be decided - see the future of N.I.) I have heard people argue that today’s troubles are caused by ignorant youth who just didn’t know better. But why don’t they know better?

Education in Northern is segregated. A recent NI public official stated as such and has received an extreme amount of flack for it. But he was correct. Only a small minority of schools are actually cross-community. (Less than 10%.) Many children are growing up in schools and neighborhoods with people of the same identity as themselves. And these people of different identities are simply enemies without a face, and these assumptions are reinforced by their parents who have grown up only knowing the same thing.

And many people I have talked to – who are educated, wonderful people – harbor these same prejudices against other N.I. residents who are different than them, whether they like to admit it or not. These prejudices have been forced upon them by the history of this society. The majority of Northern Ireland Protestants would shudder if you told them that they were “Irish.” They would say first, and foremost, that they are British. (To put it in different terms: in 1783, say that the loyalist state of New York was held on to by the British. It remained a British colony for another two hundred years. Then today, the residents would be told that they were no longer British citizens, but rather Native Americans. Because obviously they have lived in America long enough, that they are now Native Americans. For those residents, they would still consider themselves British, not Native Americans or Americans. Hence the problems of a Northern Irish/Irish/ British identity.) Few would say that they are Northern Irish. They might live in Northern Ireland, but it’s not a cultural identity. They naturally view the Catholic Irish residents of Northern Ireland as different than themselves, and consequently dissidents who are in opposition to the ruling powers.

So how does one even begin to reconcile the various sides of this conflict? There have been countless bomb threats and bombs planted throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland even in the two months that I have been here. It is people who simply are scared of what the future might hold and thinking that their voices are not being heard. But there are greater forces at work. Dozens and dozens of organizations are working towards increasing dialogue between the various sides. (Each of the Norn Iron YAVs is working with an organization which has reconciliation in mind. And these are just a drop in a vast ocean of peace-minded groups in Belfast, much less Northern Ireland.) This is where the future of Northern Ireland comes into question.

From my observations and hearing various opinions on it, it seems that Northern Ireland at some point will cease to exist; it’s just a matter of when reunification with the South will happen. There are still many factors to address – the barriers that people have put up both in their minds and also in their cities to protect themselves from people who are different than them. In the reunification process, many British Northern Irelanders will have to choose whether to return the country that they are identifying with or choose to assimilate more into the culture of the place that they are living. However, the population of Northern Ireland is already more 50/50 Catholic/ Protestant versus even twenty years ago when Protestants maintained a strong majority.

The 30 years of the Troubles are over, but Northern Ireland is not a peaceful society yet. Its citizens have not overcome their differences and are still divided by them. These divisions are visible through the touristy murals, but also more subtle ways of demographics of neighborhoods, demographics of schools, and ultimately internal prejudices. There won’t be peace until paramilitary organizations disband. There won’t be peace until the people trust their police force. But peace will someday happen.

We are standing at the top of the mountain. There has been a lot that has been learned and struggled with, and the view that presents itself is rather hazy. It makes sense, but at the same time, many questions are clouding up our vision. But that is part of the experience of Northern Ireland – continuing to struggle with the hope that some day the clouds will clear out once we reach the top.

Until then, I pray for peace and reconciliation, not only for the people of Northern Ireland, but also all of the people of the world. That despite our differences and the prejudices that we innately have against those who are different from us, we do not let our own shortcomings get in the way.

“I am who I am because of who we all are.”

In peace and grace.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

No turnips were carved, and we didn't have too many trick or treaters stop by. (Trick or treaters here receive either candy or... a quid!) However, the holiday was commemorated by both illegal fireworks set off around the city and legal fireworks which were set off from a barge on the River Lagan.
Courtesy of Daylights Savings Time (which happens for N.I. a week earlier than in the States), it is now getting dark around 5 p.m. It's bizarre.
So around 5, a small group of us headed down to the Titanic Quarter to catch the end of the family celebrations going on and see the fireworks display which began at 5:45. [Yes, it was dark that early.] After a short walk, we were rewarded with an excellent 20 minute bombardment of colors and booms. Plus, it was good fun to see all of the various costumes. (Side note: Doug said that N.I. does not really do Halloween. We beg to differ. Halloween was originally a Celtic tradition. America ultimately commercialized it, and not all of the traditions have crossed back over the Atlantic. But, N.I. did still put on quite a show for Halloween!)
It was a balmy 10 degrees Celsius, which is actually warmer than most St. Louis Halloweens that I remember as a child...
The Norn Iron YAV contingent is off to Donegal tomorrow for a retreat. Upon my return on Thursday, I will hopefully have some in-depth reflections to share in blog form.
Hope your Halloween was safe and not too spooky!
In grace and peace.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Somewhere on the culture shock graph...

