Tuesday 2 May
Setting off on my fifth Finding Faith Tour is incredibly exciting but also a little bit daunting! Ahead I know that I'll be meeting some amazing people and hearing stories that make my soul soar. But I also know the tour is incredible demanding both physically and mentally as I clock up the miles and the word count!
With a brief stop to take in the awesome beauty of Lough Swilly here in Amazing Grace Country, I'm on the road to Letterkenny to visit our good friend Stephen Wilson who is pastor of Letterkenny Baptist Church.
Stephen gave up a high-paid, "dream" job travelling the world to become a Baptist pastor. Other people thought he was mad, but he's never looked back. Recently, he's been preaching a series on "encouragement" in his church.
"As Christians we like to get encouragement but we are not terribly good at giving it. We are trying to build a church that encourages one another. This week, we’ve been focusing on Galatians 6:2 about carrying one another’s burdens."
En route from Letterkenny, I decide this year's "random" question... so here's one to think about. How many tractors will I see during the next seven days? Let us know and there may well be a wee prize in it for anyone who guesses the right answer. Hint: We're already well into double figures at the end of day one.
Next stop is Omagh in County Tyrone and an inspiring encounter with the "Faster Pastor"! Tim Shiels is pastor of Omagh Community Church and is also the Irish 400 and 800 metre indoor and outdoor champion.
Tim's personal story is one of complete transformation. "There has never been a day in my life when I haven’t believed in God but I always thought, why would God want anything to do with me? With someone who is so broken?"
At rock bottom, Tim was homeless and addicted to cocaine. Today, he is working to see transformation in the town he has come to love.
"We believe that the future of Omagh is so much brighter than the darkness of its past and we want to bring life and hope to the heart of this city."
Third stop of the day is Dungannon in County Armagh and I'm fascinated to hear some of the history of this ancient town. Visiting St. Anne's church in the centre of town, I learn that there has been a church on this site since 1343.
Ven. Andrew Forster shares some of the exciting things that are happening in this thriving Church of Ireland congregation. I'm particularly struck by his description of ministry: "Ministry is not really about a role we have, it is about all our life and about how our relationship with God impacts the people we minister to. I see people’s lives transformed through the love and life of Jesus, even in the most extreme and difficult cricumstances and that is a huge privilege."
A brief respite at the nearby Linen Green in Moygashel gives me a chance to catch my breath, download a few photos and prepare for my next meeting, this time with Chris from Open Doors Ireland.
"Open Doors is all about supporting the persecuted church," Chris tells me. "We feel like Brother Andrew all those years ago… if one part of the body is hurting, then the rest of us should be hurting too!"
While we are on the VOX Finding Faith Tour around Ireland a far more epic journey is taking place, Chris tells me. Stephen Kyle is cycling from Belfast to Turkey to raise awareness of how Christians are suffering and to collect much-needed funds for the work of Open Doors. You can find out more about Stephen's trip here.
From Dungannon, I travel south again and "Maps" takes me the scenic route. I'm not complaining as I pass through the stunning Mourne Mountains before finishing up in Kilkeel, Co Down. Here I get to meet good friends Samuel and Sarah Chestnutt as well as connecting with Andrew Clements, who works for the E3 partnership - a mission organisation passionate about equipping Christians to share their faith with others.
Andrew shared honestly about his own struggles with depression and the difference Jesus made during those dark times.
"Jesus gave me something to live for and I felt that kept me from the darkest moments. There was always that glimmer of hope - inexplicable hope at times. I can’t imagine what would have got me through without Jesus."
After a long day, it is back to my B&B to sort through photos and finish this blog... And so to bed!