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Looking back. Looking forward.

January 20, 2014
A family outing this autumn

A family outing this autumn

As we begin 2014, we wanted to share with you some reflections on the past year.

The Congregation at EBM

As we began 2013, the congregation had only begun to share times of worship within the new Skainos building.  Some people occasionally spoke of ‘missing something’ about the old church, even though it was hard to pinpoint the reason.  Alongside the tasks of supporting congregational life, one theme has been providing a steady presence to help people “settle in” to everything that is new.

As the year unfolded in worship, prayer, and simple acts of service to the community, we ended the year feeling more familiar with our surroundings.

There have been testing times along the way; 2013 began with a shadow of tension in the community due to ongoing issues of national identity and a lack of ownership in the political process.  Some of the ‘flag protests’ led to gatherings which morphed into violence between protestors and the police along the road beside EBM.  There have been some major changes to the team at EBM which has caused great stress for many.

Remembering God's goodness; Emily helps Jake place a stone

Remembering God’s goodness; Emily helps Jake place a stone

There were also significant moments of experiencing God’s grace as a congregation.  At our Mission anniversary service, we invited people to place a stone which represented some way that they had known God’s presence in this place.  All piled together on our new communion table, the stones reminded us that God’s presence has guided the Mission throughout it’s past and we can continue to trust God for the future.

Skainos Square

Skainos Square

The vision of the Skainos project to be a place of healing and renewal for this hurting community has unfolded in a beautiful way.  A steady stream of people have flowed through the site from a wide variety of backgrounds.

People have come:

  •      to meet friends in the cafe
  •      to enjoy poetry and music nights
  •      to learn the Irish language
  •      to meet with an AA group
  •      for help in times of crisis
  •      for children’s and youth clubs and activities
  •      and for so many other reasons….
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Worship at EBM

Counseling at EBM

Along with the numbers of people visiting Skainos, so too the number of people looking for counseling has grown.  We now provide 100 hours of counseling per month, shared among Alison, Eileen, and four volunteers.  It’s a challenge to resist the urge to hurry people along.

The past six months has been a special, if not hard time for Alison.  She had one violent person, which made the mission assess safety.  Once she recovered from that shock, there was a clear sense that most people were just thankful to have care. On a lighter note, we were able to fund for book shelves, a filing cabinet, and new pictures thanks to IKEA and Ellie’s good taste in art!  Interestingly, one picture has a yellow flower and a little word inscribed “hope”.  More than one time, a client has paused to look at the picture and say, “that is what I long for in my life”.  It sums up what the counseling team strive to do – to walk alongside people and discover deeper meaning in their search for hope.

Alison has also offered counseling over Skype to a few individuals serving with Global ministries around the world this is a welcomed opportunity to help other missionaries in the context of faith.

Reaching out to new people

Another theme this year has been finding ways of reaching out to new people, offering pastoral care and support to those who receive meals on wheels from EBM, and also those living in apartments on site.  In December, Britt and others offered three dinners allowing space for people to express doubts and questions about God.  One woman shared a feeling that God was punishing her.  Another man shared how broken relationships have led to depression.  These conversations over a shared meal have led to new relationships; some of them have come asking for more “God-talk” over dinner.  We look forward to what this may bring.

Supporting Edgehill Theological College

What will this year hold?

What will this year hold?

Another part of our ministry over the past year has been extending support to Edgehill Theological College (the seminary for the Methodist Church in Ireland).  Over the past year Britt has assisted the staff team by meeting regularly with four students, and Alison has been invited to share a 3 day seminar on listening skills with the students this May.  These times have added interesting variety to our work.

As 2014 unfolds, we do not know what joys and struggles lie ahead.  As we have served at the Mission we have seen promises fulfilled and have also walked through significant turmoil and our faith has been stretched.   However, for today, we know and trust that God is at work in the lives of people here.  He is constant and ever present.  It is to this truth we cling.