During our YAV orientation, culture shock was heavily addressed. However, for those of us in Northern Ireland, we are perhaps experiencing a different range of culture shock as our brother and sister YAVs in other places of the world..
In terms of the general culture shock iceberg, this is more or less what it looks like:
The iceberg parts that are above the water and underwater can be equally hard to deal with in Norther Ireland. Everyday presents new challenges, particularly in communicating with the people around me. While English is the official language of Northern Ireland, accents and vocabulary vary widely enough from my American English that the mini translator in my brain needs to be switched on for the conversation. (For the days with an early start time, it often takes a little while, or two cups of tea, for my brain to be awake enough to carry on an intelligent conversation with a Belfast native.) Since church ministry centers on working and communicating with people, adjusting to working in a church is even more difficult when in a foreign country.
In terms of overall culture shock adaption, on this scale:
most of my days involve moments of just sitting on the x-axis, having moments of positive well-being, and also moments of negative well-being.
As a YAV-alum suggested, the graph when translated to real life is not linear. And sometimes it feels like each day I go through the entire cycle of the graph.
Every day can be simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

It's been awhile since I have passed on general observations from my daily life:
- I have gotten my personalized Tesco's (comparatively a Bloom for VA folk or Schnucks for St Louis folk) points card in the mail. The grocery card is a step towards being a resident of a certain area.
- Days are already beginning to shorten. The sun rose after 8 a.m. today and set before 6 p.m. And its not even winter. I have discovered that I have a hard time motivating myself to get out of bed when it is dark.
- There is the South and there is the North. Refer to Ireland only in such terms as "the South" or "the North." The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are not labels referred to in daily conversation.
- Most people when trying to be impartial do not take the time to say Derry/Londonderry. The newsfolk generally refer to it as Stroke City. (Stroke being the term for what we might call a slash mark.)
- Halloween/ All Saints Day originated in the Celtic Calendar; the early Celtic Church basically fit Christianity into the Celtic practices.
- after walking in the rain, your trousers will be wet. if you say pants, you are referring to your underwear.
- I use a lot of colloquial phrases in my daily language. You don't realize this until you are in a different culture, and after you say something, you have to figure out if your accent got in the way or your word choice was poor. It's usually the latter.
- Before pumpkins (and gourds in general) began to be imported to Ireland, carving turnips was the closest alternative. In case you are interested:

In the next post, I will cover more macro- observations of my time here, particularly focusing on The Troubles and its effects on daily life. While this is not a society in open conflict, Belfast is definitely not a peaceful city. There are constant reminders of this in daily life, and I have been purposeful in taking the time to digest what I have seen and heard. Otherwise this part of the culture shock - the hurting of this society that is beneath the surface that I am very much witnessing - would slowly build up and cause me to sink. Again, bear with me as I strive to find the words to clearly and accurately portray my thoughts.
Until then, let me leave you with a quote on a lighter note.
Context: in response to NPR's refusal to cover the Rally to Restore Sanity (how I wish I were in the U.S.!!!), John Stewart's response was this:
‎"NPR you just brought a tote bag full of david sedaris books to a knife fight"

In peace and grace. :)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Siberian Swans

Apparently the Siberian swans have migrated three weeks early to Belfast, signaling that it will be a harsh winter. I suppose they are the UK version of the groundhog.

