I arrived at the Methodist service in East Belfast’s magnificent community hub cum church Skainos today to be greeted by Franciscan priest Rev David Jardine who has been involved in the healing ministry for many decades.
Welcomed to Skainos by resident Minister the Rev Margaret Ferguson, Fr Jardine told the story of a Presbyterian minister Rev Barker who he would encounter while a student in Queen’s in the early sixties.
Rev Barker had been captured by the Japanese while a missionary in China during the Second World War and spent much of that conflict in a concentration camp where he endured appalling torture.
The day the war ended, in the wake of the atom bomb horror, the commander of the camp brought the surviving prisoners together to announce that they were free men. Rev Barker, as the prisoners’ elected leader, took the hand of his Japanese captor and shook it, “now we can be friends again,” he said.
Now there’s a thought at Christmastime.
But it wasn’t the only good news at Skainos today, I also learnt that the congregation had gathered provisions to make 750 hampers which have now been distributed to needy families.
Last night, I was treated to two inspiring community-building demonstrations. The first was in the Whitla Hall at QUB at the Bredagh GAC Oskars where my pals Seán Napier and Emer Hinphey joined other budding big screen stars to perform parts from iconic movies. The event raised many tens of thousands of pounds which will go towards the costs of a new clubroom being jointly funded by the club — the biggest in Ulster with just under 1,000 members — and Belfast City Council. Later, complete with Mandela shirt, I popped into the African-Caribbean Support Organisation NI Christmas Community Awards where I met the leaders of our newcomer communities who are doing so much to build a prosperous and diverse Belfast. I met exemplary citizens who hailed originally from Jamaica, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, St Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa and many other magnificent lands but who are now building new lives in Belfast. Among their number were asylum seekers and refugees who have been denied a fair shake by the authorities and who are relying on the shelter of others to keep body and soul together. At a time when we honour the birth of that most famous of refugees, it’s crucial that we ensure the Irish tradition of hospitality shines forth.
Finally, the Assembly Finance Committee is continuing, with some success, to probe the NAMA-Cerberus scandal which has cast a cloud over the highest reaches of society. As ordinary families struggle to make ends meet, the evidence is mounting up of a shameful scam designed to enrich a golden circle. I don’t know if we will manage to uncover the full extent of the wrongdoing but to turn our heads the other way is surely not an option. The salt of the earth in our great city, who spend a lifetime trying to get on by dint of hard work and honest endeavour, deserve nothing less than relentless pursuit of the truth.
Among the latest witnesses to give evidence at the Finance Committee investigation was Mr Richard Bullick advisor to First Minister Peter Robinson. You can see a little of our exchange here.
And some dates to save for the New Year. Friday 22 January, New York, launch of ‘Belfast International Homecoming – Business and Investment Conference’ (and the conference itself will take place from 12-14 October.)