The death of my baby son helped me be a better minister - Presbyterian Moderator

Presbyterian moderator Dr. Rob Craig. (1207PG41)
Presbyterian moderator Dr. Rob Craig. (1207PG41)

Earlier this year Rob Craig was installed as the new moderator of the Presbyterian Church. Today in a frank and open interview Rev Craig tells Eamonn Baker about his life, the tragic death of his baby son and his hopes that the sins of the past can be healed.

“I was born in Magherafelt where my father worked as a civil servant with the Minstry of Labour- “the dole”.

I am the middle one of five children.

We moved to Cookstown when I was about 4, lived in Armagh for 7 years and then moved to Belfast in the mid-60s when I was 11. I had a good stable home, a traditional upbringing, with both parents present, church going every Sunday.

In those days the way it was - If you hadn’t done your shopping by Saturday, you wouldn’t do it ‘til Monday.

Sunday was a quiet day, a day when you didn’t do things, maybe rather than a day you did do things. We never wanted and at the same time we didn’t have everything.

One of my stand-out memories of that time is England’s 1966 World Cup victory with Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and me hoping that Jimmy Greaves would get playing as I’m a lifelong Spurs supporter.

In order to catch that vital half-hour extra-time, we delayed picking my sister up after she had flown into Nutts Corner.

I attended Wallace High School in Lisburn and from there went on to Queen’s studying classics, travelling the few miles down the road from our home in Finaghy.

For me the process of wanting to enter the Ministry crystallised in my first year at Queen’s. Personal triggers included the power of friendship with those many good friends I made as part of the youth work of the church.

My family faith was becoming my personal faith. I had the blessing of a church upbringing or to put if differently “ I was brought up “facing the Kingdom”.

I had to choose whether to cross that threshold. Increasingly I found myself thinking that I wanted to use my life in some full-time way in the service of Christ.

In some ways my journey into the ministry was more of a zig-zag for I had and have a global sense of calling.

I travelled to the very populous and less well developed Indian Northern State, Bihar.

I was engaged in literature distribution often in Hindi, as well as street preaching. People were hungry for education, Christian literature was just soaked up. I was there for three years between the ages of 22-25.

I was passionate in this work, very sincere and thoroughly enjoyed this largely carefree time in my life. I didn’t realise how much it had influenced me.

At 25 I went for my theological education to the Union Theological College on Botanic Avenue spending three years there. I was assigned as assistant in Glengormley and finally ordained there too.

It was through the church in Glengormley that I met my wife Karen and we got married in summer of 1985. She too has espoused the sense of ministry.

We have two daughters – Rachel and Hannah who both were born in County Down after I was called to be the minister for the Congregations of Clough and Seaforde in 1985. Rachel is now training to be a solicitor in London. Hannah works as a critical care nurse In Birmingham, specialising in neuro-care.

In January 1993 we lost our third child Daniel at birth. We have no special privileges in th rough and rumble of life. Daniel’s loss was such a big blow.

We had to decide to turn the machine off, letting nature take its course. Still, with two happy healthy girls, we are a family who sees the glass half full rather than half empty.

I hope I don’t come over embittered. I feel Daniel’s death has helped make me a better minister. I have had to wrestle with all the questions that people are wrestling with.

The loss of Daniel has made me a little bit more understanding, enabling me to better get alongside people. to be “there” with people…..

People don’t care what you know until they know that you care”.

Core to being a minister is to be alongside families where there is illness, bereavement, shoulder to shoulder.

Moving to rural Clough and Seaforde in 1985 proved a steep learning curve. We were already in the second decade of the Troubles.

I buried a number of people murdered through terrorism. I visited a couple of people in prison who got caught up in terrorism. These were very difficult times in both sides of the community.

Who could prepare you for that type of ministry?

When you’d get a call you didn’t have time to stop and think.

You did what needed to be done, maybe coping with a torrent of anger grief and bitterness.

You became a conduit for people. People could vent,say things and let go.

I could see how things could boil over.

I was trying to rein things in. There was no textbook to teach you.

There were practical things that had to be done. Other professionals came in and did their business … then they were gone.