It's been awhile since my last update; many apologies. But as I am settling in more, my days are quite full. Work is continuing to go really well. As I get to know East Belfast Mission, both the congregation and mission side, I am liking the people more and more. As I think I have mentioned before, this year is turning into my sabbatical year. During these two months, I have been encouraged to explore my faith, to be able to expound on and support my beliefs, all the while being nurtured and positively challenged to grow.
The best way to explain it is to give you a list of some of the books that I have read so far/ am currently reading:
- The Divine Conspiracy (Dallas Willard)
- eat this bread (sara miles)
- The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)
- Grace, Order, Openness, and Diversity (Ian Bradley)
And those are just a selection from the ever growing list of books that I am being lent. It's delightful. :)

Some highlights from the past week and a half include:
- this week's mum's and tot's meeting: it was picture day! So the children were dressed to the nines and utterly adorable. Each week the kids continue to open up to me just a little bit more. This week one of the younger girls was quite fascinated with me. She would look at me across the room, smile, and run towards me - and I would scoop her up into my arms. It was adorable. A group picture was taken, so I will hopefully get a copy of it.
- I have continued to lead Friendship Circle; what a wonderful life I am leading here. This past Wednesday, we had a mini-hymn sing. I spoke for a short while about the tradition and meaning of music during worship. We then sang through the church calendar - began with an Advent hymn, continued with a Christmas hymn, and continued all the way through to a Thanksgiving hymn. I think everyone had a great time. (Plus, a new set of tea cups had just been purchased for the group; set quite a positive tone for the meeting!)
- We climbed Cave Hill this past Saturday, which was FANTASTIC.
Here are a few pictures:










We have our first retreat coming up in a week and a half; the Norn YAV contingent will be heading to Donegal to spend some time decompressing as a group away from Belfast. (I am very excited!)

I made chicken curry [onions, green peppers, tomatoes, chicken, rice, and tikka marsala curry sauce purchased from the local grocer] for the first time tonight, and it turned out fantastically. :) I will be eating leftovers for a few days, but I am not at all sad about this.

Much love from Northern Ireland! In peace and grace.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Indian Summer

It's an unusual season in Belfast. Apparently, winter generally sets in at the beginning of October. Well, we are 11 days into October, and it's still sunny, warm, and feels like a Belfast summer.
Woohoo!
Supposedly this means it's going to be a harsh winter.
But for now, I am just soaking up as much Vitamin D as possible. :)

This past week was absolutely wonderful; probably one of the best weeks in Northern Ireland so far.
It started off with my delivery of Healthy Food for All meals to residents of EBM's shelter (Hosford House) and then to ex-residents of Hosford House. The driver who I go with is a middle aged Belfast man (with a pony tail!) who thankfully lived in Australia for 10 years - thus I can understand what he is saying most of the time. It's quite an interesting ride as I get to chat with a "local" about such topics as the political situation at hand, driving in Belfast, etc.
p.s. I am so glad I don't have to drive in Belfast... I am ready to return to the land of the automatics. (One of the ministers at EBM actually drives an automatic, but it has the potential to be driven like a manual. Lol.)
Anyway, after the great delivery on Monday, my Tuesday was even better.
After staff prayers, I was taken out for coffee to McKees (http://www.mckeesproduce.com/) which is a country store East of Belfast in County Down. The pastor emeritus of EBm (as I like to refer to him haha) and I had a wonderful conversation, which was topped off by him lending me more books to read!!! :)
This is truly turning into my sabbatical year.
Wednesday was highlighted by a wonderful Kids GAP (mums & tots) morning, great lunch with some of the EBM staff in the cafe, and getting to lead Friendship Circle. Friendship Circle is generally one of the highlights of my week, but it was an extra treat as I got the opportunity to speak to them about myself, the YAV program, and what I am doing here.
Thursday was highlighted by another eventful Scripture Union at a local primary school and then dinner with a member of EBM's congregation.
Friday I helped out with a drop-in at a local secondary school (lunch time, we provide a place for the students to hang out. theoretically it's a time to talk about God, but as this was the first session of the year, about 130 girls came by during the 25 minute period... so it was more chaos than conversation). Then it was Friday Fusion! I had a team of p1-p3 children (about 4 to 6 year olds), and we traveled around to different stations to collect points. It was quite fantastic - blind taste tasting, memory of objects on a table, dropping a dried pea into a water bottle (mine went in the first time I tried!!! skillz.), and then some various running games in the gym area.
Team Tigers (roar!) won in the running games section!
Haha, the kids in my group were such a joy to work with; what a fun Friday Fusion. (And it was a more moderate number in attendance - we had about 60 kids there.)
Saturday was highlighted by the group of YAVs getting together to play football during the afternoon. It was most excellent!!! (Thank you W&M IM sports for giving me basic soccer skills that I never developed as a child.)
Anyway, the week was topped off with a FANTASTIC Sunday!
I got to open Sunday School with about 10 minutes of music. That was awesome. No other way to put it. :)
Then, met up with my form 1 through form 3 small group again. (Since there is not a secondary group meeting at this point, and there is a group of girls age 11-13 who are quite active, I have been starting to organize various fellowship times.) While only three of the girls could make it, we had a wonderful devotional time and then picked up some lunch. Truly quality over quantity. And the evening was topped off by playing keyboard for the evening service.

