06 December 2012

Forty Years of BVSers in Northern Ireland and Ireland!

When we met 10 years ago for the 30th anniversary event of BVS in Northern Ireland, Rev. Harold Good, the Methodist pastor who invited us in 1972 to send volunteer youth workers to the Shankill area of Belfast, said:

"When the full story of all these years in Northern Ireland is written, sadly you probably won't be recorded or mentioned - not BVS or you individually. Sorry about that. But more important, in ways that can never be measured, is that you've made a huge contribution to the lives of so many people here and to our overall situation - by your coming here you have encouraged us, by helping us to realize we are part of a great world family who are concerned about justice, peace, and people.  It’s important that we’re not alone in that. … You’ve come to share that.  You’ve touched the lives of so many people.  Thank you for that, and we want to encourage you in return.”   
We didn’t stop with sending a first BVSer to that community center.   BVSers were placed in different corners of Belfast and beyond.   Back in the day, we were generous with more than sending volunteers, too, by giving a minivan to a group in Ligoniel, and even a house to another volunteer service organization. (I would love to still have that house!)  One interesting placement was in the mid 1970s when the general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, who talked to paramilitary groups on all sides, arranged to bring one of our previous BVSers back to Belfast to work as a receptionist in the office of the think tank group of some Protestant paramilitaries on cease fire.   David Stevens, a more recent ICC general secretary, told us at the 30th anniversary:   “That was an imaginative thing to do. Peace requires you to work with people who you might not like to associate with.” 
Forty years later, we’ve sent about 160 volunteers to over 40 different organizations in Northern Ireland and Ireland.   Some are still going strong – Quaker Cottage has had 24 of our volunteers throughout the years –but other groups have changed, folded, or no longer work with international volunteers. 
Along with the memories from the 30th anniversary event in Belfast in 2002, I’ve rummaged through the Geneva office files, amidst early BVSers’ project reports and photos, and found other gems of information.  I kept travel notes in the past 25 years and re-discovered some interesting things in those.  Here is a small sampling:
My early annual meetings with David Stevens (then assistant general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches in Belfast) often gave me insights about the ongoing situation.  In the late 1980s he was fond of saying that “the situation is desperate but not serious.”  We got news that one of the BVSers who worked as an administrative assistant at the ICC had tried to attend the Milltown Cemetery funeral in 1988 for the IRA trio who were killed in Gibraltar, and a guy named Michael Stone started shooting at the Belfast funeral-goers.  David S. and I both agreed after that, I needed to have some serious talks with some of the BVSers. 
Occasionally we held joint meetings of the BVS and the EIRENE volunteers from Germany, not only discussing heavy issues like The Troubles, but also topics like “the role of foreigners in Northern Ireland.”
Year after year, I arrived at the international airport and took the bus in to Belfast, always seeing a banner along the motorway admonishing that “Ulster still needs Jesus.”  It disappeared a while ago.  As did the “Belfast says no” banner on the top of City Hall.   Did Ulster find Jesus?   Belfast did eventually say yes to the peace agreements.     
In 1992 we held a BVS day for the volunteers in Belfast and invited Mairead Corrigan-Maguire of Peace People fame to speak with us.  She told the BVSers to not get lost in the issues in Northern Ireland, but to concentrate on one-to-one relationships, to help people feel important about themselves, and to “be happy.”
One newly arrived BVSer in 1993 told me that he had “not been prepared for these kinds of kids” he was working with in a local youth center in north Belfast.  Hmmm.   
And the peace lines separating the two communities grew higher and looked ever more permanent.  
I’ll never forget the summer 1994 phone call from Vincent Bent, director of the Ulster Quaker Service Committee, who shouted “Kristin, we have a cease fire!”!   That was the first of the IRA cease fires, leading up to the peace agreement. 

After that a church executive asked me if we would leave Northern Ireland because peace had come.  Do cease fires really mean that everything’s changed?   By then we had worked with youth groups, with community organizations, with individual congregations, with the Irish Council of Churches, with children and their families, with prisoners, with the Peace People, with other peace or mediation or cross community initiatives and organizations and centers and farms.  Not only focusing on the causes and effects of the Troubles, we had also had volunteers in Women’s Aid refuges and with briefly with the Travelling Community. In 1996 we took on a placement at the Multi Cultural Resource Center.   In 1997 the first BVSer headed to a L’Arche community in the Republic of Ireland.  To this date, 20 BVSers have served at the L’Arche communities in the Republic and in Belfast.  

We started holding annual weekend retreats for the Northern Irish and Irish BVSers in the mid 1990’s at various places around Northern Ireland.  One highlight was when our BVS group climbed Slieve Donard in the Mourne Mountains.

After the on- and off- and on-again ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.  By 2002 I noticed that taxi companies had suddenly flourished and some cab drivers would venture all across Belfast.  Taxis as a sign of peace?   And sadly more peace walls. 
We were caught off guard by stricter UK visa requirements in early 2004 and had to send two newly arrived BVSers home to the USA to get those pesky visas, without which they could not enter the UK as long term volunteers.  We’d previously always successfully avoided visas because of a handy letter from the Home Office that allowed BVSers to sail through UK Immigration – which was the work of MP Enoch Powell, but that’s another weird odd story.   It’s been an adventure keeping up with the new demands and requirements.  In 2006 one BVSer could tragically only spend a weekend at her project because her visa had been rejected by UK immigration.  And we still today encounter unexpected glitches in the UK visa process!  Fortunately it’s much easier for us North Americans to get volunteer status in the Republic of Ireland.  
My first ever visit to Northern Ireland was to attend my very first European BVS retreat in September 1978 before starting my BVS project in Austria.  I flew from the USA directly to Northern Ireland and joined the other European BVSers at the Corrymeela Community retreat center on the northeast coast; we visited Belfast and other areas, too.  I never imagined then that I would later get the opportunity to see so much history up close – well, from the vantage point of accompanying all the BVSers and annual visits with friends and projects over the last 25 years. 
While I have often been preoccupied in recent years with visas and other volunteer adventures, you BVSers have done so many great things in Ireland and Northern Ireland (and everywhere else!), and like Harold Good said: “you’ve come here to share and have touched the lives of so many people.”  Thank you!