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West Virginia teens experience mission Belfast style

 


West Virginia teens experience mission Belfast style

Aug. 4, 2004       

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Julie Conley

West Virginia and East Belfast Mission youths join together for praise and worship.

By Kathleen LaCamera*

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (UMNS) -- When high school junior Sarah Trulik announced to friends she was going to Belfast on a mission trip this summer, they told her to “stay out of the crossfire.”

Turlik -- along with other members of her youth group at First United Methodist Church in Elkins, W.Va. -- spent the last week of July at the East Belfast Mission in Northern Ireland.

This Irish Methodist mission is located in a part of the city where high unemployment, family breakdown and vigilante style Protestant influence are all persistent problems. One of the mission’s key outreach projects is a paramilitary pub-turned into a youth club called Luk4 (pronounced “Luke 4”) started by the church two years ago.
   
Turlik admitted when she first arrived in Belfast she found the huge murals on walls and houses, glorifying what most consider violent acts of Protestant terrorism, quite overwhelming. “We knew there would be some murals around town, but didn’t know there would be so many, or what they would be about,” she explained.
 

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Julie Conley

Adam Jones (dog costume) hands out prizes to the children of East Belfast at the "Community Fun Day."
Sixteen-year-old Adam Jones had a similar reaction. “It was kind of scary at first. You see the barbed wire and wonder what’s going on here.”

But it didn’t take the teenagers long to overcome their anxieties. Straight away they got involved helping to organize face painting and other children’s activities for the mission’s annual summer fair. “I got the joy of dressing up as a dog,” moaned Jones. “You get to know a different side to people when they’re pulling on your ear.”

They helped with Sunday morning worship and spent time sprucing up Luk4, the youth club is not only used by church’s own teenagers, but also by young people from the whole surrounding community. The club provides a safe alternative for vulnerable 11- to 14-year-olds who easily fall prey to the destructive combination of boredom, violence and poverty on the streets of East Belfast.
 
Trulik says meeting local Belfast teenagers through Luk4 was the trip’s highlight. “The best part has been hanging out with the youth,” she told United Methodist News Service. “I’ve made a lot of new friends and I’ll definitely stay in touch… Coming here really has changed my views on a lot of things. It’s helped me not take things for granted.”

The idea for the mission trip grew out of visit to Elkins last year from East Belfast Mission representatives. Julie Conley, one of the Elkins youth group leaders, hopes that this trip will help their teenagers see a piece of the global church at work.
 
“East Belfast is very different from where we are,” she said. “We’re in a small town of 8,000. There is a real contrast between rural West Virginia and urban Belfast, but there’s also a lot we have in common.... The kids all act like they’ve been friends for 10 years.”
 

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Julie Conley

West Virginia and East Belfast youth interact over a game of pool at the Luk4 Center.
The group even got the chance to talk directly with individuals who served time in prison for Protestant terrorist activities. East Belfast Mission youth development worker Harriet Long said the Americans seemed surprised by how direct these men were about their experience with prison, guns and violence. “It gave them a chance to go behind the scenes and meet and respond to the men behind the flags and the murals,” she explained.
 
The group also spoke with local Catholics to hear how they experience life in a religiously divided community. Jones said he wishes more people back home knew more of the story of Northern Ireland.
 
According to Long, the Americans have changed lives in Belfast as well. “They made an impact on the lives of the young people here,” she noted. “They were such an upbeat group, very outgoing. They gave so much. ... [local teenagers] came down to Luk4 just to see 10 colorful Americans in the area. They raised the buzz around the place.”

The Rev. Gary Mason, pastor of the East Belfast Mission, says the mission can never repay the groups from the United States that support the mission with their time and money. Individual United Methodist churches, as well as the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries have helped to fund parts of the mission’s outreach to the East Belfast community.

The Elkins church group even resorted to selling plastic flamingos to help raise the money for their transatlantic trip. What Mason hopes the East Belfast Mission can do is offer people the chance to see how it is possible for the church to be a part of conflict transformation while still remaining true to Wesley’s personal and social holiness principles. 

“Too many churches never engage with the chaos of life,” said Mason. “Our faith must spill out on to the street.”

*Kathleen LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in Manchester, England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom·(646)369-3759·New York· E-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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