What I am still struggling with the most: the slight, slight, slight difference in music. Which is larger than one might expect. (It would be easier if the music was totally different - then I wouldn't be expected to know any of it.)
The PC(USA) blue hymnal is organized beautifully: hymns are grouped according to time in the church calendar/theme, and it has a great index for scripture themes.
The hymnal that EBM uses is simply in alphabetical order.
I was asked to pick out two additional hymns last night for the service... I spent half the time just opening to a random page in the hopes that I would recognize the hymn/the lyrics would fit with the theme, haha.
Basically, I was put out of my comfort zone - pick music from this book that you have never really sung out of before. I have never had a problem in the past picking out hymns - with the blue hymnal, give me five minutes, and I can give you a long list of appropriate hymns from which to choose two hymns from.
It is definitely a challenge!

Anyway, the sun is up. Another week has begun. Much love to all.
In grace and peace. :)

Monday, October 4, 2010

My diary

Diary = calendar

So this is what you have been waiting for, right? Drum roll please. Here is my basic weekly schedule/list of responsibilities as it stands now:

Monday:
- alternating weeks, morning meetings with YAVs + Doug
- Healthy Food for All food delivery program to Hosford House (shelter run by EBM) and ex-residents of Hosford House living independently around East Belfast

Tuesday:
- EBM staff prayers
- Healthy Food for All organization/paperwork (confirming the amount of meals to be delivered that afternoon)
- Dance Nation! (hip hop dance lessons for ages 8-18)

Wednesday:
- Kids GAP (Kids, Guardians, and Parents = aka Mums and Tots)
- Friendship Circle
- evening bible study

Thursday:
- Scripture Union

Friday:
- Friday Fusion (p1-p6)

Saturday:
day off!

Sunday:
- morning worship
- alternating Sundays, informal fellowship group with form 1 - form 3 youth
- evening worship

The beginning of the week is rather packed while it mellows out towards the end. The free time currently allows me to connect with various members of the congregation and also employees of EBM, which has been most excellent. :)
The schedule may continue to fluctuate as the year continues. I'll keep you posted.
In grace and peace.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stand up for the Ulstermen.

Well, I have been in Northern Ireland for over a month now. (From a fractional perspective, it's hard to believe that 1/11th of this year has already passed.)
Reflecting on the past month, some things have been great; other things have been hard. It's been easy, hard, enjoyable, and difficult transitioning into work at East Belfast Mission. The congregation and fellow EBM employees are wonderful, but it's been a month of carving out my own niche in the organization. And at the end of the day, it's not like there is a finished product that I can point to and say, yes, that is what my labors of today produced.
Also, it's an interesting transition into the real world:
What, I don't have assigned reading and papers to churn out? My time is my own when I go home from work??? After 18 years of education, this is an interesting development.

