response: January/February 2020 Issue

A Sanctuary to Grow and Heal

United Methodist Women members’ Mission Giving helps a divided and marginalized community find housing, employment, wellness and peace.

A Sanctuary to Grow and Heal
Kim Cooper, l., chaplain at the East Belfast Mission, meets with a client at a coffee shop in Belfast, United Kingdom.

After decades of conflict and over 3,500 deaths, the Troubles, the name given to the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Nationalist groups, made a major move toward peace in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. Weapons from both sides were turned in and destroyed, and the two sides started trying to live together peacefully.

The East Belfast Mission was established as a registered charity in 1985 and ever since has been on the front line, or, more literally, the dividing line between communities, working to facilitate reconciliation between the two sides of the conflict and support marginalized neighbors. That work continues today through a state-of-the-art facility known as Skainos, a Greek word for tent in the community, completed in October 2012.

“We do a lot of counseling work with people with mental health struggles over being involved in conflict,” explained Andrew Irvine, the mission’s executive director. “We have tried to be a cross-community church because we believe, as Corinthians 5 and 20 says, ‘Therefore we are ambassadors of Christ.’ The cross-community work has been about trying to get the two communities from either side of the peace line to come together.” And many former paramilitary need help transitioning out of gang activity.

Through programs and activities, the mission seeks to reconcile and lift up the most marginalized sectors of society.

“The electorate that we’re in here is the 18th most deprived ward in Northern Ireland,” Irvine said. “More than half of the working-age population are unemployed, nearly three-quarters of them have no or very low qualifications.”

The mission’s programs include community outreach, a homeless shelter, housing rehabilitation, job placement, community gardening, counseling and pastoral support, Irish language and singing classes, dance classes, a cafe and restaurant, family support, afterschool programs and day care and a secondhand clothes and furniture store.

Community outreach

Kim Cooper is the community chaplain at the mission. Her salary is supported by United Methodist Women members’ generous Mission Giving. She considers her job to be bridging the gap between community and church.

“I find that a lot of people are isolated in their homes, so one of the ways of meeting their needs is to try and get them out of that isolation. It might be just visiting them in their home, trying to build up the confidence to get them out.”

Cooper also serves the spiritual and emotional needs of mission staff and meets weekly with individuals needing support, in local cafes or the Refresh Cafe at the mission, offering drop-in sessions on Thursday mornings. Hosford is the mission’s homeless support project, offering a hostel and tenancy support. The program seeks to place residents into social and private housing and helps individuals get government support, furniture, appliances and other necessities. Finding affordable housing isn’t just a problem for those fighting for a living wage in the United States.

“One of the biggest causes for homelessness is a relationship breakdown. Or it could be that somebody has been working all their lives, they have a mortgage, but the company has folded,” said Caroline Lewis, who has been a tenancy support worker for over 10 years.

“Some people are so isolated, so lonely, you know, they feel the problems they’re going through are insurmountable, until you get to meet with them, and then they realize that support is there.”

The hostel has 22 beds and an additional four apartments, all with 24- hour support.

Natasha Boyd was a client of the hostel and today lives in her own flat and is in training to become an accountant. She became homeless at age 18 and turned to the mission for support.

“I’m really happy about my involvement with East Belfast Mission. I absolutely love it,” she said. “The whole presence, when you’re in this place, it’s just so friendly, so calm and so welcoming. I made a group of good friends.”

The tenancy support program includes three members of staff who typically look after 50 clients who are in independent housing. It has a rolling waiting list.

“We try to help clients fit into a new way of life—setting up electrical accounts, sorting out rent, even providing bits of furniture,” said tenancy support worker Tina Kerr.

Life skills coordinator Arlene Megaw works with individuals currently living in the hostel and with those who have recently resettled into private homes. She also coordinates a health and wellbeing group, a gardening group called “Going Green” and an arts project.

On the day that I visited, the sky was overcast and the weather was chilly, but Megaw was out with a group of clients in the gardens sorting them for spring.

“Gardening really helps our clients’ well-being. It addresses social isolation, and it also helps lift their mood. It also improves motivation,” she said.

Samantha Nash is a transgender woman who came to the Hosford hostel in May 2014. She was 38 at the time we met.

