A letter from Doug Baker in Northern Ireland
Belfast’s “peace walls” have become something of a tourist attraction. These separation barriers are erected along interfaces between Nationalist and Unionist housing to minimize the possibility of people from either side physically attacking property or individuals on the other side. The first one went up in 1971 and is still there. Originally a hastily erected makeshift barrier, over the years it has simply been made sturdier and repeatedly raised in height. Since then over 40 others have been built where repeated clashes and local residents’ fears of each other have dictated a need for them. Since the late 1990s violence along such interfaces has, thankfully, subsided considerably. The Belfast “Peace” Agreement of 1998 ushered in a new era. And, in spite of recession, relative “peace” has brought tourists to Belfast. Open-top buses now transport foreign visitors along the most famous of these “peace lines,” where many stop and write graffiti on the walls.
For three years now, as part of a Ministry for Reconciliation module for Church of Ireland (Anglican/Episcopal) theological students, I also take "visitors" on a tour of Belfast’s separation barriers. These students come from all parts of Northern Ireland and also the Republic of Ireland. For some it is their first-ever trip north; for others it is their first time encountering face-to-face realities not two miles from where they grew up. The tour I last led included the most recent barrier erected. It is down a side street, away from the flow of much traffic. None of the students had known this one even existed, let alone seen it. The first thing that shocked them was that it was built only in 2009—11 years after the Belfast Agreement! It stands between a largely Nationalist/Catholic established housing area and an empty field into which Loyalist/Protestant housing is likely to expand in the future. That was their second shock. It had been built primarily with the likelihood of future clashes in mind, not as a result of current hostilities. The third shock was that it has been built with an extension post already in place, to increase its height if and when that appears necessary.
The morning we visited this scene there was considerable fog, which meant the students could not see the other end of the wall some 400 yards away. What they could see was how sturdy its construction was. They asked me questions, like what it had cost. And they asked questions of each other and themselves about why it is there.
A few days later, in response to this visit, one of the students wrote a poem. He included it in his course essay, which I was marking recently. It would be moving for me no matter who wrote it. However, it so happens that this student is training for ordained ministry after 38 years in military and police service in Northern Ireland: A career that taught him to be especially vigilant in settings where inter-community violence has too often been a reality. The only time previously he would ever have been in similar settings he was armed and with a squad of colleagues who were also. He told me he felt real fear just in being there, which made him very conscious of the fear that perpetuates separation in this society. His poem describes it well:
Out we get, this is a strange place for me
The fog makes it difficult to see
Tall and long the wall, stretches half a mile
Look at others, don’t see any of them smile
Faces more of surprise and shock
Erected after the peace arrived, just in case we turn back the clock
Is there need for this divide?
No hope in turning back the tide
Like the fog it blurs our vision
Blinds all with this division
Can’t, won’t see the other side
Maybe, hoping they all have died
The fog begins to clear, we see the wall clearer
If only it would disappear
No not the wall, held so dear
That damn fog of fear
So all could see the other side
And swim together to change this tide
Marking essays is not usually a spiritual experience for me. However, this time was. In part because I realize what a privilege it is to be trusted with the opportunity to help shape students for future ministry in this setting. In part because I realized this had clearly been a profound experience for this student and is likely to impact his future ministry. And, in part, because this student hit the nail on the head for me in terms of what it is that makes many of us build walls, missile shields and even theological camps within churches. That fog of fear that does not allow us to see those on the other side as people, get to know them, discover what we have in common in spite of whatever serious differences we have, and swim together away from the assumption that division is here to stay toward some better shore where our differences can be held together in a deeper unity. May the light of Christ lift the fog for all of us and may we be lamps through which God lifts it for others.
God says, “I have set before you life and death… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). We each have choices to make about whether we invest in building defensive measures based on the future conflicts we fear or invest in relationship building now that makes conflict less likely. We are grateful for the interest and prayers of all of you who choose to support our ministry in this setting and who live out a ministry for reconciliation in your own.
Grace and Peace,
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 268