Wednesday, June 05, 2013

There are too many people in our urban areas who feel they are nobodies ... with no identity, no hope and no future

Dr Norman Hamilton - former moderator and co-convenor of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's Church and Society committee - addressed the General Assembly in Derry this morning and spoke about questions for the denomination coming out of the flag protests.

I think it’s fair to say that there was a general sign of relief when the high visibility element of the flegs protest came to a halt. Normal life in one sense could be resumed even though the protest is still going on in a very limited way. But for most people, sigh of relief and let’s return to normal.

But to coin a phrase, the underlying issues haven’t gone away you know.

I also recognise that most members of this assembly are not from the urban areas where the main protests happened. We had the privilege in our own manse of having the protests at our door with the road blocked off on a fairly regular basis. And the conversations I can assure you at the front door of the manse were absolutely fascinating using language that I think would not be appropriate for a moderator or even dare I say a previous moderator.

I would like to suggest to the assembly – moderator – that the protest has brought to the surface a couple of very, very deep unanswered questions within the Christian community and the life of our church, and that as a whole church we would do very well to learn of the lessons of these relatively isolated communities in our uran areas.

The first question is this. Identity. Who am I? Who are we? Do I matter? Do we matter? Does anyone care about my situation? Does anyone care about your situation? My need? Our need? In answering that question I think of the modern hymn “In Christ alone my hope is found; He is my light, my strength, my song; this cornerstone, this solid ground; firm through the fiercest drought and storm”.

I think individually and collectively we would do well to ponder whether this is actually true for us? Are there other allegiances that either are as important or even more important? To put the question another way, what am I most passionate about? What are you most passionate about? Is it Jesus? Is it the gospel? Or the scriptures? The work of the spirit? Or is it our business? Our family? Our membership of a club or an organisation? Or even our national identity?

Many people in these urban areas feel that no one cares about them collectively. They feel abandoned when their local schools are closed, when there are no worthwhile jobs, when their children fail and become prey to drug dealers, when their area gets evermore run down. Poverty and hopelessness is very real too.

A story from East Belfast which Douglas [Cowan – clerk of East Belfast Presbytery] may know is one of many. Of a home where a man lived on his own in such squalor that the pigeons were coming in to rest on the end of his bed and eat the crumbs. And he wasn’t the only one. The pigeons coming in at night for shelter to his bedroom.

There are too many people in our urban areas who feel they are nobodies in a nobody land, with no identity, no hope and no future. And the question to our assembly and indeed the whole Christian constituency is does this matter? Does it matter to us that there is a new underclass emerging in our midst? Now of course we cannot fix jobs, we cannot fix education, we cannot regenerate the run down areas of Belfast, Derry, Dublin, Limerick or Craigavon. But there is a very urgent need to show that we care.

The other thing I want to say – moderator – and it has already been alluded to and there has been no coordination on this point from David and from Douglas: to work for the welfare of these communities as the prophet Jeremiah would call us to do is the task of the whole church.

BMI [Board of Mission in Ireland] taking a lead with its missional emphasis. The Union Commission [deals with church vacancies] with its huge responsibility for stewarding what are ever more precious and scare resources. Presbyteries with their oversight of ministry in urban areas. Board of Social Witness with their caring ministries around social need. Church and Society committee which I co-convene, we can bring some perspective on the political and societal level. Our theologians across the church bringing the Biblical perspectives on these issues, not as academic theologians writing papers but as Christian men and women with deep Godly insights.

Moderator you’ll be relieved to know that I’m not suggesting a new committee. Absolutely not. But I am asking, if there is enough heart in our church and in this assembly for these people, for these communities, is there enough heart for us to have wide ranging PCI urban mission forum where all the contributors that are there with willing hearts and committed to developing a medium to long term strategy, an intentional purposeful getting together of our many arms and our huge resources for the welfare of the city.

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