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June 2010

FITZROY FESTIVAL 2010 - a review


Church old

So the idea was to run a Children’s Festival and simultaneously do something for the adults next door. As a trial we thought we’d stay in house and then discovered enough talent to could fill a programme at any small festival around. Wednesday saw David Thompson setting us sail with a little humorous but not without stealthy social commentary; Louden Wainwright eat your heart out. Gary Bradley shared new songs, complex in melody and arrangement with spiritual truths abundant; looking forward to hearing them produced. Fairfield County were accomplished. Jackie’s songs and choice of covers was spot on and Peter Greer genuinely is a guitar hero. Their Jeff Buckley version of Hallelujah had me jot in the dairy a Leonard Cohen night for the autumn. Our poetry for the evening saw Brett and Keith Lockhart back in Fitzroy to read the poems of their late father. Brian was a stalwart of Fitzroy and his ability to capture the ordinary moments of life with a transcendent wonder came through in the readings. Top class!

Could Thursday match it? Well, of course it could! I remember thinking during the night that our Church piano had particular fun that night. David Livingstone playing with his near music hall buddy Richard Guthrie got the keys loosened up, Roger Cooke who came to accompany Caroline Orr kept them loose and Chris Blake interlude Jonee Hicks’ poetry with the deft touch we are used to. Livingstone and Guthrie juxtapositioned Rachmaninoff and Richard Stilgoe with consummate ease and not a little humour! Highlight might have been Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness et al sorting out our troubles in the bath! Caroline Orr was known to us as the voice of the Johnny Cash evening but it was not even a hint at the utter fabulousness of her voice on Thursday. With the aforementioned Roger and Helen Killock adding the fiddle, the three harmonized to hairs standing on back of neck standard. Karine Polwart’s Follow The Heron, Cockburn’s Mystery and Martyn Joseph’s Can’t Breathe were just a few highlights. Hick’s poetry was playful and provocative showing a literary flair and redeemed world view.

And so to Friday. We needed a bit of rock and a volume raiser so Mud Sunfish with our own boys, Matty Fitch and Joel Auterson as the tightest rhythm section in town, nearly blew the speakers and probably had a couple of the older members of the audience with fingers in ears. These boys are good and their tightness on The Beatles’ Come Together suggest with a bit of match practice they can follow Duke Special, Iain Archer and members of Snow Patrol from the Church to the world’s concert venues. Post “the Fish” we quietened it all down and looked at the different musical backgrounds of Fr. Clem McMannis who grew up out west and discovered the seanós singing style in seminary which he later showed a real vocal penchant for. Frank Ferguson chatted about how Presbyterians had been the maintainers of the arts in Protestantism in the past and sang songs about Glen Taize and the Albert Bridge as well as a beautiful song I Came Here For Beauty. The poetry tonight came from Philip Orr who took us on a literarily crafted journey through the laments and life experiences of the clergy priests Herbert, Hopkins and Thomas. With the sound effects and visuals from Nigel Henderson it became poetry for an MTV generation and what for many was a chore at school became an obvious companion amongst Frank and Clem’s music.

A fine start to the Fitzroy Arts programming. Watch closely this autumn and winter for exciting things are already planned!

TOWNSHIPS; Fertile Soil for Crime


Just as the seeds of truth have a different potential depending on the ground on which it falls from the sower’s throw, as Jesus told in the parable, so sin will thrive or be curtailed depending on the soil we allow it. I was surmising this thought as I sat chatting with my friend Sandi in a Belfast cafe.

Sandi is from The Cape Flats and grew up in the townships around Khayelitsha. As we talked about how critically important education is on townships, to give young people a chance of not being drawn into crime, it dawned on me that praying we are not led into temptation and delivered from evil has pragmatic implications we must pay more attention to.

Our evangelical theology of sin that begins with the Fall of man and understands that sin is deep within us from the point of conception has perhaps caused us to ignore other truths about sin that we need to strategise against. Perhaps our battle against Karl Marx’s flawed notion that sin could be healed by a change of environment has caused us to dismiss the need to effect environment in order to not cure sin but to curtail its full potential.

To show what I mean let me invite you into Sandi’s township wisdom that I so often find invaluable in my own relationship with the Cape Flats. Sandi was talking very openly about his own peers, as he was growing up, and how good they were as people but how they got drawn into crime, sometimes the most violent kind, because of the circumstances they were in.

Living on townships with the daily implications of the injustice of poverty can literally give some people no option. Now if you are immediately repelled by such a thought it is likely that you have not lived or spent time in places of such poverty and often the hopelessness that goes with it.

