(this is a review Fr Martin Magill and I wrote for today's Irish News)
The 4 Corners Festival never ceases to amaze us. A cup of coffee and a vague idea has suddenly become what the Lord Mayor described as “a permanent fixture on the Belfast Festival calendar”. It is only 16 months since that coffee and we still have no budget or staff but the 4 Corners Festival is making its impression on the two of us as much as on anyone else. We cannot count the times this Festival when we looked across a room at one another astonished at what is going on around us. A meal for 80 homeless people in the City Hall Parlour, hearing the human stories of five politicians in the Stormont Long Gallery, four church leaders sharing how denominationally interwoven our stories can be, Commissioners and public leaders sharing their prayer requests at a Prayer Breakfast, people sharing deep hurt at Listening To Your Enemies as Riot Police walked past as well as great art, and new and unlikely connections of people across our 4 Corners. It is a small contribution to the coming together of Belfast but a contribution it is. We are thankful to God for doing with a vague idea more than we could have asked for or imagined.
Now that we have had a little time to take a breath and reflect a few things rise to the surface that we will need to consider as we move on in life, parish and the Festival itself. The privilege of listening to people’s stories immediately comes to mind as a recurring theme. This was at times very intentional but at other times stories sneaked in. The Stormont evening was particularly fascinating. To hear our politicians speak of their grandparents and Irish stew, Irish dancing or even gambling problems; or their family situations and how they had dealt with illness and loss; or how all of them had all crossed the 4 Corners in their commitment to community work and a better city for all. It re-humanised political labels and policies and election jingles. It is something our media should learn from. We need more platforms to share common stories than the many places we already have where people shout at each other about what divides us.
The church leaders did a similar thing in helping us to see that our monochrome world of denominations is actually not how it is. Each spoke of how they had been blessed by the other Churches and with a great deal of humour were honest and open about the weaknesses and strengths of the Churches involvement in reconciliation. Padraig O Tuama’s Sorry For You Troubles poetry evening took us into the lives of many peoples’ stories in our recent Troubles and told those stories with great sensitivity, dignity and prophetic challenge and inspiration. Singers Anthony Toner and Dave Thompson along with poet El Gruer dug deep into their own and the stories of others in Where There Are Stories There Are Songs.
After all the story telling it was perhaps the need for the audience to tell their stories that struck us most. Our keynote event before the Festival, and the one that sadly gave us headline news during it, was Listening To Your Enemies with Jo Berry, who lost her father in the Brighton bomb, and Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber. Sadly some in the eastern corner of the city were not ready to listen to an enemy from the western corner and trouble flared as a crowd protested outside. There was a visually powerful moment when, as Jo and Patrick were speaking, the audience watched around fifteen Riot Police walking down the side of the building! Inside the meeting Patrick Magee shared how poignant and important it was for him to share his story in the east of the city. It is a powerful thing when someone shares how they have to live with the fact that they killed Jo’s dad and Jo is sitting beside him. Their tentative journey towards friendship and making contributions around the world to peace is an honest and helpful one.
They were not the main act of that particular night though. Uncontrived is a word that we both hold dear. The rest of that evening at Skainos was very much uncontrived. When Rev. Lesley Carroll opened it to the floor we were not sure what might happen considering what was unfolding outside. The first to speak was Mary Brady whose husband was killed in retaliation for the Brighton bomb. She gave a lovely tribute to him and gave Lesley a framed photograph of him to hold. She spoke of a thorn in her head and her heart and how she felt she needed to come and share her story. Soon after Mary another man shared how he had been blown up in a bomb 38 years ago that very night and his friend had been killed. Again he told us that he felt he had to be at the event. Suddenly the evening became a place of catharsis. Gladys Ganiel, from Irish School of Ecumenics and a 4 Corners organiser, has since written on her blog how countries that find a place to tell such stories move forward faster. We will need to think about this as a Festival and a country as we move on.
Another recurring theme also needs wider consideration. Fear. In his superb address The Psychology of Peacemaking From The Sermon On The Mount Roddy Cowie opened up fear as the greatest hindrance to peace and showed us how Jesus dealt with fear in that iconic sermon. He also reminded us that it is the most repeated command in Scripture, “Do not be afraid.” At the 4 Church Leaders event Norman Hamilton shared how his wife had shared a few verses from Psalm 27 with him as he headed out into the Holy Cross crisis; “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” Padraig O Tuama touched on fear in his poetry and there were other implicit and explicit scenarios of fear, top of the list being the arriving and leaving that Listening to Your Enemies event, throughout the Festival.
All in all, two wonderful weeks. As we look ahead there might be some pressure to develop and expand. There might be a call for a budget, a bank account and a more thorough organisation structure. We might be resistant to that as perhaps 4 Corners Festival’s most inspirational contribution is its DIY approach. Anyone, even us, can do something.