Wednesday 14 May: Limerick City to Kilcullen, Co Kildare (via Kilkenny)
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!
First stop of the day is Nenagh in County Tipperary (it's certainly a long way to Tipperary when you drive via Malin Head and Mizen Head…!) where I meet up with Dean and Julia Langley from the Baptist Church known locally as "The Hatchery". The building the church rents used to be a real chicken hatchery and so the name stuck, with its symbolic connection to new life in Jesus.
Dean and Julia work alongside Matt and Jules Tuttlebee who started the church after moving to Nenagh over 12 years ago. The ethos of the church is to engage with the local community through everyday activities like sports, hobbies and volunteering.
"We get excited about connecting with people," Dean shared. "It is interesting to see how God uses things [hobbies, skills and interests] in your life. You may not think they are 'spiritual' but they are means for connection."
Over recent months, Dean has faced the challenge of cancer in his leg. Following surgery and radiotherapy he still needs crutches to walk.
You are never prepared for something like that," Dean admits. "When I went to the hospital for the surgery, I remember saying, 'This is a door I don't want to walk through' - in fact it felt like being dragged through kicking and screaming!
And yet it has been a wonderful opportunity. People in the community are so supportive and we've been able to identify with others who are going through similar things!"
Dean's faith gave him comfort through the treatment and recovery even though he went through a roller coaster of emotions. "You know that you are not alone!"
From Nenagh, I drive to Kilkenny where I've arranged to meet John and Andy from Kilkenny Community Church. Andy shows me around their building in the city centre and I'm immediately struck by the creativity and attention to detail that has gone into decorating this former furniture shop. Stunning photography, paintings, flower arrangements and plants create colour and beauty throughout.
There is a sense of excitement and anticipation as Andy talks about the church's twice-weekly coffee morning. The cafe area at the front of the building is thrown open to the public. More and more people are coming in - some just for coffee, some for a chat and some asking for prayer.
"There are a lot of broken and hurting people out there," Andy says. He tells the story of one man who kept trying to build up the courage to come into the church. Eventually he decided, "I'll go into town and if there is a parking space outside, then I'll go in." He arrived and the street was deserted.
The man went inside, sat down and told Andy, "I don't know where I'm going when I die." With tears in his eyes, the man shared his fears and concerns for the future. That same morning he gave his life to God. As he left he said, "It feels like a weight has come off my shoulders."
Andy is convinced that there is a new openness in Ireland towards spiritual things. "We've really seen the church growing since we moved into the centre of town."
My next stop is Kilkenny Presbyterian Church, just up the road, where I gatecrash a meeting between people from various local churches who are planning a major event with South African speaker Angus Buchan on June 11th. (Check out www.togetherforireland.com for details).
We are joined by four young people who are leaders at an inter-church youth centre called "The Rock" which has been running since 2006. Conor from the USA and Kaddl from Germany run the project, Patrick is an intern and James works as a volunteer leader.
There is a tremendous sense of energy and passion as these young people share. "Each week we run an after-school youth cafe on Tuesdays and Thursdays and an evening youth cafe on Fridays from 7 until 11," Kaddl explained.
The focus is on building relationship with the teenagers who come in and showing love and care for them. James was 13 years old when he started going to The Rock in 2007. "I wasn't in a good place at the time but The Rock gave me a community where I could trust people and talk with them. I remember when one of the leaders, Scott Evans, told us, 'If you ever need someone, I am here.' One night I was in a really dark place from drinking. I had just broken up with my girlfriend and exams were coming up. I was standing on my roof at 2am and no one would pick up their phone. So I decided to call Scott and he did pick up."
Through that experience James gradually came to know God. "Scott told me, 'We will falter in our lives but God loves us no matter what.' So I thought I'd give it a shot."
There are plans to move The Rock into its own building in the centre of the city (at present it uses Kilkenny Methodist Church) and recently the group raised almost half a million euro in a matter of days in order to make an offer on a building (watch this space).
From Kilkenny, I travel north again through County Carlow and on into County Kildare. It's been a dull, grey day but I'm struck by the vibrant green of the soft Kildare landscape.
I'm staying in the small town of Kilcullen with Richard and Annmarie Miles. Of course, Annmarie is our very own VOX magazine "Feint Saint" and it is really lovely to catch up! After a meal together we head over to their church - Brannockstown Baptist - and I'm excited to hear that this little rural congregation has grown to fill the lovely old stone building in recent years.
We end the evening chatting about our faith and the challenges of walking through bad times as well as good. Annmarie lost her father as well as a dear friend earlier this year and admits there are times she feels angry with God.
"I'm 20 today," she tells me. "Twenty years ago today I gave my life to the Lord. If you have a real encounter with Jesus you are never, ever the same again. Sometimes I argue and debate and cry and give out to God and at other times, I can’t talk to him because I can hardly breathe! In the middle of it all, I know that he is faithful. He is always there."
Read Day Six of the Finding Faith blog.