African townships are not a level playing field with the wealthy west; even an education on a township can lead you nowhere as the money for further education is not available. When you get to 18 and there is no work or anywhere to go then crime seems to be the temptation to acquire what they need or desire? Poverty and injustice harvests crime.

Thus the social justice mandate of the prophets, Jesus and the early Church are about more than helping people. Changing people’s circumstances eyeballs sin’s demonic force and allows the kind of social conditions for redemption to begin to bring the Kingdom of God creeping in.

And so what Sandi and I were really talking about; dreams of a day when those young people on the Cape Flats might have options, might have an environment where they can be torn away from the temptation of crime and delivered from the evil that is a daily reality.

Our prayer would be that as well as preaching the need for individuals to repent from their sin that the Church would be a revolutionary movement to create the environment to give the redeemed tangible opportunities to be delivered.


(another daily blog in the soul spinning series to celebrate the World Cup in South Africa sees the the beauty of Cape Town hit back)


One of the biggest fears that the world had with the World Cup going to South Africa was the crime. It has a high crime rate and every time I go I read the first few newspapers and then ask myself why I brought my family to somewhere as scary as this. Many of my friends who live there have never experienced any crime but many have and some live behind gated communities that we know nothing about in Northern Ireland, where we have had our own violent recent history.

In truth most times that we have taken teams to Cape Town we have had little incidents of theft. The first time it happened I was angry and looking for vengeance. We had come here to bring help to the people and some of the same people had broken into our hostel and stolen some of our stuff. As we were trying to deal with the consequences of that robbery, one of our local colleagues was robbed too and therefore could not be of any help to us.

In the midst of all this another friend of mine was in Cape Town at the same time, playing in Ronan Keating’s band! There are not a lot of bands who tour South Africa and so it was agreed that we would take the entire team to the gig. Keating was as I expected a good entertaining pop act that wore thin after a time but he did do Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl which as a Belfast boy in Africa I had to sing along to! The other moment that hit me deep in my soul was his version of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto. Presley wasn’t known for his prophetic songs or singing anything to do with social justice but this one is a gem. The story of a baby born in poverty whose mother worries that that poverty might lead him to crime and that in turn might endanger his life poignantly fulfilled.  I heard something whispering to me, even in the voice of Ronan Keating, which changed my feelings for the street kids whose own environment of poverty caused our inconvenience.

From underneath the beauty of the mountain
The underbelly of the ugly struck
Curse can pull a knife and stab you
No matter what your treasure trove of luck
The innocence of my trust was violated
And my soul left battered and broken
I came to this city all wide eyed
Now they’re bloodshot and ripped wide open
In the heat of my cold blooded anger
I want to catch them and never let go
Then an angel with the voice of Elvis
Sang a song called In The Ghetto.


(daily South African blog ponders on another spiritual dilemma from journeying in the townships; where Jesus would rather meet with us...) 

CT township

“Today was a day of all days. Life changing. Never to be forgotten. Mystical. Spiritual. Emotional. Beyond reason. Beyond words.

I have the most vivid picture of this township. From the steps of the Habitat office there is a panoramic view underneath a bright sun – a winter sun – but sun! A millions people live in my panorama. Shacks, huts and dotted brick houses that tell us that the new South Africa is brick by brick getting slowly better than the old one. And off to the right are the mountains topped with snow. The majesty and grandeur of God and beneath their wing and constant gaze those he most cherishes – those made in His image – the native African people of Western Cape. To be truthful most of them have resettled from Eastern Cape to find work in the gardens and kitchens of Cape Town.

My senses were on overload as the children descended. Post-apartheid children with smiles and eyes so alive that they might burst with life and happiness. The Habitat homes; so basic but so wonderful. The singing, first of Church worship and later a local choir rehearsing. The fans of the Kaiser Chiefs. The community characters. A deep sense of community that wealth seems to stamp upon in its clamour to remove unseen connections with the dull lifeless desire for possessions.”

This is my diary entry for July 16th 2000 as I arrived in Khayelitsha as part of a student team from our Presbyterian Hall of Residence at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We came with our reasons to be here. To see our Christian faith caress and collide with another culture, to do our little part to be part of God’s Kingdom coming and his will being on earth as it is in heaven, to learn from the new relationships in this previously divided land and apply it to our divided homeland, to develop the relationships of a community that live together back home and in the midst of those four purposes we were hoping that God would use this experience to mould and shape us in our discipleship to never be the same again.

That same evening, after having been on the township, brought another challenging thought and spiritual dilemma. We attended Claremont Methodist Church, a very pleasant, very white and very middle class congregation, which was fine because it was very like my home Church in Belfast. As we began the service, the worship leader used those words that so often I have used in the past – “where two or three are gathered I am there in the midst”. I agreed. However, just that morning I had experienced that diary entry at the top of this article. Jesus had also said that “if you do this to the least of these my people you do it to me”.  

