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In Belfast, Methodists see regeneration as key to peace

10/20/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

For related coverage, see UMNS stories #497 and #499.

By Kathleen LaCamera*

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (UMNS) - Down the road from the East Belfast Mission is Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilders famous for building the Titanic.

The yard once employed more than 30,000 from East Belfast's neighborhoods. Now, barely a hundred workers are left. It is just one reason this working class Protestant community is said to be the fifth from the bottom in terms of the worst places to live in Northern Ireland. Three decades of sectarian violence during Northern Ireland's "Troubles" have not helped.

"You drive down the streets here, and it's a wasteland," observes the Rev. Gary Mason, a Methodist minister. "It's all shops with steel doors across them, locked up tight. There's no reason to stop."

Through the Skainos Project, Mason and his team at the East Belfast Mission are hoping to give people a reason to stop here. On two acres of inner-city Belfast, the mission plans to create a full-scale community center with a café, gardens, program and meeting facilities and even commercial storefronts. It will be a place that offers something to people who for years have watched opportunity and prosperity ebb away from their community.

"The peace process, and the funds that have come into Northern Ireland with it, has worked for my family, for the middle class," Mason explains. "But for the people in the inner city, they don't feel tangible results from the 'peace dividend.'"

Mason explains that for real peace between Catholics and Protestants to have a chance, communities like East Belfast must see that the changes they are asked to make will mean a better life and a brighter future - and not just giving up ground.

With a staff of 50, the East Belfast Mission is the largest employer in the area. Mason says the mission can make an even bigger contribution to the peace process by further reaching out into a community weary of decline but fearful of change.

The area has been a traditional stronghold for hardline Protestant paramilitaries, who find recruits among local teenagers who have little to do and bleak future prospects. Through its pub-turned-youth-club facility, Luk4, the mission runs a range of activities for young people. Luk4 receives support from United Methodists through the denomination's Board of Global Ministries. With the Skainos Center comes the possibility for an even greater outreach to area children and teenagers.

Mason says some of the local Protestant paramilitary members themselves have come to him and said, "I want to redeem my life and the time I have left. What can I do?"

The word "skainos" in ancient Greek literally means "tent." The Skainos Project (www.ebm.org.uk) hopes to pitch a wide tent in East Belfast, offering welcome and practical support to the whole community. In addition to its worshipping congregation and special youth programs, the mission offers a job center, charity shops, a day center for older people, a homeless shelter and more.

Current plans are to open the Skainos Project in 2006 with support from individuals, religious groups, businesses and public bodies.

In September, Mary McAleese, the president of the Republic of Ireland, visited the mission. An old friend of Mason's, she came to see how the mission is serving its local community and learn more about its goals. Local newspapers reported she was "impressed with what she saw."

The report also said the visit gave everyone "renewed confidence and belief" in the mission's work.

"People just have to be engaged," Mason says. "Apathy is the biggest obstacle."

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*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

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