A letter from Doug Baker in Northern Ireland
Encountering Powerful Symbols
Many cities are known for their art galleries. Belfast is better known for murals on the end of row houses in lower-income, politically polarized districts. These murals serve a number of purposes for those who paint them and those who pass by. Some commemorate past victories or suffering, others articulate current grievances, and others portray future aspirations. Many harden boundaries between differing political communities, making it clear who isn’t welcome in a particular neighborhood.
During the past 40 years many murals have been of larger-than-life gunmen in the dress of different illegal paramilitary organizations or have been sombre images that express anger about what "they" did to "us," but never balanced with what "we" did to "them." Others have pointed out why, in the minds of the artists, those from a different background cannot be trusted. They go up only with the consent of whichever paramilitary organization or political faction has control in that district and are one blatant expression of the deep sectarian divide that still exists in Northern Ireland.
In recent years church leaders, community workers and others in several districts have been working hard behind the scenes to encourage those who have sway to use different—less hostile—murals to express the identity, heritage and aspirations of their community. Belfast City Council’s Good Relations Panel, on which Doug served for six years, and the Arts Council for Northern Ireland even have a project called Reimaging Communities, which provides financial and artistic assistance for local communities choosing to do so. Such initiatives have had some success. In Loyalist inner East Belfast bigger-than-life images of masked gunmen have been replaced by an action shot of George Best, Northern Ireland’s most famous footballer, commemorative murals of the Titanic, built in the nearby Harland and Wolff Shipyard, and even well-known Christian writer C. S. Lewis, who spent part of his early life living nearby. In Republican West Belfast a huge mural declaring that one district was a no-go area for police has been replaced by one celebrating the variety of Gaelic sporting life in Ireland. These are examples of progress and we pray that there will be more and more of them, for what is painted on the walls of Belfast does impact the atmosphere of community relations. It can perpetuate stereotypes, reinforce bitterness, heighten fear, or it can celebrate past achievements that have been beneficial for all (not a reference to the Titanic!), lift up positive hopes for the future, and even acknowledge what those from different backgrounds hold in common.
That’s why we were saddened to see recently two huge new murals of sinister-looking gunmen in the trappings of one of the Loyalist paramilitary groups painted halfway between our house and the city center. Why now? Why a return to that at all? It seems so futile and inappropriate to most of our friends and neighbors in the leafy streets farther out the road. But if you speak with those from that district or those who minister there it soon becomes evident that the murals are a reflection of alienation that is rampant amongst locals. They feel the political peace process has not delivered for them what they felt had been promised in terms of recognition, respect or economic progress. They feel there aren’t elected officials who speak for them and are frustrated trying to make their own voices heard. The images on the wall are one way of saying, “We’re still here, you know.” Perhaps they are a threatening flexing of muscle, perhaps a desperate cry for acknowledgement. Clearly they are a powerful indication that huge alienation exists in such districts and we dare not underestimate the work still to be done for this society to continue to move further out of conflict.
For us this reinforces the importance of one piece of work with which Doug is privileged to be involved—coordinating a course on “Ministry for Reconciliation,” which is now a core requirement for first-year theological students in the Church of Ireland. As part of it students spend a day exploring and hearing firsthand from those who live and work in a low-income Loyalist district of Belfast about the layers of alienation that exist within families, with youth who see little prospect for work, between different factions within the community, between the community and those from the Nationalist district on the far side of the “peace line” wall, and also between locals and the institutional church. It is a hugely informative and challenging experience for them as they contemplate the responsibilities and opportunities they could have as full-time ministers three years down the road. Probably the most important part of the day is time spent with Archdeacon Barry Dodds, a Church of Ireland cleric who has ministered in the district we visit for over 20 years and forged positive working relationships with many in the wider community. The dialogue with Barry generally moves from understanding the context in which he is called to minister, to how he goes about it, to what in his own spirituality both informs and sustains him. It is a powerful testimony to a compassionate ministry of reconciliation in the name and pattern of Jesus Christ. Even surrounded by powerful menacing images on the walls, people remain the most powerful symbols we have!
We invite you to pray for the students who will be discovering this the first week in November.
Doug and Elaine Baker
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 196