But some of my highlights of this past week include:

For Friendship Circle (fellowship group of older women), we went to the Ulster History Museum as it was a week of Celebration of Aging. (Might have had a different title; don't quote me on that.) We attended a short drama which was a monologue of a young man who was a 16 year old riveter on the Titanic. It was interesting hearing the women's reactions to it as many of them had brothers and fathers who worked in the shipyards. (Several of them worked in the ropeworks and linen mills.) We then did a jewelry making session: origami butterfly pins out of pieces of plastic bags!

For Scripture Union on Thursday afternoon, the students were positively mental. Even worse than the first week. Kids getting kicked out left and right. I am getting to know the kids a little bit more though; it's fun interacting with them. They have no hesitations about telling me that I pronounce things funny...

Friday night, I was invited to go to the Ulster vs Glasgow Rugby match. It was awesome! Ulster won by just a few points. I attended a W&M women's rugby match this past year, so I knew the basics about scoring and rules. The game definitely moves faster though on a professional level. And Glasgow had brought a pipe and drum band with them, so there was entertainment at halftime. The game had a certain Friday Night Football feel - crisp Fall air (ok, it was more cold than crisp), rowdy fans, and halftime entertainment. Since we had arrived pretty early to the match, we secured front row spaces in the standing section. Consequently, myself and another girl I was with made it onto BBC tv! The other girl I was with taped the match, so when we got back to her place, we found the segment and I took a picture of it. (Picture soon to follow.)
The main chant for Ulster Rugby is "Stand up for the Ulsterman," whose tune just keeps repeating itself. (If interested, here is rough home footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTKKaIeZ_28) It gives you a good feel for the game. :)

A little lighter post this time. :)
In grace and peace.




Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Welfare State, Reagonomics, and Lady Voldemort

Any economic policy can be brilliant in theory, but in practical application to modern society, human shortcomings make any political theory imperfect.

The Welfare State is brilliant in theory. It establishes a great safety net for the citizens of a nation. Offering up her first hand experience, JK Rowling discusses the UK’s Welfare State in an article she penned back in April.: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article7096786.ece.

During my time in Belfast and Scotland, I have seen a wee bit into the complications that arise within a welfare state. First, is that if the safety net is set too high, then there is no incentive to actually maintain a job and stay off of benefits. (This problem is not just limited to the UK; it is very much present in American with welfare programs.) Secondly, when the government becomes the main employer in a region or even nation, the top down bureaucracy can be cumbersome, and when a major budget crunch arises, society is at risk of toppling under its own weight. It’s been interesting to follow the threats of budget cuts while in Northern Ireland – with the current amount of budget cuts totaling 128 million pounds, for a nation of about 1.75 million, that is a HUGE slash to their budget and equals many job cuts. (In U.S. terms, that might be comparable to a budget cut of 30 billion dollars, as the U.S. population resides at 300 million peoples. That’s a lot of government spending slashed right there.)

Another controversial part of the Welfare State is socialized medicine. In speaking with many people though, public health care is beautiful. Doug and Elaine testified that when one of their children was born with many health problems and needed several expensive surgeries, they never once had to stop to consider how they would pay for it. They didn’t have to fight with insurance companies; they didn’t have to hassle with mountains of paperwork. They just signed the consent for the procedure, and the surgery was done.

I have grown up with socialized medicine, courtesy of being a military dependent. There are drawbacks – I have probably never seen the same doctor more than once, sometimes your treatment is not the best. But it was awesome to be able to receive treatments and medication for free or at very low out of pocket expense. Thank you to all of the American tax payers for helping to cover treatment for all of my childhood ailments.

The general drawbacks of the welfare state are more than evident: the rampant possibility for abuse or misuse of the system, high taxes (sidenote: having sales tax already included in the price of an item makes shopping soooo much easier), and the bureaucracy it creates can often be a hassle.

But, in the U.S. where the government lacks transparency and already spends humongous chunks of money on war and to bail out banks, why not have a state that at least tries to take care of its citizens? If I am going to pay high taxes, please, let the money be channeled back in ways that benefit me – whether through public parks, national highways, public transportation, public schools, public libraries, and *gasp* public health care.

For those who shudder at the thought of big government, let me say: Ronald Reagans of America, I hear your cry. But I’m just going to put it out there: I’d pick any day the failings of the welfare state over the failings of Trickle Down Economics. On paper, Trickle-Down theory sounds brilliant. Lack of government involvement in the market allows for free trade, and as the rich get richer, the poor will also share in the wealth as it trickles down.

