A letter from Doug Baker serving in Northern Ireland
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I wasn’t expecting his answer, but I wasn’t surprised by it either.
One of the things many PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteers who serve in Northern Ireland have a difficult time getting their heads around is that Religious Education is included in the curriculum of all schools here. Coming from the U.S., where church and state are kept quite separate and many schools have a wide mix of children from different faiths and none, they find it even more surprising that schools not only teach Religious Education as an academic subject but include in their weekly schedules times for Assemblies. These usually include a reading from the Bible, some reflection on it by a member staff or a minister from one of the churches near the school, a song and a prayer. The biggest shock for YAVs comes when some of them discover that periodically leading an Assembly at a school near the congregation to which they have been assigned could be one of their responsibilities in the course of the year!
To help them make sense of this, one of the visits I arrange for the group is to meet with the chaplains at Lagan College. Not because of any laws but in line with parental choice, over 90 children in Northern Ireland still attend separate Catholic or state schools, both government-funded. The state schools tend to be quasi-Protestant in their ethos, in part because many were originally set up by various Protestant denominations before there ever was a state system. In contrast to either of these systems Lagan College was set up in 1981 by parents who believed one way to build peace here is for children to be educated together. It was the first intentionally integrated school in Northern Ireland. Today there are around 70 such schools, also government-funded. At Lagan the student body is kept as balanced as possible, as are the staff and the governing board. The curriculum and extracurricular activity also incorporate subjects, sports and activities often associated only with either a Catholic or a state school here. Religious Education and Assemblies at Lagan are also conducted in mixed groups, including the smattering of students they have from Muslim, Jewish or other backgrounds.
Such a challenge requires a gifted and dedicated team of chaplains. One of them, Helen Killick, is a Presbyterian originally from Scotland, a gifted musician and someone I have roped in to cooperate in leading various worships, retreats and peacemaking conferences over the years. On a recent visit Helen introduced us to her new colleague, Gerard, a young theologically trained practicing Roman Catholic layman from North Belfast. He told us he had grown up in a fairly segregated district and had been educated his whole life in Catholic schools. Given that background, I asked him how he had ended up teaching and serving as a chaplain at Lagan. He replied, “When I was young my mother was the secretary for a small residential ecumenical community called Columbanus and she used to bring me along to various events they were having. Those events and contact with those individuals made an impression on me about the importance and the potential of working for Christian unity. I guess I caught a vision as a child that Lagan is now giving me the opportunity to share with other young people.”
Wow! I am grateful for every person who taught me in Sunday school and seminary. But hearing Gerard’s response makes me think a lot about people in the church where I grew up and in the Christian groupings I have been exposed to over the decades for whom I am even more grateful because they modeled the outworking of their faith in ways that have enabled me to catch rather than be taught Christian faith.
This is part of why Lagan’s model is particularly good. Gerard and Helen do spend a limited time teaching Religious Education, but more of their time is spent in a chaplaincy center available to students who chose to hang out there—or seek them out there. They create opportunities for students to make use of the prayer room individually or to experience a variety of forms of prayer arranged by them. They also organize opportunities for students to join alongside them in practical forms of service in Christ’s name.
It is a lot like how Jesus formed the first disciples.
Before the YAVs and I left, Helen took us on a tour of the school. Whether this was intentional on her part of not, this allowed them to observe her interacting with students and staff alike. Rather than hear about the importance of it, they saw a ministry of presence happening before their eyes.
By the end of that time I hope those YAVs had also caught more of a vision and a way of being in a school—and had not just been taught a few pointers for teaching Religious Education.
Throughout my ministry one of the things I have intentionally sought to do is invite people into situations where they can be exposed to experiences through which they might catch something of the meaning of Christian faith and, even more important, be exposed to people who embody it. After all, isn’t that why the Word became flesh?
Thank you for how your continued prayers and financial support help to make this ministry possible with the YAVs and with others.
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 322
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