The city in which Rev David Latimer first arrived has come a long way since. The genial Minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church is now preparing to embark on a major cross-community project entitled ‘Bright Brand New Day’ to be launched next week. In this piece, Rev Latimer recounts his journey thus far to Eamonn Baker of Towards Understanding and Healing and the City Walls Heritage Project.
I was born and reared into a Presbyterian family in Dromore, County Down and grew up very much immersed in my own community, attending Church, the Church Youth Club and the Boys’ Brigade. Dromore is a wee rural County Down town, mainly Protestant in its make-up, the reverse image in some ways of the westbank of this city.
When I went along to Banbridge Technical College to take business studies that was almost the first time that I began mixing with people from the Catholic community. After completing my HND in Business Studies, I got a job with the Northern Ireland Electricity Board, soon to become Electricity Service. Before long I was promoted to the role of a systems analyst.
While I was still living in Dromore and then later Lisburn, (after I had become married to Margaret), I sometimes travelled down to Derry and worked out of the NIES Strand Road premises during the early years of the conflict. These were years of checkpoints, searches, bomb scares and bombings, shootings, killings, confusion, distress. To keep relatively safe, we used to stay out in the Drummond Hotel in Ballykelly. I had never been to Derry before. It was not a place that featured much in our conversations back home in Dromore. I didn’t see then how many years of my life I would later spend here with my wife and family.
While I loved my job with the NIES, I slowly began to realise that I was not totally at ease there. I had became unsettled. I had begun to hear another voice, an “inside” voice calling me to God, calling me to become a Presbyterian Minister.
In 1978, with full support from my wife Margaret, who by then was a primary school teacher in Dromore, I quit my job and entered the Union Theological College. On the very day I left my secure pensionable post as a systems analyst with NIES, I crashed my car – this had me wondering what future God had in store for me.
After serving as an assistant minister in Railway Street Presbyterian Church Lisburn, in 1984 I was ordained to Glascar and Donaghmore Presbyterian Church. I ministered there until 1988. All was going well. I looked after my parishioners, conducted services including Orange Services, and had easy links with local Church of Ireland Minister.
I did as generations of ministers had done before me and yet within me still was a restless voice that had me wanting to reach out beyond my own comfort zone. Margaret was now teaching in a primary school in Rathfriland. Our three children, Joanne, Jessica and Suzanna were settled in their respective schools and growing up fast. Could we, should we, up sticks and move? In September 1987, Maurice Bolton, minister at Strand Road Presbyterian Church, let me know that the Minister at First Derry, Rev James Young, was leaving. In January 1988, I was invited to come and preach at our sister church at Monreagh in Donegal and then later that day at First Derry.
‘Step into the unknown’
I remember being struck by the ominous appearance of the church, the high-security paraphernalia, the bulletproof perspex that prevented light getting in, the big steel outer doors. I noticed too that there were so many keys required just to get in to the church. When I received a unanimous call from the First Derry and Monreagh congregation to become their 21st minister, once again in my life’s journey I had a vital decision to make. Did I stay with the familiar? Or, relatively speaking, did I step into the unknown?
By April 1988, I was installed as Minister of First Derry. Margaret, Joanne, Jessica and Suzanna all came with me fresh to this “city of many names”. During my first few months here, I encountered my first big difficulty. I arrived one evening at First Derry to say hello to members of our bowling club, parking my gleaming yellow Ford Escort outside on a deserted Upper Magazine Street. I returned later to find that the car had been peppered with stones, bricks and bottles and was effectively beyond repair.
In my innocence, I had parked by the church not anticipating such an attack. I came to learn that around the times of parades and marches, the church, so close to the Memorial Hall, and so close to the Bogside, could come under attack from youths hurling stones, paint bombs or even petrol bombs.
Another challenge for me was the reducing size of the congregation. Fears were expressed by some around me that First Derry, like other Protestant churches on the westbank, would inevitably close as congregation members moved away to the Waterside and farther afield. Great James Street Presbyterian Church had closed in 1982. Claremont Presbyterian Church was to close in 1996, Strand Road in 2010. And there was that tragic history of congregation members being killed by Republicans – RUC officer William Logan shot dead near Coalisland March 15th 1972; RUC officer Mervyn Wilson killed in a bomb in Harbour Square, Jan 14th 1975; Bobby Stott, shot dead in the Fountain, November 25th 1975; Ronnie Bond shot outside his home in Harding Street and died on November 7th 1976; Peter Hill shot dead near his home in Daphne Gardens, February 23th 1977.
