This past week I was in Northern-Ireland. The distance, as the crow flies, between the Netherlands and Northern-Ireland is less than 1.000 kilometers, but I had only been here once before. I had traveled to a place North of Belfast, on the coast, where the Adventist ministers from Ireland (both the Republic and Ulster), Wales and Scotland met in a small conference center. They were twenty-seven in total, which reflects the limited size of the Adventist Church in these areas.
It is impossible to drive through Belfast without being reminded of the violence between Protestants and Roman-Catholics, which split the society for so many years. Even today there are a number of barriers between Catholic and Protestant sections of the city. Some of these are even closed during the night, but since the so-called ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 the parties have ceased open hostilities, and there is peace–be it still a fragile peace and in the context of Brexit fears are growing that the troubles could flare up again.
The Corrymeela-center, where we were staying for a few days, and where I was to give four presentations, played a significant role in the peace process of Northern-Ireland. The center was established some fifty yeas ago, and ever since it has been a place for people who work for peace on the basis of the gospel. Before the ‘troubles’ started in full intensity, the center brought groups of Catholic and Protestant young people together, so that they might come to know more about the others and to respect them; to learn about the things they had in common besides those things that separated them. During the peace process the center also had an important role. Many of the initial exploratory talks of the different parties about a possible path towards pace were held here.
Indeed, Corrymeela is a place that exudes peace. It must be a combination of factors that produces that sense of peace: the extraordinary location, immediately on the coast, with a fantastic view over the sea; the absolute silence; the friendly campus with buildings of a sober but elegant design; and the absence of any blaring television screens. But it is, undoubtedly, also the efficient, friendly, but almost invisible, manner in which the center is run and how a christian ethos is modeled. Rarely have I been in a place for a number of days, when I never heard an unfriendly or loud voice. I experienced Corrymeela in all respects as a place of peace.
This environment may also have helped to make our pastors’ meeting a success. The organizers had invited me to give a number of presentations on the issue of unity and diversity in the church, and also to talk about the content and background of my latest book. In many respects the group of pastors was a very mixed bunch. They represented a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds, and also of theological orientation. I, undoubtedly, have said things that were very much at odds with the convictions of some of them. But if there was one thing that characterized our conference in Corrymeela is was the respect for one another and the spirit of camaraderie. Or: a spirit of peace.
Peace is a precious article. I wished I were able to export it into the Dutch political and societal landscape, and, in particular, into the Dutch Adventist Church, where I so often miss this mutual respect and the willingness to understand others, also when opinions differ. I believe it is within our reach to be a church with peace and unity, in spite of all diversity. This past week I saw a sublime example of the fact that it is, indeed, possible.