“There were a lot of family breakdowns,” she said. “I had to get out of that situation, otherwise I wasn’t going to last much longer. I had been self-harming since my early 20s. So it was either get out or die. I was lost before I came to the East Belfast Mission. They helped me overcome my issues, and, eventually, after 13 months, I moved into my own house.” She’s stayed involved with the mission and is part of Going Green and the music program and utilizes the drop-in health and well-being sessions.

“Now my dream job is to be a counselor,” she said.


Many communities in Belfast are burdened with unemployment. Belfast was once home to the largest shipbuilding yards in the world. The shipbuilding industry has since moved east, and as a result there have been several generations of low educational achievement and high unemployment, a cycle that is difficult to break.

Hazel Jones, manager of the Employability Community and Family Support Teams, spoke of the challenge: “A lot of the folks, when they come to us, maybe haven’t worked for five or seven years. It could have been because of mental health issues, it could have been because of addiction issues, or could just have been because of family.” The employability program works to build self-esteem, provide job-skills training and help with job placement, supporting around 400 people each year.

Jones explained, “We employ a team of tutors, and I have them here every week, and it’s all free training for our clients.” The program offers eight-week courses in a variety of subjects, including health and social care, child care, information technology and personal development. The trainings are provided in convenient locations throughout the community.

A common language

The mission has found that learning a shared language has helped bring people together. The program is called Turas, meaning journey, and aims to bring together people from both Nationalist and Loyalist communities and provide a safe space for them to get to know one another.

“Over the past five years strong friendships have been created,” said Linda Ervine, the Irish language development officer. “We spend a lot of time challenging the mythology around the language, around who’s an Irish speaker and to whom the Irish language belongs. The language is all around us, in our surnames, our place names, words we use in our everyday speech.

“We provide language, music, dance, and people come,” she said. “It’s just a lovely way of making friends, getting together, because of a shared interest.” Robert Porter is 77 and sings with the Turas program. “I’m a Loyalist,” he said, “but we sing along with a lot of Nationalists anyway. It brings people together, and it’s good fun.”

Ervine shared a story of two volunteers, one who was previously a member of the Irish Republican Army and the other a police manager who was shot by the IRA, who became friends at the mission.

Caoimha Ní Chathail, who teaches singing and beginner-level Gaelic and who comes from a traditionally Nationalist background, called the location of the mission somewhere she wouldn’t have gone when she was younger.

“It’s massively important for me to be involved in this project and to bring people together from both sides of the traditional divide,” she said. The demographics of the group have changed over the years. According to Ervine, the classes were first attended almost exclusively by those from the Loyalist neighborhoods, all adults, mostly men. As word spread, that changed. Women and children joined, and people from different neighborhoods. The mission even hosts a family Irish-language class. The class not only helps dispel myths and prejudice around the Irish language but creates community where people from different backgrounds and beliefs can be together.

Family support

What started as “the homework club” at the mission is now called the Aspire project. It provides afterschool homework help for children ages 8 to 10.  “A lot of children in this area don’t have a family member at home able to help either in terms of ability or time,” explained Hannah Ferguson, the project’s coordinator. “We’re trying to raise aspirations in general, to raise selfconfidence, help children set goals and build big, positive thoughts about their lives. The Aspire project is important in this community because there is very low educational attainment and a very low employment record. We really need to change people’s approach to education, their views of themselves and what is possible for them to achieve.”

Ferguson has seen many children open up and grow, make friends and learn coping strategies for frustrations. “We get to see that big change, and that just makes me feel really happy and really glad to come to work,” she said.

Reconciling communities

Through its vast array of programs, East Belfast Mission supports the most disadvantaged parts of society. The mission’s strong emphasis on community outreach, reconciliation in the face of conflict and bridging the gaps between individuals, institutions, government and support services makes it a vital safety net for many people from a variety of communities of Belfast.

Cooper thanked United Methodist Women members for their support. “I do the work because I love the community,” she said. “And I love the people supporting me. They have faith in me, so I want to give it my best.” Kerr takes Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule, seriously in her work with the marginalized, the “other,” with the mission. “Every person I’m with, whoever they are, I look at them as if they were me,” said Kerr. “I try to treat them with the respect and dignity that I would like for myself. I am trying the very best that I can to give them something they’ve never had before: unconditional love.”

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Santa Rosa, California, and a frequent contributor to response.

Posted or updated: 1/7/2020 12:00:00 AM