As we sat singing songs I began to wonder where Jesus would rather meet me; where two or three are gathered in luxurious comfort or among those with poor housing and without the advantages of those of us in middle class churches. I became even more impressed with the leadership of this white suburban Church who took themselves into this township to find Jesus and yet I wondered how that arm of outreach in any way related to this worship service. I always bring home that challenge above all. As Claremont Methodist wrestle with it in the new South Africa I have to find in my own life and ministry in Fitzroy how to deal with it in the new Northern Ireland.

DADA STREET... and the Malone Road

(this was re-written from the prose piece I wrote for "Sad... and Beautiful Place" a book I co authored with photographer Gordon Ashbridge... this re-write was so that the Jazz Committee could put some music below it for a gig we did to promote that book... Dada Street is in Khayelitsha)


Sad and Beautiful Place


DADA STREET (Sad ... And Beautiful Place)


Dada Street

Sad... and Beautiful place

In the July winter drizzle

Is a sobering photograph

Rain really adds to the township effect

It darkens all the colours

Of the excess bits of wood and hard board

Hammered together with pragmatism

Into makeshift houses for homes to dwell in

They look bleaker in the wet

Than underneath the traditional African skies

The streets are deserted

Apart from those improvising wet gear

Barefoot and brolley will do

The ground is muckier, flooded

Everything seems more crammed in.

The miles of rooftop tarpaulin

Held in place with whatever can be found

To minimise the leaks

Rain’s impact is more than cosmetic

More than the beauty of pearl like rain drops on washing lines

Shacks look like poverty in the sunshine

But in the rain

They feel like poverty

As the damp brings runny noses and disease

From wet clothes and sodden floors.


But I did say sad...

And beautiful...

On Dada Street after the rain

I bump into a wild array of characters

Full of energy, life and laughter

The Malone Road probably has characters too

But they don’t spill onto the streets

With the same random freedom

And the Malone Road is all the less for that.

Dada Street has a deeper intensity of humanity

The magnetism of their foibles, quirk and charm

The woman with a bundle on her head

Leaving her hands free for other things

African  scientific  genius

Men standing against shacks staring...

All day long... staring...

Those pushing shopping trolleys

Full of sheep heads and chickens, alive or dead

Firewood, any wood, deposit return bottles

The young dudes with cool dreads and fashionable threads

Emerging out of hovels immaculately clean and pressed

The children with discarded tyres, two wheeled trikes

Nearly always barefoot and definitely always smiling

Following me, clinging to me

Seeking my love

And giving me all of theirs.


Dada Street..

Sad and beautiful

In the intensity of its humanity

And two things...

Two things well up in my soul...

To do everything I can to bring justice, liberation and Jesus salvation

To Dada Street

And To do everything I can to bring justice, liberation and Jesus salvation

To The Malone Road.



Mandela RI

Just four miles off the Cape Town coast Robben Island looks like a flat little putting green from the top of Table Mountain. It is a remarkable little island with a remarkable history. The reason that we all go there now is that the recent history of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment has made it one of the most infamous little islands in the world. We go to see the prison and Mandela’s cell. Yet, before him it was the place where the mainland cast out their lepers, insane and convicts to. The sadness of humanity therefore has mingled with the beauty of penguins and boks and stunning views of Table Mountain for centuries.

What you learn about the recent history is the cruel inhumanity of the apartheid regime and how they didn’t hold their prisoners from their freedom but how they attempted in every way to wear them down and demoralise them. Then your attention turns to the most amazing and gracious political leader of the twentieth century and you wonder how Nelson Mandela came out of 27 years imprisonment, 14 of them here without bitterness, rage or revenge. Somehow the attempts of the apartheid regime to destroy this man’s soul failed so miserably that all you can end up calling Robben Island is a factory of magnificent souls.

I wrote the most of this poem on one tour of the island. It featured in my book Eyes Open, Open Wide and Joanne Hogg, the vocalist in Iona came across it. She phoned me, coincidently while I was in Cape Town, and asked for another verse. I told her I would be on the island the very next day and would add some lines. The song appeared first on their live DVD Iona: Live In London before being recorded for The Circling Hour.


Thought of you on this island of the leper

Thought of you on this island of the mad

Thought of you on this island of the outcast

Thought of you on this island on the sick and the sad

Thought this island had a tragic holiness

Thought this island had a painful grace

Thought this island had the ugliest history

Thought this island was the most beautiful place.


