Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Thunderbolts and the Belfast Blitz

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” -E.B. White

That summarizes my first week in Belfast perfectly. We’ve gone out a couple times, danced a ton (to the point of sustaining my first war wound- a swollen knee- after dancing into a stage), and really enjoyed downtown nightlife, but also seen what a challenge my life will be this year. I wish there were an easy way to find that balance of improving things and enjoying them.
As far as the quick rundown goes, I started work the morning after I landed and have been surrounded by dozens of six year olds since then, doing the Crumlin Road day camp (interesting fact: Crumlin Road was bombed by Hitler in the Belfast Blitz of 1941 and the church was rebuilt after having stood there for about 100 years) and this week we're popping over to Woodvale to see our favorites from Deputation. We are living at the Drennans because the house that Peter and I are moving in to has no fridge and no standards of cleanliness…but we’ve gone in with bleach and boiling water, so don’t worry… you guys should still come visit! There’s a guest room! Malia has been having a field day taking video of the place and there will be some serious before and after shots that I’ll post when I’m all done “girlying the place up.”
Last night Malia and I made dinner for the Drennans and sat out in the twilight drinking wine and talking before they got home. I’ve spent a lot of time meeting tons of people in the past week, and each of them has a perspective on the community and the church, the demographics and the teenagers I’ll be working with. Honestly I felt like I had hit an early dead-end, because I kept getting questioned at every turn. At the bars, guys ask, “WHY would you be living in Ballysillan?” And even the Crumlin Road people are warning me, “Wait till mid-year, we’ll see how positive your outlook is by then.” I knew what I had gotten myself into before I stepped onto the plane, but it’s made me seriously question myself.
Just to give an idea of the neighborhood and community I am living in, I thought I’d include an excerpt from some of the reports Jack gave me, because they bring me to my knees in how heartbroken I am for this area and how monumental the task of bringing light to this area truly is:
“Over the years the area has become synonymous with deprivation and hopelessness… 92% of births are to unmarried mothers, 64% of people are economically inactive, only 2% have a degree.” Community complaints include the fact that the Housing Executive (basically the branch that runs placement and construction of the projects, like my neighborhood) dumps “undesirable/problem families” consistently into this area, it is ignored by politicians, drugs run rampant and are propagated by the paramilitaries even more in this economically depressed area, which also perpetuates crime. The youth have no incentive to do well in school because there are no jobs to be had, so it is much easier for the girls to get pregnant at 16 and live off of the state for the rest of their lives rather than struggle to make their own living. With nearly ¾ of the community living on the dole, boredom appears to rule and any sense of purpose or meaning is completely missing here. Even tonight, as we drove home at around ten, people were wandering the streets aimlessly, we passed a sign on fire, kids on their bikes. All looking for something to do, something to be a part of, something that is painfully lacking.
I don’t want to be trite, and I don’t want to be presumptuous. I wonder what makes me think I can prance into a community that is one of the most depressed, psychologically and economically, in Northern Ireland with the supposed purpose of bringing hope here. It is easy for me to talk about hope: when I go home, I have options. I probably have more education ahead of me, jobs that capture my interest, nice housing. A lot of these kids can’t see past their few blocks. Who am I to tell them, guys, you can do better than this! What do I know about growing up in a place where college is never mentioned, where boredom rules, where paramilitaries run the show because they are the only groups that give people a sense of worth, a sense of purpose, and activities to occupy their time? But then I thought back to high school, when I got to spend time with families in Mexico who were overflowing with love and generosity despite abject poverty, and how I was struck by the humble and heavy reliance on family connections and their faith, which allowed them to see past their current situation and focus on the long-term. I still think that economic viability is strongly connected with identity, but I am learning to separate the two, and my memories of Ensenada have really helped me with that.
Yesterday also got me thinking about my own motives. It is one thing to live in the rough area for a one year stint. Malia and I thought, if Christ were wandering around Northern Ireland today, he’d be living in Ballysillan and hanging out with the people no one else wanted to be with. But how brave would we be to humble ourselves at home, in our own element? Would Christ be living at Greenlake, or would he put himself on Aurora or the South Side? I would never dream of voluntarily moving to one of those places, but somehow when it’s not your real life, it’s easier.
I am reading Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton, and he mentions Joan of Arc, saying “She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt… She was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild spectators who do nothing… She and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.” Sometimes I think I’m further behind on that idea than anyone. I have a long way to go with learning discipline, learning about a more pure love, and uncovering a lot of my own pride.

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