In God’s Peace, Britt, Alison, Ellie, Emily & Jake

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Grace in the Wilderness

November 2, 2013

Over the month of October, we spent some time in worship considering the message of the prophet Jeremiah, particularly his words spoken to Israel at the beginning of the Babylonian exile.  He was speaking to a nation who had been devastated by their enemies and who had been removed from their homes.  After so much loss, they were desperate for any vision of hope for their future.

One phrase that was beautiful to me was:

“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness…”

Jeremiah 31:3

These words imagine and proclaim that God’s grace can be experienced not only in seasons of plenty and joy, but also in moments of need and pain.  In desperation and in heartbreak, God is still with us.

This is an important theme for the community in Inner East Belfast because there are many ways in which life can seem painful.  We have shared in previous posts about the challenges of unemployment, the high rates of depression and suicide, a lingering sectarianism, and the feelings of uncertainty about cultural identity.  On top of this, there has been a recent increase in local drug-related crime.  All of us have times of ‘wilderness’ in our lives (for any number of reasons) and these broader community-wide challenges can add to the sense of helplessness that people feel.

In this spirit of Jeremiah 31:3, I wanted to share about two moments of grace that I have experienced this past month.

Britt assists with a 'crazy science' show

Britt assists with a ‘crazy science’ show

Festival Fun

One of these occurred during a festival day that we hosted at EBM for the community.  Skainos square was buzzing with a variety of events – people planting something in the community garden, others enjoying a science demonstration, and others learning something about the ancient languages of this island.  We had incredible, sunny weather, and hundreds of people were milling about.

The significant moment for me came at the end of the day, as two volunteers shared how great it had been to help to help with the day.  They had been around for six hours, watching kids at the bouncy castle, helping with crafts and also enjoying the day themselves.  As we celebrated the day, I realized that it had been exactly a year since I met them, at the previous year’s festival day!  Now, this couple has become interwoven with the community at East Belfast Mission, attending church every Sunday, volunteering with the children’s ministry every Friday night, and helping share encouragement with others.

Praying (together!) for peace

In the past year, one encouraging development has been a greater level of interaction between churches in our neighbourhood.  Within a few hundred yards of East Belfast Mission, there are churches representing the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Nazarene, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches as well as other Methodists that are not too far away.  As I learn their history, it seems that all of these churches used to be overflowing with people (or at least that is their memory!), while most of them are now struggling.  Though there has been various levels of co-operation in the past, the recent past has been a time of isolation and seeming apathy between these churches.

It has been encouraging, therefore, to see the re-formation of a local minister’s meeting over the past year.  Several of us have been sharing news and praying for our community together.  There is a sincere desire to speak well of one another and to see God’s blessing shared across the community.  In one of these meetings in September, about eight of us were huddled in a giant cathedral building – and one person prayed about a vision that this huge space would one day soon be filled to capacity with the sound of worship.

Gathered for prayer

Gathered for prayer

Alongside these meetings, as a response of the increased crime levels mentioned above, a larger gathering of clergy occurred about three weeks ago.  It was decided that a good response to the violence would be a united gathering of prayer.  Just 5 days later, the largest church building in our midst was filled to capacity with folks from 35 churches in the east Belfast area.  People wrote prayers of blessing for the community and made a giant paper chain with these prayers that stretched the entire length of St. Patrick’s cathedral.

Praise God for grace in the wilderness.

On the family front

Smiles at Dundrum Castle

Smiles at Dundrum Castle

The girls have been off school this week and we have enjoyed a couple of wonderful days of adventure and fun (one trip to Dublin where we toured the Butlers chocolate factory – yummy).  Another joy is that my mother has arrived to be with us for a couple of weeks – it is great to have “GG” with us.  She took this picture at the weekend as we explored Dundrum castle.

Please pray for:

* Our congregation to have our eyes and hearts open to people in our community who are isolated, lonely and hurting.  Help us to welcome others as we worship God.

* Cooperation between local churches in East Belfast – that the prayer gathering mentioned above would not be an isolated event, but that we might find a way to further build relationship.  This is a task that requires humility and flexibility (two things that usually challenge churches!!)  There is a meeting of local clergy on November 12th.

