During his weeklong tour of the Presbytery of East Belfast, Dr Mawhinney met with a number of community and support groups in the East Belfast Network Centre, the former Templemore Avenue School, which opened in 2014 as a hub for a number of community-based organisations that have around 90 different groups affiliated to it.
Working together for Inner-East Belfast
At the heart of Inner-East Belfast, which is home to around 25,000 people, and one of the 10 most deprived areas of Northern Ireland, 49 per cent of children live in poverty. “There are a myriad of problems facing inner cities across the UK and Ireland. These problems are earthed in the challenges that affect the lives of communities, families and individuals” Dr Mawhinney said.
“The groups that shared their experiences, and work so hard to support the community on both sides of the peace line, demonstrated a real passion for people, helping them face many different issues. Many of these issues have been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis and Covid.”
Dr Mawhinney continued, “From drug and alcohol abuse to the chronic shortage of housing in the area, the work of restorative justice advocates and issues around school avoidance, and suicide prevention, the work that is being done isn’t’ easy, but it is important and brings hope. As one person said, ‘We meet people’s needs and the space in between is left. We can only do what we can. But we can do more together.’ I was very happy to commit their work to God in prayer at the end of our meeting, and thank my colleague, Mervyn Gibson for facilitating it.”
Providing food and hope
Four miles to the east, Dr Mawhinney visited the ‘Manna’ Foodbank in Dundonald, which seeks to help those impacted by the cost of living crisis. Seven local churches and a community group in Dundonald originally got together to set up ‘Manna’ in 2013.
The work was extended in 2020, during the pandemic, when a satellite foodbank was set up at Orangefield Presbyterian Church and the ministry now covers the wider Dundonald and Castlereagh area with the combined efforts of the two centres meaning emergency food packs are now available five days per week.
Rev Gary Ball, who helps with the foodbank says, “We wanted to set up a food ministry to meet the needs of local people, but didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so we approached the Trussell Trust, an organisation that is really grounded in the Christian faith, and a leader in this area, becoming part of their network. There are many advantages in terms of our administration, publicity, training and relationships on the ground, particularly with Tesco, Asda and Spar, especially when we now have a huge catchment area.”
Located in a former Danske Bank, he said that they were the only foodbank in Northern Ireland, he knew of, who have an actual strongroom full of tins. Mr Ball continued, “Last month we distributed 142 food packs that supported 474 people, which included 222 children. Each pack contains food, toiletries, cleaning products and Christian literature. We also signpost our clients to other agencies which can give them appropriate assistance and support.
“Around 80 per cent of our donations come from congregations and the general public, but the cost of living crisis is also affecting our donors, who are feeling the pinch, which has led to a fall in giving. But we are thankful to be able to do what we can, especially with the support of the supermarkets, local churches and a wonderful team of staff and volunteers who are deeply committed to the work.
“There is real food poverty out there and for many it is a question of Universal Credit just not being enough, which is why the Trussell Trust is campaigning for it to increase from £85 for a single person per week to £120. We also find quite often that it is something unexpected that happens that finally stretches tight budgets too far and they break, or they just have fallen through the safety net. Whatever the reason, we try and help,” he said.
Talking about is visit, Dr Mawhinney said, “It is difficult not to be reminded of the story in Matthew when Jesus talks of acts of kindness done for strangers, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ Food banks offer good support to people, and churches play a crucial part in this work, which is being done in Jesus’ Name.”
A journey through language
During the course of the week Dr Mawhinney also visited the East Belfast Mission and one of its community initiatives, the Irish language project - ‘Turas’. Linda Ervine, who leads the initiative, said that in both Irish Gaelige and Scots Gàidhlig, ‘Turas’ means‘journey’ or ‘pilgrimage’.
“We really enjoyed having the Moderator with us and to be able to explain where we have come from and the journey that we have been on to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language. For different reasons, I understand that it is challenging for some, but I wanted to see if we could change the narrative around Irish, as I believe language can bring us together as it belongs to everyone. For those Presbyterians who come to Truas, it has enabled them to explore their own heritage in a new way,” she said.
Mrs Ervine, who grew up not far from the East Belfast Mission, was an English teacher in Ashfield Girls’ High School when she took a six-week course in Irish in 2011. She said that she has never looked back. “In 2012 I started working for the Mission and began a new role providing opportunities for people to learn Irish in east Belfast. Today, we currently have around 500 people learning the language on site and online. We have been running a GCSE class for a number of years, and this year we are particularly proud of our learners as they achieved five A* and an A this August.
Next year five of our students will be graduating with degrees in Irish from Queen’s and Ulster University, which is important for us. Our classes are for all levels of ability and many friendships have been formed, we have even had two weddings!” she said. Mrs Ervine also spoke about their nursery school and the primary school that was being planned that would be the first Irish language school within the Integrated Sector.
At the end of the meeting Dr Mawhinney prayed for the small staff team and their work. “I have learnt a lot from my visit. Having served as a minister in Counties Cork and Tipperary, and now Dublin over the last 25 years, Irish is valued, especially in education. It is part of the culture, even if it isn’t spoken by everyone, everyone has a bit of it. I remember the late Queen Elizabeth beginning her speech with a few words of Irish at a banquet in Dublin Castle on her State Visit to Ireland in 2011. Little heartfelt gestures, whatever they are, often have great impact. When we prayed, it was lovely to hear the Lord’s Prayer in Irish,” he said.
One down – three to go…
“It has certainly been a busy week, but a fascinating one, where we saw the outworking of people’s faith in Jesus Christ and the outworking of Christian principles in secular settings. When I visited the new Walkway Community Centre, which has a long-term relationship with Bloomfield Presbyterian, its minister, Frank Sellar said to me, ‘God has His people in every aspect of community life, because He cares.’ Dr Sellar isn’t wrong.”
Dr Mawhinney’s tour of the Presbytery of East Belfast was the first of four such tours, which also included a visit to the Ulster Hospital, two schools and the senior leadership of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. With three tours to make before he leaves office in June, he will tour the Presbytery of Omagh next month, then in 2024 the Presbytery of Templepatrick in February and his last tour, the Presbytery of Monaghan, in March.
Photos (1) The Moderator, Dr Mawhinney, with community groups at the East Belfast Network Centre and (2) with Rev Mervyn Gibson, minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Church, facilitated the visit (3) Dr Mawhinney in the strong room of Manna Foodbank in Dundonald with team leader, Kevin Cooper, (4) staff and volunteers outside Manna Foodbank (5) the Moderator and Linda Ervine of Turas and (6) Rev Jonny Frazer (left) minister of Garnerville Presbyterian Church and Rev Jim Stothers, (right) Deputy Clerk Emeritus of the General Assembly, who is an Irish speaker and studies at Turas. In English the sign behind them reads 'learning together.'