40 years of making God’s love real in south Armagh
By Ruth Garvey-Williams
(From the April - June 2019 issue of VOX)
On a damp Sunday morning in February, a small team of volunteers are busy peeling and slicing vegetables, laying tables and filling water jugs in the south Armagh village of Darkley. Once a month, the Crossfire Trust hosts a community meal - a delicious, three-course, home-cooked Sunday lunch - and everyone is welcome!
Fast forward two hours and over 50 people are tucking into a Sunday roast and enjoying live entertainment from the Murphy family - professional musicians who have given up their Sunday to volunteer at Crossfire.
Everyone joins in to sing happy birthday to one special guest. She is 60 years old but she never thought to see past 50 (everyone in her family had died young). With a beaming smile, she blows out the candles on her cake.
Around the tables everyone is equal, everyone is welcomed and loved - and yet some come from diametrically opposite ends of a divided community. “If we can eat together, we can learn to live together,” says Ian Bothwell, the founder of Crossfire Trust.
This warm, loving environment is a far cry from Darkley’s tragic past. On a very different Sunday, over 35 years ago, the evening service at a local Pentecostal church was just beginning when republican gunmen shot and killed three church elders and wounded seven others in a hail of bullets.
On my Doorstep
Ian and his wife Pauline have spent a lifetime serving this scarred community.
Growing up west of Armagh city in a unionist area, Ian attended Bible College and had set his heart on serving God in India. But as he waited for an opportunity to open up, he saw a TV programme about Crossmaglen - the largest village in south Armagh. British soldiers occupied this republican area during The Troubles and Ian was immediately struck by the devastation of bullet holes and tanks rolling through the streets.
“It seemed such a hopeless situation and I started to pray that God would send someone to show His love in south Armagh,” Ian said. “The more I prayed, the more the job description seemed to fit me, but then came the fear. Who am I? What if...? But that sense of vision didn’t leave me and I had a concern for these people who I did not know. I decided I would go and remind them that God loved them.”
In 1978, as a naïve 21-year-old, Ian set out to visit every home and tell people about God’s love, but many locals thought he was SAS and, while a few invited him in, he also had his fair share of doors slammed in his face.
“The further I travelled into south Armagh, the more isolated, barren and deserted it became. I began to realise that God wanted me to BE love not just share the message of love.”
A market stall in Crossmaglen and an Ulsterbus, converted into a mobile coffee bar, were among the early initiatives as a small team of volunteers came behind Ian to serve the area. They organised summer schemes for children and ran camps and missions, all the while responding to suspicion and mistrust from all sides.
“I wanted the river of God’s love to flow, cleansing hearts and healing the pain, like stones polished and smooth at the bottom of a riverbed. I wanted God’s love to flush away the cobwebs of doubt and the barriers of fear,” Ian shared.
Finding a Home
At that time, Ian began to dream of having a centre where he could offer hospitality to the local people. “God spoke and said, ‘I will give you a house and such a house that you will know it is from me.’”
As the search began for a property, in November 1983 Darkley made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The killings sent shockwaves through the region. But God was at work and it was in Darkley itself that God was to provide the house He had promised.
That same year, Darkley House and grounds came on the market but it wasn’t until 1986 that Ian and his team were able to purchase the house. “We were a bunch of 20 volunteers. We met to pray knowing that we had nothing and suddenly the phone rang,” Ian smiled. “It was the trustee of a large charitable trust who was phoning to let me know that they would give £10,000.”
The remainder of the purchase price came in the form of a mortgage. “We got 60 people to give £5 a month - from teenagers to pensioners - and that is how we could pay the mortgage.”
But not all of Ian’s supporters could understand the motivation behind this step. Darkley House was not going to be a Bible college or a Gospel hall. Many people misunderstood Ian’s vision to provide accommodation for ex-offenders, addicts and homeless people.
“Back then we were accused of preaching a ‘social gospel’. The blue-eyed mission boy had fallen from grace,” Ian said. “They didn’t realise that we were obeying our calling to be salt and light to this community. I wanted to listen and not just to preach.”
Both are Precious
Ian recalls the first time he truly listened. The team was hosting a barbecue at the end of a week of outreach. Ian got to know a group of teens and invited them to come but was told they had to go and collect milk bottles.
“Why are you so bitter?” Ian asked, only to wish he could have caught the words and stuffed them back into his mouth. “Even as I spoke, I realised that I sounded bitter too.”
The boys replied, “Have you ever been burnt out?”
“They told me about being burnt out of their home in Belfast and having to move to south Armagh for safety. I listened and, for the first time, I felt their pain. I was honoured that they trusted me with their story. I guess I’ve been doing that ever since. Nowadays we have sessions where we wear the shoes of the other side. Back in those days, my heart was leading the way.
“They were very special days when I learnt important principles. My Christian ethos was summed up in the words of a children’s chorus, ‘Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight. But now I went a step further - ‘the republican and the loyalist, both are precious in His sight.’”
