The Duncairn has been a beacon for church and community relations in north Belfast. Its director, the Rev Bill Shaw, explains its work and why visible friendships between church leaders are such a powerful picture of reconciliation
COMMUNITY relations is central to the work that happens at the Duncairn, a former Presbyterian Church in north Belfast, which has become a centre of inspiration for people in the area, Bill Shaw writes in The Irish News.
Beginning in 1998 as an employment scheme, operated by the 174 Trust, the building has been transformed over the past 20 years to a place that encourages the celebration of culture and the enrichment brought to the community through art.
Although the building today has been internally renovated, the exterior remains that of the former Presbyterian Church which closed in 1994.
This does not deter the community from entering the building, which from day one has practised an open door policy.
The guiding principle that we continue to follow, after 20 years, is to seek to collaborate and complement the ways in which God is at work in the community, rather than evangelise in the technical sense.
We agreed that running programmes or projects is not what would benefit this community most.
Our belief is that community development is about empowering and equipping local people.
We aim to affirm people as individuals and recognise the God-given dignity that belongs to them, regardless of where they are in society’s class structures.
So, rather than deciding programmes for the community, we invite them to create their own and offer them the space to do so.
This approach to community development allows for a sense of ownership of the projects but also of the building, which was particularly important for a former Protestant church in a Catholic area.
Thus, community development became the first task in 1998 as we invited people in the area to use the building for their own local needs.
This aim is still at the heart of the Duncairn today, as it now facilitates up to 20 different groups on a daily or weekly basis.
As a centre for culture and arts, we believe that populating the building with creative people is essential.
As the Duncairn developed in a community hurting from Protestant-Catholic suspicions, our primary role had to be that of peacemakers and bridge-builders
This means offering studios and exhibition areas for the community to share their craft and skills in a safe and positive atmosphere.
We believe that art and culture brings people together and gives opportunities for meeting in a place of shared interest.
As the Duncairn developed in a community hurting from Protestant-Catholic suspicions, our primary role had to be that of peacemakers and bridge-builders.
Our concept of shared space allows barriers that would usually prevent people from engaging with one another to be put aside while focusing on a shared issue or interest.
Because of these experiences and the benefits that flow from the opportunity to truly meet with one another, shared space has become the premise for everything we do.
The church-community relations that have been formed in the area of the Duncairn are reinforced by the monthly church leaders’ breakfast, now in its 16th year.
This began after the reaction of members of the community to my catch-up with a local priest over coffee.
This casual meeting had made an unintended, yet positive statement to the community.
From this I established the idea of visible friendships between church leaders, which has led to our monthly breakfasts at the Duncairn.
These breakfasts create the context for Protestant ministers and Catholic priests to form lasting friendships and promote reconciliation in their own congregations, while supporting the development of church-community relations.
It is our belief that positive and effective church-community relations stem from starting with the people that are willing, while always leaving space for latecomers.
This way, the only people that are excluded, exclude themselves.
To begin the autumn/winter session of our church leaders’ breakfast we are holding a special event to install a piece of artwork that represents the transformation of the Duncairn from a Presbyterian Church to a Centre for Culture and Arts.
The event is next Friday, September 21, and is part of Good Relations Week; an appropriate occasion to unveil this unique artwork that encapsulates the extraordinary transformation of this building.
Former members of the congregation will gather along with church leaders and other invited guests, to celebrate the journey of the Duncairn.
The artist, Patricia McCabe, an Ulster University graduate, will discuss the thought process behind this stunning creation at the event.
Members of staff will also be sharing their thoughts on the sense of inspiration felt by everyone who visits the Duncairn and how this piece of art epitomises this.
This event promises to be a truly special opportunity to showcase the inspirational journey of both the Duncairn and the local community.
- More on Good Relations Week at www.goodrelationsweek.com.