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A letter from Doug Baker in Northern Ireland

April 18, 2012

A Life Well Lived:
Remembering Ray Davey, Founder of the Corrymeela Community

The Rev. Ray Davey, founder of the Corrymeela Community, died on April 16 at the age of 97.  He was one of the leading lights in the work of reconciliation in Ireland and his personal vision and ministry has inspired generations of others to initiate a wide range of efforts that contribute to the peace process in Ireland.

Born and educated in Belfast, Ray was a student minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland just about to be ordained when World War II broke out.  He signed up as a chaplain with the YMCA and was immediately sent to serve in North Africa.  The plan was for him to be ordained as soon as feasible in Jerusalem.  Instead German forces overtook the town where he was stationed and with thousands of Allied troops and other civilians he ended up as a prisoner of war, taken first to Italy and then on to Germany.  As a chaplain he was able to move between several prison camps dotted around Dresden.  He recognised boredom as one of the threats to the mental and spiritual well-being of the prisoners.  One of the activities he would say he stumbled upon was having prisoners tell each other their personal stories. He witnessed community being built between those of diverse rank and background. Community, which he always said in some ways extended even to the German guards.  As he was taken between camps in the days immediately after the city of Dresden was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing, he was one of the first persons from a country whose bombers had participated in the raid to witness up close the destruction caused.  Tough lessons during a time of war left a lasting impression on him, not least being a burning conviction that if the gospel means anything there has to be a better way for Christians to pursue.

When Ray returned to Northern Ireland he married his prewar sweetheart, was ordained, and was appointed as the first full-time chaplain at Queen’s University, Belfast.  In deciding how to approach this new responsibility Ray did not set up an office but rather decided to establish the Presbyterian Community Centre, where a number of students would live alongside him and his wife, and before long their young children, and form the nucleus around which other students would gather for worship, discussion, social activities, and service into the wider society.  Still profoundly concerned about what happens when relationships between nations break down, Ray built visits to new experiments in Christian community taking shape in various parts of Europe into his work with the students he was now mentoring. 

Looking around at the Northern Ireland to which he returned, he also began to see more clearly than he had before—and than most of his peers still did—how deeply divided it was along religious, political and class lines.   Ray began to muse about the need for an intentional Christian community and place in Ireland dedicated to reconciliation.  His vision caught the imagination of some students, graduates who had been mentored by him and others from various churches.  In 1964 he was told about a large property up for sale 60 miles north of Belfast that might be suitable for their vision.  It had belonged to a charity and was in disrepair but had potential.  It was called Corrymeela.  The window of opportunity to buy it before someone else did forced Ray and that diverse group who had been “talking about” the need for some sort of reconciliation ministry to make a commitment.  The Corrymeela Community was formed as a dispersed fellowship who would be committed to the ministry of reconciliation through their own lives and together use the Corrymeela Centre near Ballycastle as a place where people of all backgrounds could meet, build relationships, and discover together what applying "the gospel" to the reshaping of a society divided by "religion, politics and economics" might mean.  Ray became the full-time Leader of the Community in 1970.   He passed that mantle to a new Leader in 1980 but continued a very active involvement in the life and work of Corrymeela until his early 90s.

When the decades of civil strife in Northern Ireland commonly referred to as "The Troubles" broke out in 1969 Corrymeela soon became a place where those from low-income districts bearing the brunt of rioting came for safety and respite.  As time went on it also became a place where families of those killed by armed groups and of those imprisoned because of their own participation in illegal armed groups came for healing breaks, and where those from separate backgrounds came, heard one another’s personal stories, and forged new relationships.  It became a place where the nature of prejudice, conflict and dozens of other tough issues were explored in light of both personal experience and of the message of the gospel.   Conferences initiated on particular themes frequently resulted in some new support group or service agency being set up by participants.  Hundreds of volunteers came and spent weeks, months or a year serving and learning at Corrymeela and then took their learning into diverse careers in Ireland or beyond.  And Ray Davey was at the center of it all, sharing vision, providing pastoral care, helping others to discover their own gifts and voice, asking awkward questions, and modeling a way of living his faith that probably spoke more profoundly and convincingly than any of the fine sermons he also delivered.  His insight into the essentials of Christian faith, his influence, and his example were paramount in making Corrymeela a place of welcome, acceptance, forgiveness, and embarking on new journeys.

Ray Davey was the second person I met on my first visit brief to Ireland in 1970.  Little did I know then how influential he would be in my life.  When I returned to Belfast as a long-term volunteer at the beginning of 1972 it was to work as an assistant chaplain in the Presbyterian Centre at Queen’s University, which he had set up and which was still very much shaped by his vision.  When I returned again to Northern Ireland in 1979 as a PC(USA) mission co-worker it was at the invitation of Ray and the Corrymeela Community to join the program staff.  I was privileged to work full time alongside Ray and other Corrymeela folk for 18 years.   In the wider role that the PC(USA) has now given me in Northern Ireland I constantly come upon individuals who knew Ray or spent brief periods at Corrymeela "way back when" and make a connection in their minds with that and what they are now doing for reconciliation.  Like other dynamic individuals Ray has been acknowledged with doctorates or other honors by various bodies.  However, it is these diverse folk now engaged in their own ministries of reconciliation that speak most eloquently of his contribution.

Many other members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have also been privileged to experience Corrymeela, and perhaps meet Ray, as volunteers or on study visits.   Over the years many more have known about him and faithfully supported the work of Corrymeela with their prayers and financial gifts.   I invite all of you to join us in giving thanks to God for a life well lived and an influence still being felt.

Rev Doug Baker

Regional Liaison for Ireland and the United Kingdom

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 268

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