10/4/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York
NOTE: This is a sidebar to UMNS story #446. Photographs are available.
By Kathleen LaCamera*
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (UMNS) - As pastor of the Methodist East Belfast Mission, deep in the heart of the Loyalist-backed paramilitary turf, the Rev. Gary Mason wants a better future for the community's youth.
By age 12, young people already are at risk for recruitment by self-proclaimed paramilitary organizations responsible for 30 years of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
On the streets, down at the pubs or on the playgrounds, those belonging to groups with names like the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Freedom Fighters claim to be the true protectors and defenders of their communities. They are Catholic and they are Protestant. They do what they see as "necessary" to preserve their way of life and prove to be easy, seductive heroes for bored and vulnerable young people.
When a pub went up for sale next to Mason's church, he saw a chance to create an alternative to the streets for local teen-agers. Then he persuaded a local charity to buy and lease the pub rent-free to the Mission.
In November, Luk4 will officially open for the young people of East Belfast. It is part youth center, part teen nightclub, part safe haven where kids can talk about anything. The name, Luk4, is a text message-style reference to Jesus' statement that he came to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind.
Luk4 had a five-night trial run over the summer when more than 150 young people came through its doors. A United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team with people ages 15 to 75 flew over from the United States in July to help get the pub into shape.
More than half of the neighborhood young people that showed up at the club had never been to any of the church's activities. Local boys John, 17, and Phil, 16, said they can't wait until it is open again. Teddy, 13, who also helped paint some of Luk4's walls, dubbed its first run "good" and added that there was "nothing else around like it."
"This place has a 'street cred' for kids that a church doesn't," said Mason. "This is their space to decorate and make what they want it."
While many in his congregation are delighted with Luk4, some are reserving judgment. Upon seeing the colors chosen by the teen-agers for the walls of their club, one congregation member commented that 'I wouldn't have those colors in my house.'
"That's exactly the point!" said Mason.
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries is helping support Luk4 and other aspects of the East Belfast Mission. David and Linda Armitage, both in their 20s, have been sent as missionaries to the mission. David has major responsibility for overseeing Luk4, while Linda, who grew up in Northern Ireland, will follow up with families of young people coming through the center.
Also part of the Luk4 team is Britt Gilmore, an intern supported by St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Orlando, Fla. Gilmore thinks Luk4 will give young people "the big picture of what salvation means." He said he hoped that a ministry to the spiritual health of the whole person will take place amid the disco, the computer games room, the space for sports and the places kids can just sit and have a soft drink.
The big pastime for young people seems to be learning to fight or consuming alcohol, he noted. "It's sad to see the levels of prejudice and hate here," Gilmore added. "When I meet Catholic kids, they ask me why I live in that evil part of Belfast. The Protestant kids tell me if I go into the Catholic areas I'll get my throat cut."
In many ways, this Methodist church and Luk4 are struggling with issues that inner-city communities in the United States face as well. Northern Ireland has high levels of teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and chronic unemployment. From the church, you can see the cranes of the H&W shipbuilding yard that once built huge ocean liners, including the Titanic. But little is built here anymore. In September, a local manufacturer of airplane parts announced layoffs of more than 6,000 workers due to the global airline industry slowdown.
When people are bored and frustrated in Belfast, the peace process suffers. Sectarian hatred and violence grow, and paramilitaries can give people, especially young people, something to do from which they may never be able to pull back.
In such an environment, the work of one church, creating a place where neighborhood youth can have a soda and a talk and perhaps even think about a purpose for life, becomes a building block in a peace process built one relationship at a time.
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*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.