And no one ever asked questions

With marks as sharp as these

They pierced the veins of Jesus

Who was one of the least of these.


Thought of you on this island of the limestone

And the pain of dust filled eyes

Thought of you on this island of the convict

Toiling under the bluest skies

Thought of you on this island of redemption

And the sign of a stone carved cross

Thought of you on the island of the reconciled

And wondered at what freedom had cost.


And no one ever gave an answer

With as gentle a word as this

You took the most violent indignation

And killed it with a political kiss.


I saw the altar of this world’s cruelty

I saw the stadium of the devil’s goals

I saw a man duck and weave the most evil punches

I saw a factory of magnificent souls.

DISTRICT 6 - Redeemed Ground and the vision of St. John

District 6 - mountain

District 6 is a haunting, sacred space. We drove across it, this green gash in the middle of a modern city. It is a strange phenomenon with quite a story. We parked in various places looking for something, unsure what. Something that might conjure ghosts. A slab where a house used to be. A Street grown over but the tarmac and white lines still there, underneath. At last what was a road with steps leading to former buildings, levelled by humanity’s inhumanity to fellow humans. And as we stood, a man appeared from the block of flats behind us. He walked past down the hill and on to the old road that we were pondering.

After a good few yards he turned and asked, “Looking for District 6? There was a corner shop there. I would go there every day.” He stopped and started to reminisce. His father worked for the city and he moved to the flats when he was four, twenty seven years before. “I watched them tear it all down.” “What was the street called,” I asked. “Justice Walk.” You couldn’t write it. He went on his way.

The story is that the Apartheid Government declared District 6 a “whites only” area in 1966. Like its equivalent Sophiatown, in Johannesburg, District 6 had been a huge challenge to the Government, being a wonderfully harmonious mix of all races, religions and colours. On the edge of the city centre, snuggled under Table Mountain, District 6 was an eclectic mix of culture and art that needed destroyed so that it didn’t disprove the bizarre theories of a separatist approach to nationhood. So the bulldozers came and levelled it. The financial cost itself was something we wondered at. The waste of buildings and infrastructure is obvious too. Yet it was the gouges in the walls of souls that was most horrific.

There is a District Six Museum that gives a near sacred space for reflection. It is in the building of an old Church and it is a place where your soul shakes you into connecting with the memories of other souls floating around the photographs, poems, art and artefacts. The story of streets and buildings at the mercy of unbelievable laws of government surround the walls. It is all too much to take in. It is not the place to begin if you want a handle on the South African story. We try to bring students here when questions and answers have been engaging in conversation for a little time. Even then you just want a book that puts all the detail of events on the walls into a volume that you can go and mull over at your leisure.

That is another of the unique quirks of District 6. When you turn to the little alcove where you can buy books there is nothing that deals with the facts. There are poetry books, photographic books, biographies and even a fascinating programme to The Public Sculpture Project but nothing more concrete (did I really use that word). I was told there was a book of the walls’ information coming soon but there might, in this little alcove, be something valuable to learn from the use of art rather than science to tell this story.

D-6 Museum

The Museum is an artistic space. There are the old street signs at one end – Windsor Street, Hanover Street… It seems one of the men who demolished it kept them in his garage. How did he know there would be a museum one day? There are poems and quotations on the walls. The two central pieces are on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. The floor has a map of the old District 6 drawn out across it. When Noor Ebrahim one of the old residents, a founder of the Museum and a very warm and welcoming guide, speaks to you he asks you to draw in close and then he shows you where his house was. As you look down at his corner you can see other names where old residents have come to put their names, where they lived. Noor tells of an old lady in her nineties who got down on her knees, found her street, wrote her name and then burst into tears. It is a painful exorcism.

Then there is this magnificent piece of fabric hanging from the roof that has sown into it all kinds of memories and thoughts of those who were removed. Their thoughts were written down and taken to a prison where female prisoners sowed them in to the material. Again there is poignancy in the comments –

"Happy days
District Six
Living was cheap
Life precious
Now in Hanover Park
Living’s expensive and
Life is cheap..."

The Museum space is ripe for reflection. Though we come in a sizeable group, laughing along the road from the minibus, as soon as we enter everyone goes there own way, taking in their own facts and feelings. There is a hushed reverent awe. One of the things I’ve always wondered, and then once I came up with some sort of explanation marvelled at, is why I always feel so good in the District 6 museum or indeed Robben Island for that matter. The answer I gave myself was that both places are redeemed places. Though they are places rightfully built in order that we would remember the evil that humanity can do to their fellow humans, the fact is that you are aware that it is all history. Today they are places that exacerbate hope and change and the potential for dark times to turn to light. The evil has been repented of, the victims have been restored to their rightful places and even the criminals have been forgiven. It is a remarkable story and enough reason to feel light of spirit as you walk around, contemplating the tragedy of the past to celebrate the joy of the present.

