Unification News for February 2000

RYS Project in Belfast, N. Ireland

by Rev. Michael D. Teague

Reverend Teague is a graduate of Princeton Seminary and is a Baptist Minister.

From September 17-27, 1999, the Religious Youth Service (RYS) conducted a service project in Belfast, Ireland. The theme for this service project was Reconciliation and Beyond and involved planting a peace garden at the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation in Belfast. Additionally, this ten-day event involved participating in various leadership development and relationship-building activities among participants and staff as well as attending lectures and other functions. The RYS coordinators designed these events to enrich our understanding of Northern Ireland as well as our understanding of those religious organizations, which were working for peace in this region. This writer was blessed to take part in what was a life-changing experience.

The lead coordinator of the Belfast project, Marshall D' Souza, planned for its first three days to involve staff and participant orientation and training. This took place from September 17-20. Beginning Monday, September 21 and concluding on Friday, September 25, the staff and participants worked to create the peace garden. Within this overall project existed several smaller projects. First, we were to create a winding path that began on the side of the garden and proceeded around to the back of the garden, which was meant to symbolize the life and ministry of Saint Columbanus, a sixth century Irish monk. Additionally, we were to plant trees along this path. Second, we were given the charge to design a prayer and meditation area. Third, we accepted the call to create a pathway across the garden that ended at a gazebo, also to be built by our group. Fourth, we were given the task to build an archway at the entrance of the garden. Finally, we accepted the responsibility to create a stone foundation for a replica of a plow, symbolic of the Shalom, the Hebrew concept of peace, near the driveway of the center.

This constituted the work phase of our experience. Additionally, Mr. D 'Souza and his support staff planned an educational aspect of this experience. For instance, we spent an evening at the Corymeela Community, a Christian peace community also located in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, we took part in the painting of a peace mural approximately two blocks from the hostel at which we stayed. Additionally, we had an opportunity to take a tour of the Parliament, which included meeting with one of its elected officials. Perhaps the most significant of the educational experiences we enjoyed was our tour of Belfast, in which we saw this country's beautiful landscape and witnessed its political divisions.

More than work and education, we had significant opportunities to reflect spiritually concerning our experience. Each morning at 7:00 a.m., we participated in a meditation period. The purpose of this period was to center us and to experience God. The power of this meditation period lay in our experience of different faith traditions. One morning, we witnessed the calm solemnity of the Hindu faith. On another morning, we learned how to perform the Islamic prayer, the Salat. On another morning, one of the participants led us through a guided meditation. I was privileged to have an opportunity to lead one of the meditations. I decided to engage the participants in a meditation, which engaged mind and body. To this end, I led them through a series of martial arts exercises, the Eight Silk Weaving Exercises, which are meant to enhance a person's health.

In addition to the morning meditations, we hiked to the top of perhaps the highest mountain in Belfast. For me, this was a type of spiritual pilgrimage. During this hike, many of the images and motifs in the Christian scriptures came to life for me. For example, there were two paths about 100 feet in length that led to the top of the mountain. One was a wide path very easy to walk; the other was a narrow path. I decided to walk the narrow path, because Jesus teaches something very significant in Matthew 7:

Go in through the narrow gate, because the gate to hell is wide And the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who Travel it. But the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads To it is hard, and there are few people who find it. (Matthew 7: 13,14 - The Good News Bible)

For me, the thirty-minute walk from the bottom of this mountain to its apex enabled me to have many experiences of the kind I just mentioned.

This project, which consisted of work, education and reflection, concluded with a banquet on Sunday, September 26. During this time, we had an opportunity to hear from staff and participants. Each person who spoke provided his or her insights involving the significance of the trip. This was a moving time for all of us. We each received certificates of participation from RYS. We spent the remainder of the evening signing the back of each other's certificates with farewell thoughts and wishes.

The Belfast Project was the most spiritually powerful experience of my life. I returned from this trip empowered in my relationship with the Lord. I came back to New Jersey having found another calling for my life, that of global, interfaith work related to world peace. I arrived having experienced what I believe to be an essential aspect of the kingdom of God on earth: people of all faiths, races and genders living in love, working for peace.

I believe that RYS has produced a powerful model for racial, ethnic, religious and cultural reconciliation that can and must be replicated throughout the world. The concept, as I understand it, is quite simple. It involves bringing a group of diverse people together for a specific amount of time to live, work and fellowship together around a specific task. The end of this task is to model peace. Moreover, in modeling peace, those who participate in RYS-related projects create peace, if only for a moment. How much different could places like Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor and the Middle East be if groups in conflict could participate in RYS projects? Even if the RYS did not sponsor such activities, the RYS concept itself could produce lasting change.

For many years I have considered myself a person of faith. Almost eighteen years ago, I embraced the Christian faith. Since then I have endeavored to follow Christ. I believe that have done so, albeit imperfectly. During this time, I have embraced the Christian concept of original sin, with its accompanying pessimistic view of human nature. It seems to me, a profound implication of this doctrine is that human beings are intrinsically evil. At best, if both good and evil co-exist within the human being, this doctrine suggests, he or she is predisposed toward that which is evil. Since my trip to Belfast, I have re-evaluated my position. Still, I believe that both good and evil exist within us. At the same time, I believe that there are ways of motivating people to express and live out the good within us rather than the evil within us. I am convinced that RYS is one of those ways. I wish to thank Marshall D' Souza, the lead organizer of the Belfast Project, his support staff as well as the team leaders for their labor of love.

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