Approaching Winter

September 24, 2013

DSC_0817Dear Friends,

Winter is beginning to set in on our city.  Time for warm coats, mittens, lighting fires and thinking of soups, stews, and foods that bring comfort, occupies our home.  Britt surprised me with an electric blanket and now it is shared with the kids who love to read their books snuggled up before bedtime.  I wonder where did those long, bright summer evenings go?  Why is there a surge in church meetings and activities when it is nicer to be indoors rather than face the cold?

DSC_1328Facing winter, whether that brings dread or happy prospects, is necessary for brightness and newness to occur.  The counseling room is busy with many dreading the dark memories and coldness of their broken relationships.  Last week I experienced the swirling emotions of one client wanting to live but also wanting to die.  Death seemed more appealing.  As their therapist, who cares deeply, I needed to ‘fight’ to hold out the possibility of a future, the hope of a slightly better, but not perfect, tomorrow, the joy in releasing the grip of pain and guilt and receiving life.  God offers so much more than what we can imagine.  Even in the darkness, He is there.  Safe.  Constant.  Forgiving. Real.

DSC_0616I have often wondered: how can Britt and I keep our own lives protected when we regularly face the darkness and weariness of the souls we serve? When we share stories from the Mission, many ask the same question.  We returned from the States in July with an assurance that we are in exactly the right place for now.  There is great hope when we believe that this season offers new journeys to take.  We also believe that God is enough to deal with our shortcomings and failings.  Not surprisingly, it did not take long for that hope and certainty to be tested, as the Mission has experienced some difficult times this past few months.  But I believe that, in the midst of uncertainty, we trust God and hold out for God’s Grace in how we live, interact with others and be.  It is all Grace.

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As a family, the girls have settled well into new school years –  Emily now 1st Grade (P.3), Ellie now 3rd Grade ( P.5).  Emily asked on Sunday night how many hours would it be till she saw Miss Haire?  The answer of ’14 hours’ was received with an “Aah, I wish it was 14 minutes”.  It is safe to say she has the sweetest teacher in the school and dearly loved by our little Goldilocks.DSC_1286

Ellie won a place on the Philharmonic Choir in Belfast.  Along with 80 other 8-9 year olds she is learning to enjoy music in a fun and creative way.  It is wonderful to see her growing in confidence.  Big conversations about heaven and “why, oh why, does God allow suffering” has swirled around in her head.  Ellie recently described the difference between Belfast and Orlando. In her eyes: Orlando was spacious, wide roads, bright and colorful with happy people; Belfast was grey with dark pictures on walls, flags and sad looking people.  I ached a little at her honest thoughts but used it as a moment to rejoice in the fact that she perceives life well.  The girls are growing up stepping between different cultures, and it is “kind of okay”.  As you can see, Ellie is an intriguing and sensitive 9 year old, who still dreams of having a dog. Maybe next birthday.DSC_1283

Jake turns two on 1st October and can already answer “do you love, Emily?” questions, with a “I love Ellie” statements.  It’s probably because Emily torments him more by dragging him away from dangerous objects like fires, stairs and her toys.  You can safely say he is adored by both girls.  He is happy and joy and fun on multi levels.  We are grateful to parent them.

In November I have decided to attend a three day training offered by a former professor from Atlanta on couple therapy.  It will be held in London and will be my first time away alone for years.  Excited to receive the training.  Not too happy about leaving them all.  Sad, I know.

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As we are uncertain about future holiday plans in the States, Britt’s mum will fly over for 12 days in November.  She is a welcomed and loved gift to us all. So we light the fire, find our boots and trust that this new season will be one off hearts turned to find warmth and wholeness in Christ.

May we all seek to know Him a little bit better this winter.

In Christ,

Britt, Ally, Ellie, Emily and Jake.

The Homeless World Cup.

