Considering Grace: An invitation to listen
by Allan LEONARD
5 November 2019
Considering Grace, by Gladys Ganiels and Jamie Yohanis, is a new book that explores how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles, through a series of narratives from 120 people who tell their stories of how they coped with trauma and tests of their faith. The book was launched with a set of readings and short presentations at Assembly Buildings, Belfast, to an audience of several dozens.
The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (PCI), Rt Rev. Dr William Henry, welcomed all. He described the book as part historic — as a reflection of what has gone past — and part lament — to think about what has happened and make a response as a Presbyterian church.
Rev. Henry believed that there was a unique perspective of a Christian church — that of people experiencing the presence of Jesus Christ Himself: “Jesus who was that archetypal innocent victim and at the cruel hand of other people … Yet as followers of Jesus, we are to model grace to be His people.”
Reverend Tony Davidson (Minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church) led the PCI’s Dealing with the Past Task Group that commissioned Considering Grace. In his own phrase, he gave “the thank you speech”, expressing gratitude to dozens of individuals involved with the creation of the book. For Ganiels: “As a marathon runner, you have huge reservoirs of determination. Your writing is clear, precise, and honest. You use words skillfully to capture stories.”
Yet Rev. Davidson expressed his greatest thanks to all those who told their stories through the research interviews: “As you read these stories you will notice something — the devil is literally in the detail.”
“This was said by a young person at one of our focus groups: ‘There are cracks on our wall at home. I only recently discovered those cracks were the result of a bomb in our village. And there are cracks in all our families, churches, and communities, and I need to understand why those cracks are there.’
“These stories tell of how violence created cracks within families, congregations, the Presbyterian denomination, as well as in wider society. There is a need to lament the devil in the detail, the pain, anxiety, and loss caused by these cracks. There is also a need for many more stories to be voiced, written down, and kept to expose the cracks in all our walls.
“However, Leonard Cohen sings, ‘There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’”
Rev. Davidson explained how this is reflected in the cover image of the book, with light shining through a crack to illuminate Ballycastle beach: “Even in our darkest moments, God in his grace has kept his light shining through the cracks.”
The stories in Considering Grace are organised by particular groupings of the interviews: ministers, victims, security forces, those affected by loyalist paramilitarism, emergency responders and health care workers, quite peacemakers, politicians, those who left Prebyterianism, and critical friends.
The first story read by an actor was that of Russell Birney, who was a minister in Newry:
“On 1 September 1975, Russell got a call about an incident in Tullyvallen. The IRA had opened fire in an Orange Hall. Four men were killed instantly, and a fifth died later of his wounds. Eighty-year-old John Johnston, a member of Russell’s Creggan congregation, was among the dead.
“That night, Russell visited the families.
“‘I wasn’t trained pastorally for an incident like this. When I came down from Tullyvallen that night, having visited those homes — I hadn’t seen any bodies, I was just with the relatives — I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. I saw the children of some of the deceased and seriously injured. I called in hospital and I had seen some of them being treated. It was hard at that time. It was an aspect of ministry that I wasn’t prepared for. I was in over my head, so I had to adapt.’ …
“Russell Birney looked out over those gathered in Clarkesbridge Presbyterian. The small church was overflowing with mourners. It was a united service, organised after the murders in Tullyvallen Orange Hall. He read out a statement pledging that there would be no retaliation. It was an agreed statement, which Rev. John Hawthorne of the Reformed Presbyterian Church had helped him write. ‘I read out a statement, pleading for peace and that there be no retaliation for this event.’ Russell invited those who agreed with the statement to stand. Not everyone stood immediately, so he waited. And waited. And waited — until everyone in the church was on their feet.
“During a time marked by tit-for-tat killings, it was a remarkable occasion. ‘I’ve been told subsequently that the statement prevented retaliation because there were people at the service who were determined they were going to avenge. We were speaking for the victims, for those who were wounded, because they were fine people who would not have wanted revenge. There was no tit-for-tat following Tullyvallen Orange Hall.’”
Gladys Ganiel continued with another story:
“When he was 15 years old, Terry Laverty’s brother, Robert, a constable in the RUC, was shot dead by the IRA. As young children, the brothers had been so close, they slept in the same bed. Devastated, Terry spent his days tramping the beach near his home in Ballycastle, shouting at God. Then one day, he felt God healing him. He was able to identify with the tears of all who were suffering in the Troubles.
“Terry became a Presbyterian minister. Pastoring others who had suffered made him even more aware than most that healing does not come easy. But he told us, ‘I want to encourage anybody who is struggling as a result of violence and trauma to consider grace, to consider the hope that Jesus offers, to consider that there is a possibility of living without bitterness and walking on as somebody who is amazingly and wonderfully free.’”
Terry’s invitation to “consider grace” inspired the title of the book.
