My primary placement by the end of my year as a Young Adult Volunteer in Northern Ireland was with PeacePlayers International (PPI). PeacePlayers is an international organization that uses sports to bring children and youth together with a rich curriculum that explores diversity, stereotypes, and peace building.
This dreary Thursday in Belfast began like most days, as we coaches met at the PPI office then left for what we called a “Twinning.” In the Northern Irish context in which I was working, a Twinning involved bringing a Protestant school and a Catholic school together, using basketball to put children and youth from different contexts side by side. Only 6% of the Northern Ireland schools are integrated. Wearing basketball shoes and official PeacePlayers Coach’s t-shirts, my fellow coaches and I walked along one of the Belfast Peace Walls and entered Carr’s Glen Primary, a Protestant school. The kids at Carr’s Glen were hosting us, and the children from the Catholic school, St. Clare’s, had already arrived.
When we entered the main hall, the Carr’s Glen children were frozen in place in the middle of the hall. A teacher hurried up to us and said, “Don’t make any announcements. Just wait and let it happen.” We nodded and tried not to look as confused as we felt. Suddenly, music began to blast into the hall. One boy jumped to his feet and began to fist-bump to a Katy Perry song. Then two girls jumped to their feet, doing the same gesture. The coaches looked at each other, and in unison and excitement we cried out, “It’s a flashmob!”
There is much work to be done in divided Belfast, but God is still working, still speaking, and still dancing.
Just beyond the dancing, in the background through the windows, stand massive “Peace Walls” covered in death threats to Catholics. As the dancing continued, the Catholic kids, in spite of the painted threats just outside the windows, were invited onto the dance floor. In a matter of seconds, we were all dancing like fools to Justin Bieber. It was hilarious, joyful, unexpected, miraculous.
The Belfast Peace Walls, violent graffiti, and paramilitaries can try their hardest to keep people separate, urging them to worship their human institutions. God, however, desires to transcend the separation, and in the dancing of children, mocks our best efforts to hate and separate. There is much work to be done in divided Belfast, but God is still working, still speaking, and still dancing.
I had gone to Northern Ireland thinking that peace and reconciliation were a simple math equation, that my work would involve fixing of black and white problems. Needless to say, I had been wrong. Peace, reconciliation, and the situation in Northern Ireland – in every corner of the world – are profoundly complex, and it took leaving the comforts of my undergraduate life for me to begin to understand this reality. It took leaving (and then coming back) to find a God that is not comprehensible, to learn that when even God speaks in English, God can do so with different accents.
So now, as I sit in seminary classrooms and intern with various congregations, I no longer hold tightly to my self-righteous, over-zealous approach to justice. Instead, I remember the flashmob dancing. I remember that there is complexity, and even humor and joy, when it comes to God’s dream for this world.
AUTHOR BIO: Patrick Harley served as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Belfast, Northern Ireland from 2011-2012. He is currently a student at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia and hopes (eventually) to be ordained as a Teaching Elder in the PC(USA). He’s also an east Tennessee native, Auburn alum, dog owner, part-time bartender, and coffee lover.
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