Finding Faith in Ireland DAY ONE

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Saturday 3 August - Buncrana to Ballina. This summer, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams is travelling around Ireland to hunt down stories of faith, life and reality. Each day, she will share the story of her journey and some of the stories she encounters along the way.

It's early morning Sunday and I'm trying to process the incredible experiences of yesterday.  It seems impossible to summarise and capture a journey which spanned over 270 miles / 434 km, took in counties Donegal, Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo dirving through breath-taking landscape and meeting nine amazing people.  But one word stands out for me - PASSION.  

Okay, I didn't feel very passionate at 6.30 am when we set off from home in Buncrana, Co Donegal.  Mornings are not my thing.  First stop was the bus station in Derry where I waved goodbye my husband Andrew and daughter Bethany who are off to walk the Camino de Santiago with a group of friends from church.

I had a grand scheme to start my journey by standing on the Peace Bridge and recording a short video but lashing rain put paid to that idea.  A quick snap of the bridge and I was back in the car to do the voice to camera bit.  Being my own photographer / cameraperson this trip is a challenge but I'm thankful for the loan of a tablet (courtesy of Bethany) and a great camera (courtsey of Andrew) to help capture the journey.

The first stage of the journey was from Derry to Falcarragh - a small town in the north west of Donegal - where I was set to meet Paddy and Donna de Lasa. Three weeks ago, the couple moved from Derry where Paddy had been Assistant Pastor of the thriving Cornerstone City Church. They have chosen to work in rural Donegal, returning to Paddy's hometown with a passionate desire to see people's lives transformed.

Although Paddy found faith as a 12-year-old, a tragedy left him disilusioned and for a while he walked away from God. He shared, "I decided, 'I’m going to live for myself.'  I partied pretty hard. I went through all of my maintenance grant money in the first three months. I spent it all on vodka and other stuff. At the end of that time, I remember waking up one morning on a random doorstep in Galway, with my phone broken and my clothes all a mess. I couldn’t remember what had happened the night before and I thought, 'There has got to be more than this.' It was a bit like the Prodigal Son… I wanted to come back to the Father."

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Now following his dream to pastor a church, Paddy is convinced that only one thing is needed to made a difference in his community. "We might have the best programme or the biggest church but if we don’t have the presence of God it is worthless. God creates the space where He shows His glory. It's not about us."

Inspired and encouraged, I left Falcarragh to drive through the hills of Donegal to the small town of Ardara where I was to have lunch at Sheila's Coffee and Cream coffee shop (based in the local Heritage Centre). It was one of the busiest days of the year and Sheila was rushed off her feet, so I had time to enjoy a sweet chilli panini before we snatch a few moments to chat.

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Sheila launched her cafe six years ago and it has grown to a thriving business employing seven people in the little town voted the Irish Times "Best viillage to live in in Ireland" in 2012. I caught a glimpse of Sheila in action when she wove her wave through the crowded restaurant to where I was sitting at the back. At almost every table, she stopped to chat with customers. This is someone who is passionate about great baking but she is also passionate about people.

"People love it when you say, 'Hello' even when they know you are busy," she smiles as she finally sits down to chat.  

I ask Sheila about her faith and her story takes my breath away. Her son Stephen was 4 1/2 years old when he was killed in a terrible accident. That terrilbe pain could have driven her away from God but instead it sent her running towards Him. Here she shares her story: 

“Before then I was very business minded. I loved my three children but I became driven.  It was all about money and success.  One Sunday a big job came up.  My sister, who is a Christian, asked me, ‘Why do you have to be working every day of the week?  All that time is so precious.’ 

I remember so plainly the day wee Stephen was killed.  He somehow got caught in the door of the schoolbus and was pulled under the wheels.  I could see his blond hair.  He had died instantly. I can still remember feeling so ashamed of the house because we were in the middle of renovating and it was a mess.  But then somehow I didn’t care any more because my wee boy was gone.  I knew he was in heaven and I wanted to make sure I could get there to be with him one day.

"I knew I was a sinner so I told my sister, 'I’m going to be so good from now on.'  Then she told me, 'Jesus has done it all.  You don’t have to do anything.'  I thought, ‘It couldn’t be that simple.’

"Stephen was buried the next day and my sister gave me a New Testament.I read it the night of the funeral.  The next morning, I couldn’t wait to start reading it again.  I found a prayer at the back of the book and I prayed it.  From that moment I knew that something had changed.  I would still cry for Stephen but somehow I also knew that everything would be alright."

Sheila gave up her business to spend more time with her other children but later retrained as a pastry chef. She launched her cafe on St. Patrick's Day six years ago and has never looked back.

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From Ardara, I drove 30 minutes through countryside that snatch my breath away to the small village of Glencolmcille.  There I met artist Conal McIntyre in a small gallery filled with his work.  Ranging from landscapes to more abstract pieces in strong reds and blues, Conal's work is vibrant.  

One small abstract piece catches my eye.  It is untitled... one of Conal's "red" series... I feel I could gaze at it for hours!

I sink into a comfortable armchair and chat with Conal about his artwork and his faith.  He's animated as he discusses his twin passions!  But time is against us and soon I'm on the road again.  

This time I head down past Donegal Town and acros the border into County Fermanagh to the Cleenish Centre - a Chistian Retreat Centre on Lough Erne.  I've been invited by Ellis and Holly, who run the centre and when I arrive I'm in for a treat. Ellis wants to make me a "real" coffee.  After the exhausting drive along a seemly-endless series of bends and curves along the shores of the lough, I'm longing for a cup. 

But this is something extra special.  "Good coffee takes time.  It's all about relationship, about serving people," he explains as he painstakingly grinds beans and adds the water at just the right temperature.  The first taste pretty much spoils me for any other coffee... ever.

And over that fabulous coffee we get to chat about Ellis and Holly's other passion - discipling young adults to live a "missional" lifestyle in their communities.  "The whole point is to become more like Christ."I don't take much persuading to have another cup of coffee before I leave.  

The final two hours of the journey are hard work, especially the last 10 minutes or so.  It is such a relief to cross into County Mayo and arrive at the town of Ballina.  Staying with good friends Kirk and Madeline we end the day chatting about what it means to have faith when we are dealing with disappointment or discouragement. Tired as I am, I'm still inspired by this couple's quiet strength and conviction, and so grateful for their warm and generous hospitality!