By Ruth Garvey-Williams
In the print version of this article, we used a wrong abbreviation: Pastor Jack served in the UDR (a part of the British army) and NOT in the UDA (a terrorist group). We would like to express our most sincere apologies to Pastor Jack for this mistake.
Straddling the so-called Peace Wall that stands between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road in Belfast, the City Life Centre is dedicated to pursuing peace in a place where sectarian violence remains the norm. With its indoor football pitch, pre-school, and the “Wholly Ground” coffee shop as well as the church sanctuary for New Life City Church, this building has become a place of hope. It seems fitting that there is a rainbow in the sky as I drive up.
Sharing a cup of coffee with Pastor Jack McKee, I sense I’m truly on “holy ground”. Over 30 years in ministry, Jack has challenged terrorist commanders, faced murder threats and raids on his home, as he has sought to protect the innocent. He is passionate about seeing peace and transformation in his community - on both sides of the wall.
Born and brought up on the Shankill Road, Jack found faith in Jesus Christ as a teenager. Serving in the UDR, he saw colleagues killed and experienced devastating grief when his best friend was shot dead at home.
After studying at the Elim Bible College and pastoring a church in County Down, Jack returned to the Shankill in 1982. “In some respects, Bible college teaches you how to do church, not how to be church,” Jack admits.
“As a young Christian, I read the Bible and anything written by David Wilkerson. His books made a huge impact on me and showed me that even people caught up in gang warfare can have their lives changed. I knew there was an answer to Northern Ireland’s problems, and it couldn’t be found in a normal church. Too often, churches become dinosaurs and fail to connect with the realities of life.”
For 10 years, Jack pastored a church in the northern part of the Shankill and turned a large cinema into a youth and community centre. “My whole focus became young people who have been victimised and brutalised by the paramilitaries. We were seeing young people come to faith in Christ and were trying to filter them into local churches, but the churches could not cope. The young people were used to the streets and they were not used to church. It was a huge culture shock.”
An incident in 1992 stands out as an example of the tragedy of violence. “When the Ormeau Road bookmakers shop was attacked by loyalist paramilitaries, five people were killed and nine were injured. A young fella in my church was watching this on the news and started to cry. He asked, ‘Why do people do that and call themselves Protestants?’ He could not understand. Inevitably, there was a retaliation for the attack, and that young man was one
of those killed!”
In 1993, Jack launched New Life City Church. It wasn’t an easy time. “I buried more young men connected with our church than any other local church,” Jack shared. “There were young men murdered by local paramilitaries. We were leading them to Christ and then having to bury them. I knew I needed to do something about what they were facing.”
That “something” meant speaking out against the violence toward the youth, and as a result, Jack was sentenced to death and had his home attacked. Advised to leave Northern Ireland, he stayed and instead established the City Life Centre in a former warehouse straddling the peace wall.
For Jack, it can be very emotional working with former paramilitaries and seeking to bring about change. “I was and still am angry when I meet people who were responsible for some of the deaths. There was a young man, David, who was like a young brother to me. He was murdered by the UVF and some culprits were put in jail.
“We do work schemes with people who have been in jail. After serving 16 years, one guy came out of a prison and was working with me in the office. Then one day the probation officer asked me if I knew why this man had been in jail. He told me he was in for David’s murder. I just sat and cried. We had become friends. I liked him. It was all so pointless. Afterwards, we talked about it and we cried together.”
The centre is a place of hope where hundreds of people from both sides of the wall can come to play football, enjoy coffee, or engage in one of the many programmes. Even today, the gates between the two communities are locked every night at 6pm. For those from the Falls Road wanting to play football of an evening, it means a long drive around to find an open gate. Jack is lobbying to have the gates open for longer, but so far the “gatekeepers” (usually the paramilitaries on both sides) have not been willing to allow it.
In the no-man’s land between the gates, the church has established a space dedicated to peace. The “cross of crosses” marks all the years of violence, while a monument declares “peace” in English, Irish, and Scottish.
A BETTER WAY
“It can be very difficult to resolve the issues and the hurts of the past,” Jack says. “Whatever has happened, the message of the cross is a message of hope. We’ll never undo what happened, but we can make sure we don’t go back there again.”
Running personal development programmes with young men, Jack helps to provide positive role models and encourages them to make better choices. There have been great success stories as well as the tragedies.
“Paramilitaries still control these communities. They still beat young men and even shoot them, but you never hear about it. People want us to believe we have peace. It is better than 15 or 20 years ago, but it does depend on where you live. Some people in this community have not seen the benefits of peace.”
Jack describes an incident a few weeks ago when a young man was badly beaten by two carloads of paramilitary members. He managed to pick himself up and make his way to the centre. As he was loaded onto a stretcher, the staff asked him, “Why did you come here?” He answered, “I knew it would be open and I knew I’d be safe here.”
“I long for the walls to come down, not just the physical walls but also the sectarian walls in people’s hearts and minds,” Jack shares. “I’m struggling to put it into words because it almost seems like an unreachable goal.
“I long for peace in a real sense, not just the absence of violence but a genuine relationship with God and the realisation that the church does have the answer. Sadly, too often, we try to condemn people into church, but that doesn’t work. We’ve got to love people into church. We have to be there for them at
their darkest moments.
“The problem is that the church spends so much trying to get the world to live like Christians. Leave them alone! It is a much tougher challenge to get Christians to
live like Christians!”
Ruth Garvey-Williams is the editor of VOX magazine and lives in Buncrana, Co. Donegal.