Since Claremont is now part of First Derry, the names of Claremont members killed during the Troubles are inscribed on our Memorial Plaque – prison officer Roy Hamilton shot dead outside his home on 9th October 1976; 19-year-old apprentice electrician and RUC reserve constable Robert Struthers from the Glen shot dead, June 1978; David Stanley Wray, shot dead outside Claremont Presbyterian Church on his way to Sunday service with his teenage son and daughter, May 20th 1977; and David Samuel Montgomery shot dead in Keys timber yard on February 10th 1981.
A key question became, was the westbank a safe place for Protestants? And if it wasn’t, would the congregation of First Derry simply drift away? At this time in the late eighties and early nineties, I had some ecumenical links with the Long Tower and the priests there, Fathers Michael Collins, Sean McKenna and Con McLaughlin. When I look back now, I see that we were sowing the seeds for future collaborations between our two churches.
At the same time, I had many doubts about the future. Joanna and Jessica were at Foyle, Suzanna at Clondermott, Margaret busy teaching at First Derry PS, later to merge into the Fountain PS. “Was it time to move again?” I was asking myself and yet something kept us all here in spite of the challenges and frustrations. We trundled on and small changes began to gain some pace.
I gathered a reputation as a more “liberal” minister. Some people started to come to our church for the first time, others came back. Families with young children found the atmosphere at First Derry welcoming. As the peace process began to bed down, we could relax some of the security wrappings around the building. Then in 2002 myself and the church congregation faced another major challenge and initially a major headache – dry rot in the structure of the church. For nine years I ministered from Carlisle Road Methodist Church while we put in place a rescue mission which has culminated in the magnificently restored church we love today.
My initial meeting with Martin McGuinness was in that vacated, dismal, semi-derelict First Derry in 2006. Martin became a major supporter for our restoration programme. Mark Lusby and Tony Monaghan of Derry City Council were brilliant too in their support for our vision of a restored church situated cheek by jowl with both the city Walls and our friends and neighbours in the Bogside.
For years I had served as a chaplain in the Territorial Army. In 2008, for 12 weeks I was posted to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. Often ministering at the field hospital in intensive care, shoulder to shoulder with the surgical team, I experienced the deadly bloody horror of war, up close and very personal.
During that 12 weeks there was spike in casualties, with more than 1,100 injured or wounded soldiers in hospital. I saw 58 body bags. If I hadn’t known before, I saw clearly how important it was to build peace step by step everywhere and especially back home where I lived and ministered.
These shattering experiences at Camp Bastion became the anvil on which I hammered my resolve to do all in my power to contribute to peace-building once I was safely back in Londonderry. We had to create a daring alternative to politically motivated violence.
It is not that I had not seen death and destruction in Northern Ireland. In my home town of Dromore, the local draper, William Herron, his wife Elizabeth and their daughter, Noeleen had perished when incendiary devices placed by the Provisional IRA in their drapery store started a fire and all three died of smoke inhalation on April 7th 1976. I used to go into Herron’s to get my school uniform.
Two friends of mine – Ian and Liz McCracken died in the horrific La Mon firebomb attack when twelve people, seven of them women, died. My friends were collie dog owners and were attending the Irish Collie Club annual dinner dance in La Mon that February in 1978.
The Provisional IRA admitted planting the device that resulted in those twelve deaths. However, it was my experiences in Camp Bastion which finally motivated me to climb right up out of my bunker, to risk speaking last autumn at the Sinn Fein Ardfheis and, coming right up to date, to become involved in helping to organise the Bright Brand New Day process along with fellow community workers, business people, teachers and priest – Nigel Cairns, Ian Crowe, Fr Michael Canny, Eamonn Deane, Brian Dougherty, David Funston, Seamas Heaney, Maureen Hetherington, Eamonn Baker and Jim Roddy.