We had just finished our morning concert at a Catholic school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Our hour-long presentation was a powerful combination of music paired with video imagery that told the story of division and reunion, and redemption after the fall. As a parting “encore” of sorts, we asked these high school students if they had any requests. Beyond the universal cries for “Freebird,” someone shouted for “Sweet Home Alabama.” As we had traveled to Ireland from our home in Birmingham, Alabama it only made diplomatic sense to accede to their request.
You’ve not lived until you have heard the shouts of about 75 to 100 Irish lads belting out Skynyrd lyrics at the top of their lungs.
It was unforgettable. Surely nothing the remaining day could offer anything to top this experience.
We packed our gear into the vehicles at our disposal, but a logistical problem found our group separated. We’d have to wait for the first load of gear and people to get back to our home base over in a Protestant neighborhood, leaving a few of us to wait in this Catholic one.
Our host that day was the school chaplain, a gracious and delightful man named Martin. A warm and friendly person, I count him as a friend (albeit a long-distance one) to this day.
While we waited, Martin asked if he could show us some of the nearby historical sites. Of course we said yes! We jumped in his car and drove through this Green area (meaning a Catholic neighborhood, as opposed to the Orange or Protestant areas). We were stopped at a road blocked by a huge chain fence, probably 15-20 feet tall. Barbed wire coiled in places around a top overhang, making any attempt to climb this barrier a difficult if not impossible feat.
Martin then carefully explained the reasons for the existence of such a forbidding object. “You’ve noticed the ‘Peace Wall,’” he said quietly. This wall and others like it separate the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods as a physical detente against the violent clashes between warring groups and militia. The long-standing enmity between the British and the Irish still required these ugly reminders of a hate that always divides, and will never fade “without the love that only Christ can give.”
Martin went on to give us a brief history lesson of the Troubles, and how these fences were a physical manifestation of the division between the people of Ireland. The old wounds of bad religion and tyrannical rule were the twin roots of a bloody racism and prejudice that’s lasted for decades.
Later that evening, we played a song at the youth club sponsored by Martins church. We played “Day Tripper” by the Beatles, with the lead singer of the local band joining us. The way the kids screamed you’d have thought the Fabs were on stage. We thanked the crowd and went straightaway to thank Martin for his hospitality. While the Troubles were officially a thing of the past, it was prudent for this “American group” (staying in a Protestant neighborhood) not to linger too long during the evening hours. Various groups of militia still patrolled the streets, and we’d be wise to not run afoul of them. I personally thanked Martin for the day, and vowed to keep in touch. Thankfully, this promise remains unbroken all these many years hence.
This morning, I saw a photo linking to a news story about the Black Lives Matter protests. The image I saw looked strangely familiar; a tall and imposing fence, separating the White House from the people it both represents and protects.
The roots of racism run deep in our nation, and the road to redemption and healing is a long one.
I pray we find it within ourselves to find the love that Martin so eloquently prescribed as the cure for our division. And that we call for strength to tear down the walls of hate and fear. Not only the physical barriers, but most importantly the ones within each of us.
May it begin with me.
Peace and love,