By trying to do something new, you can definitely get different results

Retired Presbyterian minister, Rev. David Latimer, reflects on a recent reconciliation event staged by the Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation in his former church in Derry

By The Newsroom
Friday, 17th December 2021, 10:50 am
2011... Rev. David Latimer and Martin McGuinness outside First Derry Presbyterian.
2011... Rev. David Latimer and Martin McGuinness outside First Derry Presbyterian.

While the NHS races to get vaccine boosters into arms to limit the spread of the Omicron variant, people everywhere are busy downloading COVID passports onto their mobiles so they can meet up with family and friends in bars, coffee shops, hotels and restaurants, writes Rev. David Latimer.

Brightly illuminated streets and beautifully decorated homes clearly convey it’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas but murmurings from the corridors of power of a return to restrictions serve, for another year.

Heaven forbid we succumb to feelings of hopelessness and defeat - even though there are times when we doubt if we’ll ever get our act together. In such moments, we must remember nothing lasts forever. The artist Vincent Van Gogh hit the nail on the head when he said, “...there comes an end to the bitter frosts. One morning, the wind turns. And, so, I will still have hope.”

First Derry Presbyterian Church.

Mid-way through 2018, something completely out of the blue, that had the effect of lifting my head towards the sun, began with a telephone call from a most unexpected source. The caller asked to meet with me outside First Derry Presbyterian Church. The weather, I recall, was sunny and warm and lots of tourists were walking on the walls. A representative from the Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation Board of Directors drew up in his car and, for the next thirty minutes, I listened to the back story which culminated in a formal request for the Presbyterian Church within the walls to host a major reconciliation event. Instantly, I recognised this was a big ask. I also realised this would not be easy for the church elders.

As it turned out, the next day was Sunday. After worship, I met with about two thirds of the Kirk Session team. Presbyterian elders held the authority to grant or refuse permission for the use of the church property. Assembled into a group, the elders listened carefully as I relayed details of the Peace Foundation’s request. A lengthy and lively discussion followed.

Understandably, a range of concerns were voiced. Afterall, First Derry had paid a huge price in terms of lives lost and property damaged during three decades of conflict. At the same time, attention was drawn to the congregation’s reputation for ‘reaching out’ to their neighbours.

In the end, a majority was in favour of making the church available to the Peace Foundation.

The disruption generated by COVID 19 delayed this remarkable event, but did not prevent it from taking place. Amazingly, just a few weeks ago, republicans and unionists met under the same roof and sat in the same pews demonstrating that the place we all need to get to is never completely out of reach.

An evening, comprising music, poetry, two speeches and song, was enriched by the presence and participation of students from colleges from either side of the River Foyle. Two students, one from Foyle College in the Waterside and the other from St Cecilia’s College in Creggan, delighted those listening with their words as did Martin’s granddaughter with her singing. The intentional inclusion of the young illustrated the pivotal role history is giving to a rising generation who are well placed to help take us toward a new era of togetherness.

It was a personal honour to be invited to speak at this ground-breaking event. Having forged a real friendship with Martin McGuinness, described by President Bill Clinton as ‘remarkable,’ it was a joy to speak from the heart about the former IRA commander who progressively and, successfully, transitioned to become peacemaker extraordinaire.

US Congressman Richard E Neal, renowned for his ability to deliver on facts, captivated hearts and minds in Upper Magazine Street as he supplied, albeit virtually, an inspirational overview of Martin who chose to travel an un-trodden path to peace and who was instrumental in bringing about political change in Northern Ireland.

“Dull would he be of soul who could fail to see” the immense contribution to understanding, peace building and reconciliation when First Derry Presbyterian Church became a centre for neighbourliness.

A salutary lesson arising from our attempt at doing something new is, you definitely get different results. The challenge now for all of us is to move while the door is open: to see change not as something hard that must be done but as something helpful that can be done. Therefore, the challenge facing all of us in this season of goodwill is to gird ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint.

Wounds on either side will not be healed today, tomorrow or the next, but they can be healed.

Peace-building in the pews at First Derry proves that, while none of us can control the wind, we can adjust our sales to take us to where we need to go.

○ Rev. David Latimer is retired minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church.