Ganiel explained that she was intrigued by the research project because it signalled PCI’s willingness to be self-critical about its own actions during the Troubles. This was inline with the recommendation of the 2013 report on dealing with the past, by American diplomats Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, which urged societal institutions, as well as combatants, to publicly acknowledge their contributions to division and violence.
Co-author, Jamie Yohanis, said that asking people how they thought their church responded to the Troubles provided an opportunity for criticism from within the flock to be heard. Many talked about how they were supported by ministers and congregations in times of injury or bereavement. But people also did not hold back in their criticisms, which included a neglect of some victims, disappointment that PCI did not stand up to the Rev. Ian Paisley’s sectarianism, and a lack of emphasis on reconciliation.
He added: “In Considering Grace, we argue that the perceived failures of church institutions may, indeed, need to be publicly acknowledged and forgiven. We hope that Considering Grace recognises such failures and acknowledges PCI’s own need to receive grace, providing inspiration for the church to make peace more central to its mission.”
“The anger, sadness, and pain that fill the pages of Considering Grace should leave us in no doubt about just how difficult it will be to come to terms with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. The stories also remind us that forgiveness is not forgetting — it always includes remembering. Ultimately, Considering Grace asks if people in Northern Ireland can remember, together, in a way that helps create a better future,” Yohanis ended.
The second story read by an actor was that of victims Judy, her husband Ben, and her sister Deborah, who each responded in their own way.
“Judy’s husband Ben lost his parents and another relative in a single incident. Judy and Ben had two young children and Judy was pregnant. ‘You always came over as being very strong,’ said Deborah, Ben’s sister. Judy replied, ‘I had to be strong, for the children. Ben was not the husband I had married. Even the boys would say, “Daddy used to play with us, and daddy didn’t after that.”’ …
“Sometimes Ben left the house in the middle of the night. They feared he would harm himself. Deobrah and her husband accompanied Judy’s minister to look for Ben on those nights. ‘We would find him in the graveyard, sitting on the grave. We saw the red tip of the cigarette — he was sitting on the graves, smoking. I didn’t go in the graveyard, but my husband went in with the minister. It was so sad.’ …
“Ben’s faith was shattered. Judy explained, ‘He said, “There’s no God to let a tragedy like that happen.” Thankfully, before he died, he did return to God. He always would have talked to our minister but he even said to him, “There’s no God to let the likes of that happen”, which was understandable.’
“Doborah, raised Presbyterian like her brother, later joined the Church of Ireland, [which] offered her more encouragement: ‘I always remember the Church of Ireland minister saying, “Every year when the daffodils come out, that’s when you remember them.”’ …
“Neither could think of anything the wider PCI had done to respond to the Troubles. Deborah once attended an inter-church meeting for victims. It wasn’t helpful. ‘The speaker was preaching at me about reconciliation, and I was the one who had suffered. I obviously would have given reconciliation quite a lot of thought. I didn’t need him coming telling me what I ought to be doing. People don’t understand. They have their own agenda.’”
Nicola Brady, General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, gave a response to the book:
“Considering Grace reflects an awareness that within PCI there are different stories about the experience of violence and conflict and different views of the role of the church: positive, negative, and mixed experiences. Where we have had the opportunity in various meetings and events to discuss some of the interim findings from this research, in my experience it has prompted to responses. The first is a spontaneous sharing by people of their own experiences, often things they have been reluctant to share, and the second is to ask: ‘I wonder what we would find if we asked those questions in our church?’
“So there is definitely a challenge for other churches here, but also a model that gives an answer to that all-important question: ‘Where do we start?’
“For PCI, the starting point was an invitation made in humility and openness to people from a wide range of backgrounds to share their experiences, including the hard truths they felt PCI needed to hear, underpinned by a commitment to respectful listening. Now that we have the book, just talking about it can be a way of extending that invitation to others, signalling that we are interested and willing to listen …
“When we think of what is distinctive about the Christian contribution to reconciliation, forgiveness will often be at or near the top of this list, but as we know, and this is reinforced repeatedly in the testimonies shared, if we move too quickly to talk of forgiveness this can feel oppressive to people who have suffered a great loss …
“This work is extraordinarily hope filled, precisely because it is grounded in the hard realities and the hurts that people have lived through and continue to live with. In this way, it highlights the resilience of individuals and communities and this is something that, in the dominant narratives of the conflict, doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves …
“We can all feel so ill equipped to respond, but what is often striking in the stories are the simple expressions of concern and kindness that meant so much to people. Much of what is shared here shows the difference that we can all make as members of the congregation but also as family, friends, and neighbours.
“This is particularly timely, as we are now beginning to mark the fiftieth anniversary of conflict-related deaths. While one of the contributos rightly points out that, for those who’ve lost loved one, ‘Every day is Remembrance Day’, sometimes these significant anniversaries can be particularly difficult for people. Hopefully the insights shared here will make us more mindful of the need to reach out to our neighbours and give us the courage to make that invitation.”
Videos courtesy of Brian O’Neill. More videos are available at a Presbyterian Church in Ireland showcase page.