“See here, you an American?” Yes, I would smile. I’d then get asked why I was in Northern Ireland, how long I had been there, and if I missed my family. Then I would get asked “do you like it here?” and when I replied in the affirmative, inevitably a quizzical look would follow and “why” would get choked out in a touch of laughter.
This scene, and it’s American-based cousin where I’d be asked why I had moved there, if I was homesick while there, and if I missed it now that I’m states-based once again, have occurred countless times over the last decade of my life. I’ve had this conversation in taxis, pubs (no one likes Americans more than patrons of the Duke of York around 11pm), airports, living rooms, classrooms, and even in my viva defense.
It’s happened a lot this week as I’ve been to events of the 4 Corners Festival, but I’ve found myself struggling to articulate the deepness of my answer to the “why”. I’ve tested the waters of my thoughts over several cups of tea, but I realized that my answer deserves more space than a quick cuppa can provide.
In answering why I love this wounded and wonderful country (I am admittedly partial to Belfast herself, but I love the whole place), this fractured piece of land that more people have shed blood for than we know how to count, I could answer a number of ways.
I could tell you about how there is nothing better than seeing the sunrise as you drive through the Glenshane pass, or that I completely believe CS Lewis that Narnia looks like Co. Down. We could talk about how silly beautiful the island is during our seven minutes of summer every year, and how you will find no better mussels in the world than the ones reared in Strangford. And I swear, the first time you see the Giant’s Causeway in the sunshine, something holy happens.
I could tell you about the nights out in the Cathedral Quarter and pub quizzes at the Empire Music Hall where I learned all about BritPop of the 90s, chats with total strangers at the Hudson about the burgeoning Irish gin scene, days where Botanic Gardens is simply heaving with all manner of life. I could opine about the magic that happens whenever a whole room of folks join the Irish rugby team in singing “Ireland’s Call”, or about how I will never not be tickled by the sound of small children with various Ulster accents.
Those are all parts of my story in this place, all things I love, all things that make this place home. I have forged friendships here that will carry me into the next life, I am sure of that. My framily is woven of expats and natives of the island from various communities, faiths, and tribes, and I am richer for knowing all of them.
But why I love this place isn’t just captured in those things. If it was just those things, I don’t see how Northern Ireland could have crawled into my soul in the way she has. Those are lovely memories to fill scrapbooks with, not the kind of place that has shaped the nature of my life.
Why I love this place is because of what this place has taught me, and continues to teach me, about my sense of the world, my very theology of life.
I first came here over a decade ago, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I signed up to be a youth worker in a country I had never heard of, but that was in a supposed peace, and had a crash course in the very nature of frozen conflict when the riots of Sept 2005 happened during my orientation. This was also my crash course in what Northern Ireland would teach me : discomfort.
I wanted answers – definitive, clear cut, solid answers. In my naiveté and privileged Americanness, I figured there was a solution and it would be sorted quickly. I felt this was especially confusing when I heard what they were rioting about: parades. They cannot be serious, I thought as I listened to my colleagues explain. Parades are for high school marching bands, girl scouts, and championship sports teams. What are people doing setting fire to things?
Yes, I laugh at myself, too. Adorable, wasn’t I.
I couldn’t yet understand one of the great truths of Belfast: that for a place whose history is painted in every shade of grey Pantone has created, a lot of its citizens believe everything is entirely black and white.
Over that year and the years to follow, I learned so much. I know the sounds of lambegs and have the Parades Commission website book marked on my phone. I have lived through direct rule, devolution, and now whatever this season is. I’ve read books by men serving prison sentences, pastors who brokered peace, and novels that have nothing to do with either. I married a son of Ulster who bears the cultural scars of growing up in a war no one ever really sorted a name for, much less a comprehensive plan to exit it. I’ve taught the sociology of conflict and reconciliation to university students here, and preached sermons to young people about what to make of the Gospel of Christ in this place. The shape of my faith shifted, and continues to, as I learn broader definitions of ‘Incarnation’ than I could have imagined. And all throughout that, I’ve frequently been uncomfortable.
Physically, I’m frequently uncomfortable here. My body is too big for the spaces of this province, my voice too loud, my accent not right. My physicality reminds me all the time that I both belong and do not belong, that I am both home and foreign. That tension reminds me that this life is both holy and quick and that nothing here is permanent. We should be uncomfortable in this life for this is not the life we were wholly created for. (While I’m thankful for the reminder, I wouldn’t completely hate it if more cafe chairs could come with padding.)
Emotionally and spiritually, I feel the discomfort. After years of studying and questioning, I am now convinced that the only way forward for Northern Ireland is the absolute hardest one: it just has to happen and it has to include everyone. And I do mean everyone. Migrants and natives, convicts and covenanters, politicians and perpetrators, children and pensioners, direct survivors and those with secondary trauma. Everyone.
That means, if I am to learn the lesson this place is trying to teach me, life is fully lived best when we let everyone in. When we eat with political opponents and theological misfits and folks that just hate us. All forward momentum here has been made through negotiation, conversation, and letting people to the table who are still enemies, but not treating them as such, and that’s something often forgotten by some current public figures. When we do the hard work, the necessary work, of what love actually means, that’s when this world can work at its best.
Love, by the way, is my favorite and least favorite theological idea, because it’s beautiful, but it’s friggin hard. Being patient? Hard. Being kind? HARD. Doing it with folks who make your blood boil and your stomach churn and who can’t sort human decency themselves? Impossible. And yet, demanded. This is what people in this country (and this island) have had to do for centuries and I have so much to learn from them.
The other piece of letting everyone in? We have to listen to them. We have to acknowledge the pain of others, without feeling threatened that our pain will be lessened by the presence of their pain. People crave to be heard, and listening is therefore a holy gift. But how do we listen? How do I ask people to listen who are tired of feeling silenced? How do we ensure that listening is not just some sort of therapeutic exercise but is instead the engine for hope and grace in the evolving mosaic of pain we live in?
And all of that? That’s all really uncomfortable. And really, really messy.
So why do I love this place? Because she has taught me more than I can often articulate and I will never be able to repay her for the gifts she has given me. I am at this festival because I believe a way to demonstrate my gratefulness is to listen and bear witness. Considering the last thing they need is another American trying to fix them, I figure it’s the least I can do.