Interviewing our most recent three Lord Mayors Of Belfast last week at the 4 Corners Festival event, 3 Mayors For All 4 Corners, I asked them all what they thought the Churches could contribute to making Belfast a peaceful and prosperous city.
The current Lord Mayor, Nichola Mallon, encouraged us to be confident about our faith. Nichola had spoken about this confidence of faith earlier in the interview. When I had asked her about what she had learned about herself in her year in office it was that she had become more confident in her faith. I had watched this from the peripheral and could see what she was talking about. On the stage at Summer Madness just after her year began she spoke of her faith in a prayerful, humble and positive way.
Over the year I have watched a woman come out of the shadows of two very strong predecessors. Most of Belfast felt sorry for Nichola in who she had to follow as Mayor. In her life, her vocation and her faith those of us with the privilege of getting close to her have watched the flourishing of a human being. Tonight right bang in the middle of those predecessors she shone her own light in her own way; a star. Nichola’s faith has been a huge resource to her achievements and so she had earned the right to call the rest of us to find confidence in our faith so that our lives and vocations could make significant contributions.
That confidence of faith is what will be needed if we are take up the challenges laid down by Gavin Robinson and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Gavin, a committed Church goer, was passionate in encouraging the Church out of its walls. This needs to be taken very seriously by a Church that has lost much of its influence in society. 100 years ago everyone flocked through the doors of Churches on a Sunday morning to be shaped by Biblical teaching and hymns. As numbers have fallen the Church has become so tame within its bubble that Jesus is no longer impacting our society. Gavin’s challenge even went beyond the Church to Church relationships. We need not think we are radical if we meet up across denominations. We need to have the confidence Nichola spoke about to get our hands dirty, on the streets, at the interfaces. This is exactly what the 4 Corners Festival is aiming for. As minister of Fitzroy I was fuelled by Gavin’s words to push further and further out with the light and salt of Christ.
With the confidence in our faith that Nichola inspired, the gauntlet thrown down by Gavin to get out of our safety zones, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir gave us something concrete to follow up on. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly have agreed to allow Syrian refugees into Northern Ireland. Countries have signed up for so many each and though the rest of the UK are taking none we are allowing 100-150 very needy Syrians in. Máirtín has spoken often about not being a person of faith but believes that Belfast’s most radical places are the faith communities. His challenge was simple but still very much a challenge. The Churches should be at the forefront of the welcome of these Syrian refugees. We should be the ones to help the cultural entry, language classes and general generous welcome. I believe Máirtín is absolutely right in offering us this opportunity. This is what we say we are about. Welcoming the stranger is a Biblical mandate from the Books of the Law to the New Testament Letters to the Church.
So let us prepare ourselves. Let us find a confidence in our Christian faith that will propel us outside the walls of Sunday mornings to be contributors to a peaceful and prosperous city. Let us be ready to respond to the Syrian Refugee need and more. Let us hear the call of our last three First Citizens and step up.
“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”