It has been a unique week. In the space of three days I celebrated two funerals of women both in their 90s; one was 95 and the other was 96. One of the women was a native of Strabane and like my mother she had the good fortune to meet and marry a Derry man.
During my first encounter I was quizzed about my Strabane roots. The woman knew my mother’s family and how they had lived in Meeting House Street before moving to the Head of the Town. She explained how my grandfather was a native of Sion Mills and did I know he was a Protestant?
Indeed I did know, he was baptised and died a member of the Church of Ireland. Like many before him and since he was considering converting to Catholicism for the sake of his bride, until one encounter put him off the notion all together.
Walking in the front door of the Catholic Church he was challenged by the local Parish Priest. It seems because he wasn’t a Catholic yet he couldn’t use the front door and he would have to use the side door instead. We would like to think we live in a much changed world. Yet despite all various physical and structural changes which have resulted in progress for many people in our society we are still afflicted by the fears, prejudices and biases which contribute to the divided nature of our community. We feel more comfortable living surrounded by the people who share the same background and upbringing which has formed our cultural, political and religious attitudes. In a more globalised and modernised world we still face the temptation to be trapped in the everyday small mindedness and petty politics which reinforces division and fear.
As much as we should be proud of our identity, both cultural and religious, we shouldn’t be entrapped by fear or prejudice which allows us to solely concentrate on our differences. Life has become more complicated and embittered by the legacy of our past hurts and grievances which have shaped our community psyches. The challenge for all the members of our community is being able to deal with the past. If we can understand and acknowledge the legacy of the past through recognising the events and circumstances which have contributed to mutual hatred and mistrust, then we might be able to help create a better future. A starting point might be listening and responding to the challenge set before us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, especially the central question ‘who is my neighbour?’
I face a similar challenge not to be clouded by my own political and religious assumptions and by making differences in the ways I treat others. Can we really treat people of all the various political, cultural, social and religious as our neighbours? In reality it is only possible if we open our hearts to God. We must begin by admitting our blindness and asking God to give us sight.