You’d be back a week later, after the TV cameras had moved on, back a month later, back a year later at the anniversary, back when people had even forgotten the name because things had moved on.

Hundreds of ministers and priests have done this throughout the Troubles.

I’m not to be commended any more than any other. People mightn’t even know that you were there but they would know that you weren’t and in the most tragic of circumstances you cannot bring back the loved one.

The Troubles then seemed almost unending. We felt a helplessness.

It was if we were just waiting for another atrocity happen? In Clough and Seaforde and in the Protestant/Unionist community there was a fierce outcry against the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in November 1985. The community I was part of felt beleaguered, under siege. People were asking: “Does anyone care for us? Does Britain really want us?” In the middle of all that, our children born….

We moved to Derry in 1994 to the comparatively new Kilfennan Presbyterian Church (dedicated 1982).

In the 1970s and early 1980s there had been all that turmoil nearby Great James St. Presbyterian Church, a haemorraging of membership, numbers dropping significantly. Private conversations were already happening inthe mid-70s about moving. The physical fabric of the church may not have been directly under attack but there was collateral damage with riots, burnings, shootings, bombings happening in the vicinity, members of the congregation arriving for church services with tear gas hanging in the air. Few have told me of personal threat. Some were making a new start, young couples getting married thinking that the Waterside was a wiser, safer place to go to build a future. Maybe there was a tipping point. As people were going, others were maybe thinking: “We need to go too”

When the congregation moved to to Kilfennan, they took the World War memorial tablets, the stained glass windows, the pulpit, the baptismal font, the communion table. The organ didn’t come because it couldn’t be fitted into the new church building. Subsequently Great James St church was used by the library service.

The building was later bought by Artglass and more recently has been used for music and drama performances during this UK City of Culture Year. The experience of Kilfennan very quickly worked towards healing the hurt. We went from a diminishing congregation to one mushrooming in size, for as well as those from the original Great James Street congregation, people in the local community from a mixture of denomination started going. Here was a new beginning with one new congregation.

Now we have second or third generation congregation members from the people who moved across orginally and inevitably, with the passage of time, numbers directly associated with Great James Street have diminished. Many have passed on taking their story with them.

The story of the Great James Street Church and congregation brings up the big question of how do we deal with the past? There remains the crucial question of how we best care for our victims of the Troubles even as the victims are getting older. There is also the big question : how do we deal with moving on? Some people want to know how to find the truth of what happened, want to know how to find justice and even if we find truth and justice, how can we move on? What is healing? I have no slick simple comments to make. As a Christian minister, speaking personally, I have questions about the loss of my son that no-one can answer for me but certainly, for me, prayer is a part of the healing process.

In the initial weeks after losing my son, I don’t think I prayed in the traditional sense. I started to scribble down a journal. This was really a prayer. It was my only way for several weeks.

One little phrase…. “Lord sanctify this for me”….. I repeated through that journal. “Make it holy, Lord, purposeful.” So many of us are looking for meaning when bad things happen. The pain was unspeakable and the worst bit was that, as a husband, I couldn’t comfort my wife who was in even greater pain than me. There was nothing I could do to take that pain away. It could sound awful cheap and off-hand to say, “Pray about it” though as a Christian Minister I believe that as we seek to live with our past, prayer must be part of the process.

This is, in no way, to treat lightly the depth of feeling and hurt that people have as a result of the Troubles. Talking and sharing can help and some people may not want to talk. You certainly cannot force people to talk about the deepest places in their lives. Sometimes people are able to talk across a meal table, over a cup of coffee, while out for a walk, conversations can happen in quiet ways, person to person, without a minister, or priest.

We’re 15 years into the peace process, half the time of the Troubles. Maybe we might need another fifteen years to heal from the terrible hurts that have been inflicted.

nEamonn Baker works with the Peace 3 funded Towards Understanding and Healing programme and alongside the Walled City Heritage project. This is the first part of a two part interview. The second instalment will feature the upcoming visit of the new Presbyterian Moderator and his wife Karen to Rwanda, under the auspices of Christian Aid and TEAR