We have given as best we can to schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland since the fall semester, 2002. The journey has been a challenging and delightful one. For us, from the United States, to make our way into the hearts of principals and teachers in an area of the world that has known contention was not easy. We were outsiders and they are looked on with some suspicion. “What is in it for you?” was the question asked of us at the beginning of this journey. We had at our side the wonderful Anne Gallagher, who opened school doors for us. She had been in the peace movement in Belfast for some years before us and so she gave us instant acceptance into the schools. Rest in peace, Anne.
It has been a joy to see principals, teachers, and students grow in their understanding and appreciation of the virtue of forgiveness, so needed to bind up the wounds of literally hundreds of years of strife.
I had the privilege of attending meetings and services in both the “maintained” and “controlled” schools during the Christmas season this year. The word “maintained” refers mostly to private schools that receive some government money. Students attending these schools are primarily Catholic. The word “controlled” refers mostly to what Americans call public schools that receive more government money. Students attending these schools are primarily, but not exclusively, Protestant.
In the Christmas services at the maintained and controlled schools there is a celebration of the deepest meaning of Christmas, not just about presents and good cheer. You see, those in each school share this common heritage, yet they do so separately because they lead separate lives.
Yet, there is something more here. As I walked through the streets of Belfast, especially once the sun would set (about 4:20pm), there was a kind of coziness to the city. “Merry Christmas, Belfast” is seen in blue lights that are strung across a busy street. Shops play Christmas music that is gently piped into the streets. One is surrounded by the Christmas spirit. This is so different from America in which there is a certain self-conscious embarrassment to share this Christmas spirit, as people on occasion mutter, “Happy holidays” in contrast to the exuberance and un-self-conscious joy that unites a city historically divided.
There is much hope for Belfast, I say to myself as I walk along the busy thoroughfares. They share more than a common heritage of conflict and contention. They actually do share the common heritage of peace and love and joy as well. A key now is for each side to begin seeing this common heritage, including the insight that this heritage honors each person as precious, unique, and irreplaceable. The message from forgiveness education is similar: We all have inherent worth no matter what our religion or cultural heritage….or historical contentions.
Merry Christmas, Belfast, no matter what your cultural and religious heritage is. May forgiveness be one of the important common heritages as people in the distant years to come look back on their city.