(See pictures of my time thus far-- here!)
It's the beginning of my third week here in Belfast and I'm finding a home for myself, slipping into a roomy routine, and, for the most part, managing the accents : )
Having come here with the view of being put to use within the Children's work at Oasis, it's been a disappointment to have still not received back my criminal records check giving me the legal okay. But perhaps it's a blessing in disguise (He often seems to know what He's doing, after all : )) because in the meantime, I'm delegated to the Oasis coffee shop bussing tables. I have no complaints about the coffee shop (it is exactly the sort of place that I would want to frequent with my friends or my studies), the people I'm working with (Phil is a kind, young Christian guy who manages the whole place with impressive efficiency and knows most customers by name and Angela is a darling single mother of three who grew up in East Belfast and has a lovely gift-- as I find many of the Irish do-- of gab!), or the work, really. It's nice to know I'm needed and to feel helpful. But it was even nicer when I viewed it as a temporary position before moving on to working with the kids. Clearing away dirty dishes and rinsing out half-drunk mugs isn't exactly the first thing I would think of in terms of ministry : ) Still, I think there must be no better way to get to know the average East Belfast person trying to make their way in this part of the world than to actually get right in there and work alongside them...
I spent one morning helping out in the playgroup of 3-4 year olds back when we assumed that would be my position in only a matter of time (CRB check) and it took no time at all for the darling little children of Inner East Belfast to win my heart. Imagine the petite, lisp-y voice of a three year old and then throw in a very generous helping of thick Belfast brogue and see if you can resist adoring them as they draw you into their carefree world of play : ) The facility was impressive as well, with stations of educating play set up in an accommodating church hall and two patient ladies running the show. I felt immediately a "yes" in my spirit; "This is it. I fit here" --so ready to move in and love on these precious kids who will be the next generation of souls surviving in this troubled part of the city.
But instead I'm learning to humbly and happily step in where needed-- the coffee shop-- and cherish each and every experience here in Northern Ireland as a dear gift and a piece of life's puzzle.
My experience with Oasis is not at all limited to the coffee shop or children's work. Cliff, the executive director, though he at first didn't seem to know what to do with me : ), magnanimously invites me to every meeting he thinks might be informative. I have sat in on a managerial meeting for one of Oasis' projects called Imago, which reaches into the mental health issues to be found in East Belfast, and a sort of sales pitch of Oasis itself to a board of professionals. I've been able to (and will continue to!) shadow a dear sweet lady called Isobel who heads up a branch of Oasis called the Good Neighbours Project, which reaches out to the isolated elderly of East Belfast. Last Tuesday she and I spent our morning at Stormont Castle, where the Northern Irish parliament meets (think, Capitol Hill in DC), rubbing elbows with Members of Parliament at an Age Concern meeting highlighting pensions for women in Northern Ireland. It was such an unforgettable delight to be welcomed in to an official meeting with representatives from organisations all over Northern Ireland and indeed the UK-- dressed up, footsteps echoing down those wide, elegant halls, lunch in a regal, high-ceiling-ed room overlooking the expansive front lawn, and sweet Isobel to tag along with.
My greatest struggle, if it can be called that, is just feeling isolated. I miss friends! But the people I do get to spend time with are lovely. And in my freetime, I'm going out and discovering what I can of this city, especially this particular part of it. If we remember anything at all about Belfast, it's usually sketchy rumours of The Troubles. But East Belfast is the birthplace of C.S. Lewis and what was once his grandfather's church is just up the street from where I live. Interestingly, the doorhandle to the parsonage next door is in the shape of, can you guess?, a lion's head : ) East Belfast is also the home of the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company, the very one that built the Titanic, and the two giant cranes that dominate the Belfast skyscape from most any view (my favorite one being from my hallway window!) are affectionately known as Samson and Goliath. I hear that the shipyard has been shutting down bit by bit over the years, adding vast unemployment to everything else the people of East Belfast are trying to overcome.
And the more I learn about all that needs overcoming, the more compassion I feel and the more I appreciate and respect Oasis' presence here-- reaching out to these people and attempting to regenerate the community. I'm continuing to reach a fuller understanding of the situation here and the needs presented in that. Each conversation is another chance to be educated, whether it be with one of my awesome housemates at who-knows-what-time of night, with the little snowy-headed man cleaning up the church steps on the corner who resembles quite distinctly the image in my head of what little old Irish men are meant to look like and so wins my heart immediately : ), or with the chit-chatty ladies in the coffee shop on a break from work. I feel so privileged to not just be studying about these people or their situations, but to actually be in it with them, walking their streets, hearing their stories, and bringing my own to exist alongside theirs... God is very much using all that I'm seeing and doing here to shape and form my heart and, I feel, my future, as I taste what this Christian Ministry stuff is about. And I hope He's using me to point to Him...
Again and again He is laying on my heart that it all goes back to Love. His Love-- translated through Grace. All the great things Oasis is doing in this community (for it is great; I have so much respect for and belief in this organisation as I've come to see it up close!) would be nothing without His Love.
"'The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church,' says Gordon MacDonald. "You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.' MacDonald has put his finger on the church's single most important contribution. Where else can the world go to find grace?"
I've been reading Philip Yancey's What's so Amazing about Grace--incredible book! And I've been thinking about His unending Love. I've been so challenged looking around me at this situation in Northern Ireland-- the seemingly solution-less problem causing such deep-seated hate and hostility... Even the very week I arrived a 15 year old catholic boy was brutally beaten to death by a group of protestant boys in Ballymena, reminding us that though things are better, they are far from healed... Already in two weeks time I find myself frustrated by how little I can do about anything. It just seems such hopeless foolishness from the outside looking in. And Northern Ireland’s situation is just one in a world of such foolish injustices; and a collective case to boot—He has the added frustration of knowing the very heart of every one of us, and who knows what kind of situations far outweighing the Northern Irish one He must find in there. I wonder that His love doesn't run out. This book has been His timely whispering reminder to me that it's His grace that makes that Love possible, a grace so deep and so distinctive...
And so, resting in His truly amazing Grace and reaching out through His unending Love, I am cherishing the challenge of this fantastic placement, taking it all into my heart, and falling more in love with Him by the day as I come to know and love this wee country and the people of it-- the only thing that can make any lasting difference here (or anywhere!). Thank you so much for your prayers...
(p.s. Pictures here they will be updated off and on as I take more!)