By Ruth Garvey-Williams
Editor Ruth Garvey-Williams toured Ireland in 2013. Here's one of the favourite articles from her "Finding Faith" tour, republished from VOX magazine issue 20...
Words seem inadequate to describe my visit to Ringsend in Dublin’s docklands. Here in the most unlikely of places I’ve seen what hope looks like. And it is as beautiful and unexpected as the flowers that bring a riot of colour in the heart of the inner city.
The Anchorage Project is an old Mission Hall overshadowed by concrete tower blocks. Today it houses a playschool providing for up to 40 children every day. A flower garden produces window boxes and hanging baskets while lettuces, tomatoes and peppers flourish in the greenhouse.
Raised planters mean wheelchair users can help out with gardening. At the far end of the yard a derelict area will become a reflective space when funds allow for landscaping and some comfortable seating.
A mini menagerie of rabbits and canaries delights visitors of all ages. And in the Fair Play Café, delicious, affordable meals come with a warm welcome and a friendly word.
It has taken years of patience, love, vision and perseverance for Joe and Sharon Donnelly to create this oasis of peace and beauty, which is making a remarkable impact, both in Dublin and around the world. And yet only a fraction of the vision has been fulfilled.
"We call it a hope-shaped project," Joe says, as he shows me around. "I grew up in the flats around the corner with 10 of us living in a two-bedroomed council house. I used to get drunk on cider in the back yard of this place and throw stones at the windows.
“At the age of 22, I was ready to commit suicide but God transformed my life. We're bringing something of the riches of God's kingdom here. Forget about church on Sunday, we live church Monday to Saturday!"
Enjoying a coffee and a slice of lemon cake, I’m fascinated by one wall of the café that is papered with the front covers of Irish newspapers.
“That is the good news wall,” Joe explains. “I wrote to every editor in the country and asked them to send me their favourite front page covers featuring good news stories. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’ve had to beat the good news out of them.
“Bad news has gone viral. This is not a denial that we are in a bad place but it is a statement that we need to celebrate any good news there is.”
At the heart of the vision is the question, “How can we express authentic Christian hope in 21st Century Ireland?”
Not an optional extra
“Too often Christians see hope as an optional extra,” Joe says. “Hope has migrated from the church because there was an over-emphasis on faith (or objective reasoning). Hope is not so easily defined - it is all about metaphors. Jesus left things hanging in the air.”
And Joe has done the same. All over this place are tantalising invitations to conversation and connection.
A table and chairs is stuck upside down on the ceiling. “That’s about God’s upside down kingdom,” Joe smiles. “I tell people who ask, ‘Your destiny is the marriage supper of the lamb and that celebration is leaking from the future into the present.’” [upsidedown_kingdom]
A sign on the wall warns, “Generosity is contagious”. Now averaging €20,000 a year, the community of Ringsend is raising money for world’s poorest people through the café and from the sale of flowers. This year, they are supporting former child soldiers in Africa.
Outside the greenhouse, a weighing scales filled with flowers hints at the beautiful “weight” of God’s glory.
“The gospel is fabulous. It affects the whole of life and the whole of the person.” Joe’s grin is so wide it’s infectious. I find myself beaming back even as I’m furiously taking notes.
“There are untapped resources in the gospel of Jesus Christ that this society cannot even begin to imagine. Evangelism used to be, “Come to our meeting and if you don’t, you can just go to hell.” A lot of what I’m doing now is in reaction to that.
“If people are not ready to connect with things of the kingdom, they can walk out but others ask questions. I’ve discovered that this honours the work of the Holy Spirit. We get to pray, ‘Are you doing something in this guy’s life?’”
Restoring Dignity and Community
A tips jar is matched each year by a donation from a local company to provide lunch vouchers. St Vincent de Paul and the local priest give these vouchers to needy people in the community.
“The vouchers look the same as the loyalty scheme, so there is no sense of shame for people coming to buy a hot lunch,” Joe explains. It is a way to provide more than just a food parcel.
“I’m trying to get people to socialise and to re-enter the human race. When they come to use their voucher, they get to talk to people.”
Joe knows what it is like to feel trapped in a cycle of poverty and misery. Born and bred in Ringsend, he was sent out to work at the age of 15.
“I went wild as a teenager, trying to process my father’s death. Drink caused a lot of destruction in my life. At the Christian Brothers’ School, I experienced a level of cruelty that made me think, ‘If those guys go to heaven, then I’d rather go to hell.’
Joe attempted suicide when he was 22. “All of my hopes and dreams were slipping through my fingers like sand. It was a horrible feeling of despair like a python wrapped around my chest. My life was reduced to a pinhead.”
Joe laughs as he describes his journey to faith. As an atheist punk rocker, he began reading the New Testament so he could argue with a friend who was considering joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “As I read about Jesus, I began to think, ‘What if this is right?’”
Showing God's Redemptive ways
“God transformed me and He is transforming this place. People here told us, ‘No body gives us a *?!@ about us and nobody ever will.’ I was stupid enough to come back with raw, reckless faith.”
Initially, Joe was horrified at the idea of using the old Mission Hall. “It was a Protestant relic and it seemed the last place we should use. I had to learn that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. God wanted to take one of the lads who used to have cider parties here and fire up a vision to show His redemptive ways.”
Without money or help, Joe and Sharon started with a clean slate, loads of passion and a belief in what God could do in the community they love.
“Because I grew up in the local flats and knew what it was like to drown in a sea of concrete. We create an oasis for people, an island for them to row out to and inhabit.”
I leave reluctantly, wanting to breath in every ounce of inspiration. Those looking for formulas would re-create “The Anchorage” in other places. That’s not the answer. But my imagination is fired with a vision of what might be… if similar love, faith and hope inspired passionate, creative engagement with communities all over Ireland.