'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balls on the Falls

My daughter and her husband are returning soon from Africa. They have been working and travelling for the best part of two years and as we speak are tidying up loose ends and saying final farewells to the sun and space. In their journey through South Africa, the DRC, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi they have encountered all sorts in a region that has known division and prejudice as black, white, coloured and Indian vie with one another for territory and the right to belong.

Now they’re coming home to a more familiar war. Norn Iron has been in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. The marching season madness has begun and rioters have been back on the streets, hurling stones and abuse. The Short Strand is a Catholic enclave in the predominantly Protestant East Belfast where violence has erupted in recent weeks. A ‘peace line’ separates those living at the interface but no wall is high enough to keep out hatred and bigotry.

In recent years we’ve been processing peace. Kerbstones painted in patterns of red, white and blue or green, white and gold have been neutralised and cultural images in praise of sports personalities and epic events, such as the building of Titanic (‘She was all right when she left us’) have replaced ugly paramilitary pictures on gable walls. But something sinister is happening. A recently revamped mural in East Belfast depicts a post apocalyptic background with a single masked gunman clasping a weapon. This in response to a West Belfast mural unveiled in May to mark the 30th anniversary of hunger striker, Bobby Sands’ death, with three masked IRA gunmen firing over a coffin. At that time emblazoned across a wall on a Protestant street, in a horrible attempt at humour, were the words, ‘We will never forget you Billy Sands.’

Slogans and symbols are so significant. Another new edifice will greet the happy campers on their return. Sam will be working at the Royal on Belfast’s Broadway where a 37.5 metre construction now towers on the horizon visible from both sides of the community. ‘RISE’ is the creation of Nottingham artist, Wolfgang Butress, and consists of an enormous globe crafted in silver and white steel with another suspended inside, symbolising the sun rising on a new era of peace and harmony. The sculpture has already been affectionately dubbed ‘The Balls on the Falls’ and will rest on a bed of reeds which speak of our natural heritage. Perhaps it’s too soon and we’re really just bog men all, incapable of moving forward and making peace with our neighbour. The murals and the sculpture have been completed just in time for the Twelfth. I wonder how long it will be before some hooded idiot will scale the sphere and hang a flag there to claim it as their own?

I’m off to India tomorrow, where whole people groups are deemed ‘untouchable’. I’m taking six pupils from the school where I teach to join with pupils from two other schools: Catholic and Protestant young people working together to prepare and teach English lessons in three schools. We will wear Indian clothes and attempt to absorb a new culture. We will talk about the privilege of education, the pain of poverty and the challenge of making a difference.

Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ and in response to the question: ‘What can you do to promote world peace?’ Mother Teresa replied: ‘Go home and love your family.’

Loving the person next to us is something we can all do. Welcome home, Beth and Sam. See you when I get back!