Sunday 11 May: Castlebar, County Mayo to Kilmacanogue, County Wicklow
For one week in May 2014, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams is travelling around Ireland to hunt down stories of faith, life and reality. Each day, she will share her journey and introduce the people she meets along the way. Visit VOX magazine on Facebook for more photos and to take part in our competition to guess how many miles she will travel this week!
Thanks to a good night's sleep, I'm raring to go for Day Two. I'm so grateful for the generous hospitality of my hosts - Andrew and Genesis Kohler. It's been exciting to hear about Calvary Church here in Castlebar and their plans for the summer. One intriguing programme is called "The Bible in one hour". This goes hand in hand with a project in Westport where the local Christian bookshop offers free Bibles. In the last year alone, almost 400 people have requested the free gift!
Driving into Westport, I had a few moments to drive by Croagh Patrick - sadly shrouded in mist so I couldn't see right to the top - before it was time to join the folks at Amazing Grace church. Just outside of town, this fellowship meets in a building which includes a charity shop and coffee shop as well as space for new possibilities. It's exciting stuff... but there isn't much time to browse because two of the church members are ready to chat with me.
When I ask Lynn Maloney about her journey to faith, she admits she's "bursting at the seams" to share!
"I came from a traumatic background of domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness and prostitution. The first I heard about Jesus was from a woman who came out on the street and give us a cup of tea and a hug. It was so long since I had experienced love from anyone so that began a massive turning point in my life."
Lynn is not the only one in tears as she shares, "I was in a place of the walking dead and Jesus took away my shame and gave me a new life and a new identity. He took a wretch like me and transformed my life beyond my wildest dreams. I now have a wonderful husband and friends who love me. From being an unfit mother, I have two lovely boys."
Today, Lynn is working with others to tackle the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, especially in the west of Ireland. She uses her own experiences to help raise awareness of the issue and to challenge attitudes and wrong assumptions.
Close to death
For Dublin-born Edith Fitzgerald, the road to faith was an extremely painful one - literally. Crippled with rheumatoid arthritis as a young mum and faced with severe complications, she was told she was unlikely to live.
"I remember laying on the bed and crying out to Jesus, 'Just take me. I don’t care. I would prefer to die anyway than to live the life in pain and unable to walk.' All I could see from my hospital bed was the cross on top of a church steeple against a deep blue sky. I fell into a deep sleep that night and when I woke up I could see the cross right there in the middle of the room. I felt such an incredible sense of peace and fell asleep thinking that I was dying, so it was a big surprise the next morning when I woke up!"
Edith's condition improved dramatically. "To this day, I still have no pain in my legs and I go out walking two or three times every week," she shared. She began to search for the peace she had experienced in that hospital bed. Years later, she came into contact with the church in Westport and gave her life to God. "I remember feeling that peace again, that I had felt so many years before!"
The church service is just starting, so I join in before jumping in the car again for the drive to County Roscommon. I'm struck but the changing landscape as I drive east. Rugged hills give way to gentle slopes and vibrant grasslands. I chase a patch of blue sky for a while, hopeful that the weather is clearing, but by the time I arrive at Strokestown House the first drops of rain are falling.
Hoping to catch up with Church of Ireland Rector Liz Mc Elhinney, I discovered that she was taking part in the National Famine Commemoration, so I decided to head there instead. I quickly doubted my decision as the skies opened with a vengeance. Thankfully a very kind gentleman shared his huge umbrella with me (shout out to whoever you are). Rain aside, it was humbling to be part of this national event and even to photograph An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny!
There was just time for a quick stop in Roscommon town with friends and former colleagues from OM Ireland. Alastair and Helen Kerr and their five children shared a wonderful late Sunday lunch with me along with a chance to catch up on news of OM's work especially in the Midlands and the west of Ireland.
Thanks to great directions, I made it to Mullingar just in time to meet with five of the churches leaders from Christian Voices Together.
Without ignoring the differences between them, these ministers, pastors and priests have chosen to build relationships with one another based on mutual love and respect.
Fr John Nally explains, "We want to move away from just 'Church-i-anity' and towards real Christianity which is mission focused and led by the Spirit of God."
Space and time simply don't allow for all the stories here but each of the leaders talk passionately about their love for Jesus and their concern for their communities. I leave humbled and thoughtful - what would Ireland look like if this were the norm? Or is this only possible because of the unique situation and attitude of the leaders in Mullingar?
It is 8pm and I need to dig deep for the last one hour drive of the day through more torrential rain. Journey's end makes it all worthwhile as I enjoy relaxing with friends Nigel and Louise Reid from Mountainview Church in Bray. Coffee, dessert and plenty of heart-sharing take us late into the evening.
That only leaves one small problem… writing today's blog at midnight!