August 16, 2013

One of the wonderful things about being around East Belfast Mission is witnessing the creative ways people are engaging in the task of helping others.  The homelessness project at the Mission, called Hosford, is a prime example of this.

This week has been the culmination of a special project, as Northern Ireland has participated for the first time in the Homeless World Cup.  The team was assembled from a football league that formed out of a partnership between Hosford and the Irish Football Association.  Players came from a variety of homeless shelters across Northern Ireland, and they selected a team to travel to the Homeless World Cup in Poland.  One of the EBM staff (Justin) is over with the team, and he is quoted in this article from the BBC.

A few days ago, I was speaking with a resident of Hosford who has now found a job and is moving out.  The hope and excitement in her eyes about the next stage of her life was obvious, and it was moving to think of how the people at Hosford have provided a stable and caring environment for her during a difficult and vulnerable time of transition.

Praise be to God.

Travel…

July 25, 2013

From mid-June to mid-July, we spent a month back in Florida, visiting with family, friends, and also a number of churches in the Florida conference.

Both Alison and I found it an incredibly humbling experience to hear people share that they are praying for us and the ministry here at East Belfast Mission.  We are grateful for all of these prayers, along with the expressions of care toward both us and our children that we experienced in different places.

Thank you to those at:

  • First UMC, Orlando
  • Peace UMC, Orlando
  • Cleveland UMC, Punta Gorda
  • Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg
  • The staff and young people at Florida United Methodist Children’s Home
  • Trinity UMC, Deland
  • St. Lukes UMC, Windermere

During this time of sharing and also vacation, we found that our sense of call to be in Belfast for this time in our lives was renewed.  I am sure that part of that is due to the ways that people interacted with us and the prayers that were offered.

All this being the case, we are eager for these type of relationships not to be ‘one-way’, but are happy to be remembering you in prayer as well, whether or not you are part of one of the above congregations.  Please share with us if there is a way that we can remember you.

Community Garden at Skainos
Community Garden at Skainos

As for us, we arrived back in Belfast a week ago today and one of the joyful things that greeted us was the

state of the community garden at East Belfast Mission.  When we left in mid-June, this area was a blank slate – boxes that were filled with soil but seeds had not yet been planted.  Due to a team of people that has been caring for this space, along with unseasonably warm weather(!), the month was an outstanding month for growth, and we were greeted last week with the following view, along with a bunch of bok-choi to add to a salad.

This garden is one further witness of hope to a community that has just experienced another flare-up of violence as the ‘parade’ season was at it’s height last week.  Pray that as people tend this garden – some of whom are new to EBM – that relationships would deepen and hope would be stirred in both them and the surrounding neighbourhood.

Protests and Prayer Requests

January 15, 2013

I imagine that nearly all of you reading this have seen news reports over the past month about protests and unrest in Belfast. This post will attempt to give an update about what is happening in our community and share ways that you can pray. It has been difficult to write, as there is a deep complexity to the situation, with many perspectives among the local people. I also realize that while some reading this are well-versed in Northern Irish politics and history, others are not. Feel free to comment or e-mail us with questions or comments.  There are also links to a recent article and radio program at the bottom of this post.

city hall with flag

Belfast City Hall with the British flag

What has happened?

      On December 3rd, Belfast City Council decided to change it’s policy on flying the British flag at Belfast City Hall. It is no longer flown every day, but only on a handful of ‘designated days’ throughout the year. The rational was to express sensitivity to the fact that Belfast is a shared space where many do not identify positively with the British flag. The flag will continue to be flown on certain national holidays to recognize that Belfast remains a part of the UK.

This decision was upsetting to some within the unionist/loyalist community, who did not want a change or feel it was necessary. Obviously, this is not just about a flag, or about a single decision.  Some unionists have expressed that the past 15 years (since the 1998 peace agreement) have led to an erosion of their British identity.  Within more deprived loyalist communities, like the area around East Belfast Mission, many express a lack of hope in the political process.  People are not happy with politicians, and say their views are not represented.  The decision about the flag has become a touchstone issue which is symbolic of larger frustrations within loyalism.