In 1986, Ian and Pauline moved into Darkley House with their wedding presents. There wasn’t a light bulb in the house and if the back door slammed, the slates came off the roof. There was no money for heat and the beds were extremely uncomfortable (they took whatever was donated).
Soon they began welcoming people. One young woman, who lived in a loyalist estate, fell in love with a Catholic so she was put out of her house during Christmas week (her parents thought they would be burnt out if she stayed). She found a home at Darkley House.
“Back in those days you could open your door and say come on in. Now you have to ask more questions to keep people safe. It is more structured and we take referrals, but the overall principle is the same,” Ian explained.
Learning to Trust God’s Provision
Every step of the way, they had to learn to trust God to provide what was needed. At times, they saw miracles that left them breathless. But there were other times when cheques bounced!
Ian described the occasion when they were celebrating 10 years in Darkley House. “We organised food and a band. One of our trustees asked, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ I said, ‘Trust the Lord.’ And shortly afterwards a guy turned up and handed me a brown envelope stuffed with pound notes. That had never happened before and it has never happened since but I walked over to the trustee, handed him the envelope and said, ‘There you are. That’s from the Lord!’ It was £2,000!”
On another occasion things seemed to go from bad to worse. Finances were tight and to top it all, Ian’s car died. With no money to replace the car, repeatedly God kept saying, “Trust again.” The situation seemed to get more and more desperate. Eventually, after two weeks, Ian travelled to a car showroom with his son. He had the chequebook in his pocket but no money in the bank account.
The salesman showed him a brand new eight-seater and told him, “The best way to try a new car is to drive it.” That new car was a gift from an anonymous donor!
Ian and his son drove off and didn’t speak a word all the way home. “I didn’t know why God had put me through all of that with the old car dying and cheques bouncing but I put the words ‘Trust Again’ on the back of the car as a reminder.”
A few weeks later, a man spotted the car parked outside a shop and came out to see Ian. With tears in his eyes and a voice that was raw with emotion, he said, “I needed to see those words because my wife just left me.”
Still Loving, Still Trusting
Forty years on, Crossfire Trust continues to welcome and serve those who have been rejected by society - people struggling with mental health problems, ex-offenders, those who have been made homeless or people caught in cycles of poverty or addiction.
As well as accommodation and supported living, the Trust developed a food share project, community meals including lunch on Christmas Day, prison visits and a wide range of training and community development initiatives.
Ian and Pauline’s two children, Justin and Megan, spent their childhood in Darkley House, sharing their toys and their parents with residents. Today, they and their friends are part of the volunteer team that make it happen.
From the very beginning, prayer has been at the heart of Crossfire Trust and that has given Ian the confidence to speak out, especially on the issue of reconciliation.
That passion took them to the steps of Stormont and gave Ian opportunities to speak truth to power. Hosting a Good Friday Agreement Implementation Meeting at Darkley House, he found the courage to challenge the politicians, “I know this is not the 60s and I’m not a hippy but when are we ever going to love each other from the heart?” he asked.
“We in the church need to own reconciliation. It should be our flavour,” Ian said. “We should be proud that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall and He has given us a peace that can stand up to pressure. We need to provide prophetic leadership and to see the honour of being a voice in the dark. We need to be confident in the Gospel to heal our scars and our fears!”
In 2003, Ian and Pauline’s “long obedience” serving their community was recognised with the US President’s Peace Prize. Five years later, Crossfire Trust received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and in 2011 Irish President Mary McAleese visited Darkley House.
In 2013, Ian himself was awarded an MBE. While unsought, these honours helped to keep the project afloat.
“Today, we have more questions and fewer answers,” Ian admits. “But we still want to make God’s love real to all the people within our reach. To accept people is a powerful thing. We listen to people’s stories without judgement and have learnt not to jump to conclusions.
“Sadly there is still tension between the two cultures [in Northern Ireland]. These days I’m too Protestant for the Catholics and too Catholic for the Protestants. But I just want to be the fragrance of Christ. I don’t take sides. I want to care for the widows and the victims but also to show love to the ex- paramilitary who has just come out of prison.”
Facing the rising tensions caused by Brexit, Ian takes comfort in the belief that the seeds of peace that have been planted and the partnerships that have developed over so many years will stand firm.
“The border doesn’t need to be a barrier, it needs to be our bridge,” Ian reflects. “Out of the wounds of yesterday, we have experienced the deep wells of God’s grace. We’ve ended up with scars but our scars can speak.”
Looking back, Ian sees precious relationships with individuals and transformed lives as the lasting fruit of his ministry. One of those individuals was Shane who moved into Darkley House and became a dear friend. “We trusted each other and we talked and talked,” Ian says.
When Shane died, his brothers asked Ian to help carry his coffin, a mark of the love and respect in which he is held. “I’ve been to Buckingham Palace and the White House but the biggest honour of my life was when I carried Shane’s coffin into Castleblaney chapel.”