On another visit I got caught between the vision of the architects of apartheid and the vision of St. John on Patmos. Those architects of the history of District Six were Dutch Reformed in theology. They found Biblical foundations to build their policy of knocking down. Yet as you read St. John’s vision of people from all races, languages and colours gathered around God’s throne, you find it clashing with these artifacts that tell you which colour is allowed or forbidden from sitting in what summer seat. St. John’s vision is of rainbow colours and apartheid’s is black and white. St. John’s is about creating a new world order and apartheid’s is about destroying. St. John’s is the gentle caress of organic living love and apartheid’s is about the sharp sheer slice of legal injustice. It is a loud clang and clash in the quietness of that place. There is a sense of soul’s being crushed but again the little shards of heaven’s light as the vanquished are at last free and restored.

These Numbers Have Faces


(the 13th in the series of daily blogs during the World Cup sees a meeting with former President FW De Klerk and a secret of peace making...)

De Klerk and Mandela

Being from Northern Ireland seems to give you access to some very influential people when it comes to peace and reconciliation. In 2002 we were privileged to have some time with FW De Klerk, the former President of South Africa who released Nelson Mandela from prison and negotiated the democracy that came to that rainbow nation in 1994. Mr. De Klerk came and met us in a little Church hostel on Bree Street in Cape Town and the staff almost wet themselves. In his sharing with us he told us that the first step to truth and reconciliation was to search yourself to the very marrow in order to make sure your motives were pure. Second he says, was to check again in case you were bluffing yourself!

I pondered on FW’s words when I was asked to pray at a peace vigil by Queen’s University Belfast’s Students Union when the war started in Iraq  in 2003 and wrote the following poem. It is a prayer that asks us to search deep into our genetic and nurtured make up and to be honest not deluded with what we find. It is an essential spiritual discipline if we are going to be contributors to Jesus desire for the Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, particularly in our only little peculiar divisions in Northern Ireland.

Search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

Help me peer inside my prejudice

To see the incentive of all my actions

Make kind the reflexes of my heart

Make gentle the strength of my reactions

Help me squint at every weakness

That comes from family and neighbourhood

To smash all idols of destruction

And create the art of all that is good

Search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

And when I’ve let you search oh God

Believing to be in Your Spirit’s collusion

Let me look just one more time

For any remnants of my own delusion.

U2 & AFRICA - Crumbs From Your Table - song 2

(day 12 sees another look at a U2 song... this is pretty much a staright lift from my book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 (update)...)


The song on U2’s 2004 album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb that most obviously married Bono’s African campaigning and his art is Crumbs From Your Table. It is a very close relation to American Prayer which he sang with Beyonce at the 46664 Concert in Cape Town at the end of 2003. Both songs were written inside the walls of the Church. Bono had spent a long period of time touring evangelical Churches in America to try to encourage their engagement in his AIDS crusade and was initially a little frustrated: “I was kind of angry – angry at the Church as well because the Church was very slow to respond to the AIDS emergency, very judgmental about people with AIDS. They have since changed their position, and I’m very impressed; they’re all starting to wake up and realize that AIDS is leprosy, you know, just read your Gospels and figure it out.”

Both Crumbs From Your Table and American Prayer are songs about faith becoming flesh. The beliefs people have in their heads and speak with their mouths are no good to the hungry, the exploited, and the diseased. In Crumbs From Your Table there is an ironic truth where Church who do signs and wonders and miracle are being asked for something far more ordinary. The irony is that some Church groups are straining every spiritual sinew to convince the world of their authenticity by conjuring miraculous healings and extraordinary manifestations, while the miracle that the poor need is the ordinary sharing and justice of everyday things. In the song U2 pinpoint the travesty of justice in the modern world  that where you are born and live should affect whether you live or die. AIDS is not a charity issue but a justice issue. It is about human rights. Why should people who live on African townships die for lack something that westerners take for granted in the global village of 2004?

From macro-economics Bono moves to the micro-personal and cuts to the heart as he asks “would you deny for others what you demand for yourself?” The first time I heard the album I literally jumped out of my seat on after those lines. It has stuck like a dog at my heals ever since and is no doubt my most quoted U2 lyrics. It is a dire condemnation on humanity, but here Bono is turning the screw. This is not just humanity. This is the humanity that talks about the love of God. Such incisive preaching to the selfish West should cut deep.

These Numbers Have Faces