(As we prepare to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the 4 Corners Festival... this is my first ever blog about it... it's genesis...)
The first journey up to visit my friend Fr Martin Magill in his Presbytery house beside St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Lenadoon was a revelation. When I turned left at Asda on Kennedy Way it was like driving through a wardrobe into Narnia. I had lived in Belfast for about twenty five years of my adult life and here was a world that I had never seen before. There was a sports’ stadium, an amazing looking school, even a Fuscos Ice Cream Parlour never mind all the shops, parks and thousands of houses. This was my city and I had never been.
We live in an apartheid Northern Ireland. Former South African President FW De Klerk once shared with my students that the only mistake his Afrikaner people made was to institutionalise the segregated way South Africa lived. There was segregation all over the world, particularly in America he added, but making it law was their undoing he suggested.
We have never institutionalised it into Catholic or Protestant toilets or park benches in Northern Ireland but here I was experiencing the reality of our lived out apartheid about a mile from where I lived. It could even be argued that since the Good Friday Agreement we have become even more polarised.
Since that historic Agreement in 1998 it could be rightly said that we have a political peace in Northern Ireland. Societal peace, however, is another thing. The recent Flag controversy and street protests that followed or the parades issue as Loyalist bands and Catholic protesters confronted each other outside St. Patrick’s Church are just two of 2012’s reminders that all is not shalom on the streets of Northern Ireland. The political and indeed religious speeches that follow such events accentuate the fractures.
Sitting chatting over coffee with Fr. Martin Magill, some months later in that aforementioned Presbytery House in Lenadoon, we came up with a novel idea. Martin had been sharing a similar experience to mine when he searched out Ballyhackamore Library for an event in the East Belfast Festival. He didn't know his city.
We were chatting about the fact that The Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity was perhaps a little tired and not attracting a younger audience.
We were chatting about how that East Belfast Festival had touched on some interesting themes on religion and reconciliation.
The casual conversations suddenly untangled themselves in our minds and before I had left for the trip back to South Belfast we had decided to get a few like minded people together to see if a Festival could be birthed. Martin was taken with a poem I had written, fascinatingly for a Jesus In The City Conference in St. Patrick’s Church, called The 4 Corners of Belfast. Within a few weeks the 4 Corners Festival was founded.
In a segregated society, geographically, politically and religiously, one of the seemingly simple but I believe profound things to do is to get people crossing traditional boundaries and becoming friends. When
we skew the picture we rip default positions asunder.
My friendship with Fr. Martin has been a case in point. One Sunday evening in Fitzroy the speaker was asked, during the question time, about the Apocrypha and did what any visiting speaker would do and sent the question back to the minister! Without thinking or contriving I looked across the Hall at my friend Fr. Martin and asked him to tell us about the Apocrypha. The discussion went on. Later on Facebook, a visitor
to the event told me that it had been the most natural moment of reconciliation that he had experienced... and a default position was smashed and needed reconfigured!
So, our first foray in the 4 Corners Festival has small beginning in 2013 but aims to break down boundaries and build new relationships
across north, south, east and west of the city. We will have author Tony Macauley doing a reading from his book Paper Boy about life growing up in the north of the city; south Belfast musicians from the Fitzroy Arts Collective will track across to the Falls Road to do The Gospel According To...Christy Moore in Clonard Monastery; a theological discussion will take place about Protestant and Catholic views of justification by faith in St. Patrick’s Church; a look at the architecture of Catholic and Protestant Churches will end up at East Belfast Mission’s new Skainos building. There is more, all ending with prayer walks congregating at the Titanic Quarter. See all the events on the website - http://www.4cornersfestival.com/
It seems a perfect time to something imaginative and Christian in Belfast. The Peace Prayer on December 15th had Christians of all denominations linked arm in arm, looking out from the City Hall to all 4 Corners of the city, praying. It was the image of that poem I had written fourteen years earlier. It was the image that Fr. Gerry Reynolds used in his blessing in Fitzroy on the Sunday before Christmas. As we ask what ways we can answer the five minutes of silent prayers that morning there is no better time for a festival to give us the opportunity to visit the 4 corners and create a new Belfast. After all the tourist Board slogan says it is Our Time and Our Place!