But humanity doesn't work that way.

In the U.S., the rich continue to get richer, and the gap between poor and rich Americans does not decrease or even remain the same. It grows. Released a few days ago, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the gap between rich and poor Americans is the largest since 1967 as the average household’s income fell about 4 percent between 2007 and 2010. The money given to the banks and auto industry has not trickled down.

Like in the Welfare State, the problems with Trickle-Down theory in practice is humanity’s shortcomings. When times are tough, we strive to look out for ourselves. So as companies receive these huge sums of money, the people in charge of the money – those at the top of the food chain – are going to look after themselves while looking after the company. So the countless stories of executives who were let go during the 2007/2008/and ongoing crisis, are understandably often released with generous severance packages. But what about the employees down the foodchain? The working masses are given the pink slip and kindly escorted out of the building. Maybe they receive some severance bonus to carry them through the next few months, but what next?

The problem with Trickle-Down is it’s focus on the macro side of economics without consideration for the people. I would take the failings of the Welfare state: back in the 1950s when the welfare system was fully implemented in Great Britain, it nearly bankrupted the state as people rushed to get free healthcare that had not been affordable before. But the government survived, and the people’s lives improved. (Ok, maybe British people don’t have shiny pearls like Americans, but I would suggest that it’s more from different society norms rather than any shortcomings of dentistry.) Over the failings of Trickle-Down: tax cuts to benefit the rich are flat out not going to benefit the poor; instead the government faces huge loss in revenue and the rich sit on their money, watching it grow. The rich are the only ones who win. Congrats for anyone reading this who has a Trust Fund.

And finally, Lady Voldemort.

My history advisor/ professor who I took two classes with came of age in England during the reign of Lady Thatcher. In the second class I took with him, he finally explained why exactly he referred to Thatcher as She Who Shall Not Be Named. The basic summary that I can remember is: the professor’s dad and brothers all worked in the coal mines. During the coal miners’ strikes in protest of her shutting down some of the mines, Thatcher had no mercy. She branded them as enemies to the state as they were interrupting progress during a time of war (in the Falklands), and violence was rampant among the picket lines.

[Kudos to Thatcher for being the first female MP, but negative points for being so blind to the needs of the people.]

Lady Voldemort made many cuts during her time in power. However, she could not dissolve the NHS. Her intended privatization plans were never implanted due to public outcry against it.

What it comes down to is the question: is the government supposed to help people? I would say yes. While it is nice to think that private organizations, churches, and local communities would be able to take care of themselves, today’s modern world is not conducive to that. (Few people remain in the communities where they grew up; American suburbs are built so we don't have to interact with our neighbors.) We need government policies to establish a basic standard of living that ensures everyone has access to the basics – food, shelter, and health care. While concerns about Big Brother are sometimes valid, Obama is not Hitler. Do not even compare the two. Obama does not proclaim a master race and seek to take over the world. Bush proclaimed a master religion and tried to do that in the Middle East. Hasn’t worked out so well. Obama just needs to stop being a politician and follow through on his campaign promises. There is hope. Hope for a better future. But until parts of American society are addressed, those hopes will be futile for future generations. (See previous post on immigration.)

In viewing the UK with American eyes and viewing the U.S. from across the pond, there are many things of value within each society. My hope is that more Americans will travel, both around the nation and out into the world. To expand our perspective of the world, break others’ biased stereotypes of Americans, and through the exchange, work towards a better tomorrow. The world is getting smaller; when one nation’s economy crashes, the rest of the world feels the effects.

The UN Millenium Development Goals were supposed to have been reached by 2015. See here: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/. Or even better, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Development_Goals

It’s time for governments to stop spending money on war, but rather peace. To build a future rather than destroy what exists. Spend money on your citizens, bettering their lives, and on citizens of other nations, to provide the basic needs of living rather than guns or bombs. We are all God’s children.

Even as we stand reviewing our shortcomings, God gives us hope.

In grace and peace.