Tuesday 3 May: Buncrana, County Donegal to Dromara, County Down.
For the fourth year running, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams has climbed behind the wheel to travel around Ireland looking for stories of faith, life and reality... here's just a taste of what she has found...
It was an early start for the first day of this year’s Finding Faith Tour. Leaving beautiful Buncrana in glorious sunshine, I drove the short distance across the border into Northern Ireland to the city of Derry.
First stop is Strand Road where I meet Andrew, a Donegal man who works with Exodus North West based out of the old Strand Road Presbyterian Church. Andrew explains how the church, which closed its doors on the 10/10/2010 is now being “reborn” as the base for the work of Exodus.
“Exodus serves the local church in disciple-making youth ministry. Our vision is to see generations of young people boldly following Jesus and becoming life-long disciple makers,” Andrew explains. Currently undergoing renovation, the old schoolhouse attached to the church has become a multi-purpose space which is used for small group Bible studies, worship and training events and outreach to students in the nearby college and university. Andrew is passionate about God and about seeing young people brought into relationship with Jesus, “There is nothing sweeter; there is nothing better than knowing God. Any other starting place for life seems so weak in comparison to knowing Jesus and the hope He brings.
Joel is an intern with Exodus and he called in while I was visiting the Strand Road building. Preparing to lead an Exodus team to Hungary this summer, Joel lights up as he talks about the difference Jesus has made in his life. “I’m from the Waterside here in Derry. I had acute anxiety growing up - a lot of fear and worry. I used to over process everything. I wanted nothing to do with God for a while. I was so angry. When I was in fifth year, I remember opening up my Bible at John chapter 3. Suddenly, it felt like Jesus was in my room, giving me a hug. Something shifted that night. Jesus has transformed my life.”
Next stop is a short walk away to the Warehouse Café, in Derry’s Guildhall Square. I get to meet Marie-Therese who heads up the new Derry-based worship band, “I AM”. Ordering a coffee, I soon discover that Joseph, who works in the café is also a member of the band.
Marie-Therese tells me, “I have been singing in church for over 20 years! I started with St. Brigid’s folk group at the age of 10! I come from a Catholic family and my parents had me up at the front row of mass every Sunday. I went through a period of exploring and testing it and making sure it was my own.
"The last year I spent at Hillsong in Australia. That was huge for me. I thought how can we replicate that here? If we can contribute to other people’s lives by doing something we love doing, it is a win / win. To spend my life singing beautiful words, it is a dream come true. Within three months of me returning from Australia, we were on stage for our first concert. It was on Easter Sunday and we called it, “I AM Alive.” 450 people turned up! The heart of what I’m doing is for God’s glory, to make Jesus famous.”
“The old traditional way was to see Jesus as a distant and fearful God. I don’t have that at all. Jesus is my best friend, my number one, the love of my life. I have a very real relationship with him. I can talk and be myself with Him because he knows the craic with me!”
The rain came in as I drove up the north coast to Coleraine to meet with John Mark Mullan from Mountsandel Christian Fellowship. John Mark kindly treats me to a delicious bowl of soup and wheaten bread at the café inside The Sandel Centre.
As we eat, he shares the story of how in 2000 the church chose to build a community centre instead of a “church”. “One of the elders was a town planner and he knew that planning permission had just been given to build new houses on this side of Coleraine. There were going to be thousands of new homes but no churches and no community facilities. Arthur Williamson is a humble, gracious man who had the vision for what we have now. As he looked around Coleraine, he felt the city didn’t need another church building that would lie empty for a lot of the week… The community centre is a hive of activity throughout the week and then on Sunday, the church meets in the building. This has broken down the distance between our church and the local community
“If I was to sum up what I love about our church, I always come back to that sense of a grace-filled community. Too often in Northern Ireland we’ve preached about grace but people’s experience of the church community has been harsh, legalistic or false. Whatever else we do, we have to be a community that embodies grace and peace.”
Next stop is another coffee shop… this time Costa Coffee close to Belfast City Airport and a chance to meet with Johan Vizagie and James Scott from Every Nation Church. I’m blown away by the passion of these two men as they share their heart for the city. This week, they are running a “Love Encounter” in South Belfast with groups joining them from Germany, France and London.
“God is calling us to build bridges between different communities and He has given us a ministry of reconciliation, Johan shares. “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and the 75th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz. The Germans wanted to come to express love to the city - releasing ‘love bombs’ by ministering to people in the city.”
James has an amazing story of his own encounter with God’s love. Suffering from mental health issues, feeling suicidal and given just weeks to live because of his addiction to alcohol, nine years ago he cried out to God. “God transformed my life. I always thought I was never ever good enough. It wasn’t until I realised that I didn’t have to be good enough that He brought me to a point of complete of surrender. From a place of complete brokenness, I can now support other people.”
Saying goodbye, James assures me the drive to my next destination (Portadown) should only take 45 minutes to an hour. With plenty of time to spare, I’d be able to grab some dinner and perhaps work through my notes before joining a worship and prayer evening in the Tin House café… #bestlaidplans!
Unfortunately an “incident” closed the A12 Westlink and led to a one-and-a-half-hour detour through Belfast city centre, so I arrived in Portadown, County Armagh at 7.25pm... with just five minutes to spare before the meeting was set to strart.
My host for the night - Gareth from Precept Ministries - had told me about the evening event and I was excited to be a part of it (albeit rather hungry and exhausted after the long drive). Christians from various churches had gathered to pray for this Thursday’s Northern Irish elections. For two hours, the group prayed through the names of every single candidate for the elections, crying out to God for Him to choose people of integrity. It was a beautiful evening of heartfelt worship and prayer inspired by the vision of David McBride and based around Isaiah 1:26. David also runs the cafe itself… but that is another story.
The final drive of the day is to Dromara in County Down, where Gareth and his wife Joy have kindly offered me a bed for the night. Some welcome cheese and crackers, give me energy for the late-night blogging session.
And so to bed… Zzzzzzz
Read the blog from DAY TWO.