Protests and Violence

flag protest

One of the protests against the recent decision about flying the flag at Belfast City Hall

There have been over 40 days of protests against this flag decision.  While some have been smaller, the largest of these was last Friday evening when many coordinated protests involved approximately 4,000 people around Northern Ireland.  Several main roads in Belfast were blocked from 6-8pm.

Some of these gatherings have turned violent, resulting in clashes between loyalist protesters and police.  Only a fraction of those who are protesting have engaged in violence – and this group contains many teenagers and children as young as 10.  This is a saddening thing to witness.

burned out car on newtownards road jan 6 2013

The view as we went to church on Jan 6. The car was a taxi until it was taken and burned the night before. Skainos/EBM is in the background (photo by Mark Houston)

Where is this happening?

The violence does not affect Northern Ireland equally, but has been largely concentrated in a section of East Belfast close to the Mission.  EBM is about a quarter mile from an ‘interface’ with a nationalist community called the Short Strand.  During the month, there have been increasing tensions between loyalist protestors and residents in this neighborhood, as groups have marched from East Belfast into the city and back.  This situation has grown more fragile, and there were direct confrontations between these communities on Saturday and again Monday night.

From seeing news coverage, you might imagine that most of Northern Ireland is in turmoil, which would not be the case.  If you drive a mile or two away from the Mission, the atmosphere feels completely different.  As with many situations of violence, it is the struggling communities which often bear the majority of the impact.  Many people across the city and province have been going about their daily lives.  Some may question the decision of the City Council, yet have a deepening frustration at the ongoing turmoil, conflict, and bad publicity being sent across the world.  One widely held observation is that the disturbances are affecting business and future investment in a broad way (I have a friend planning a golfing trip here who is thinking of cancelling).

Prayer Requests

We would appreciate any prayers that you would offer, including the following:

– pray for meaningful dialog between local politicians, community leaders, the police, and those involved in protests.  Pray for key leaders at EBM who are involved in these conversations, especially Gary Mason and Mark Houston.

– pray for protection for residents who live along the interface between the loyalist area of East Belfast and the Short Strand community and feel varying degrees of oppression, uncertainty and fear. We have been visiting and checking with those connected to the congregation and wider mission who live in the areas immediately affected.

– pray for the young people who are caught up in the fascination and excitement of the disturbances. In some cases, this involves children as young as 10. In many ways, they do not understand the complexity of the issues or the consequences of their actions, but are captive to the circumstances and emotions of these moments. Of course, by being involved in rioting, both their lives and their future is in danger.

At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, after he is baptized by John and then endures 40 days of temptation, he comes to Nazareth and reads these words from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   Luke 4:18-19

I am conscious of the conditions of oppression, captivity, and poverty in our community. When we seek to act as disciples of Jesus, our ministry looks to address these conditions in the world, wherever we find ourselves.

Of course, this is not just for Belfast, where the needs of our community have become suddenly obvious in a fresh way. I also remember the struggles of people facing homelessness in Orlando, the families in Sandy Hook continuing to grieve over the tragic loss of their children, and many who suffer from a lack of hope in their lives – for so many reasons. Some situations are dramatic and well-documented, while others hurt quietly.

Right now, the people at EBM are asking themselves – God, how can you use us this day to contribute to the healing of our city and our neighborhood? The answer is not always obvious, especially in a situation of crisis. Wherever you read this, it is a good question to consider.

Finally, here is a prayer from St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

Interested in learning more?

A BBC report on the trouble last night – 14 January

A BBC radio program from this past Sunday called Sunday Sequence, at which Mark Houston (EBM Mission Director) was one contributor. Go 30 minutes into this program to hear the 9am news and then a panel discussion.

Peace be with you,

Britt and Alison Gilmore

Grand opening

November 23, 2012

This weekend marks the official ‘grand opening’ of the Skainos project and here is a link to local news coverage of the day’s event.

UTV Live coverage of Grand Opening

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