In the summer of 1984 I spent time in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There I learned a great deal that my rather sheltered upbringing in Minnesota had not taught me. I learned about political hate turned violent. I saw it, felt it, was endangered by it, began to understand it, and, most importantly, began to see a way through it.
I have several stories I could tell. I will pick one for its intensity and poignancy.
He went by "Packy." He became a soldier in the Ulster Volunteer Force when he was a teenager, because he thought at the time it was "a cause worth dying for." No one in Belfast was untouched by the politically motivated violence at the time. His father narrowly escaped death from an IRA-planted bomb when Packy was a child. Hate for Catholics and Republican Nationalists was the air he breathed.
Such attacks were still common when I was there in 1984. Where I lived there was a police raid on the house three doors down, an IRA meeting house, and a young woman was shot and killed. A bus was hijacked and set on fire at the end of our street. A man was knee-capped (shot through the back of the knee) on our street for disobeying an order by the paramilitary that claimed authority in the area. The streets were regularly patrolled by squads of police in full military gear. I learned quickly and dramatically that words like "nationalism" and "loyalism" were not mere political differences. They ran to the core of peoples' identity; in their blood and bones. It was conflated with religion--Protestant vs. Catholic. It was rooted in centuries of complex and troubling history, in family, in loss, death and hope.
Packy saw himself as a fighter in a just cause. Others saw him as a terrorist.
Eventually, Packy was arrested and sent to prison for bank robbery. Something strange happened there. He he met a Catholic. Not just a Catholic, but IRA. An enemy combatant. To that point Packy had never gotten to know a Catholic. Then he did.
When Packy was released from prison, he and this former IRA member began to speak together in schools throughout N. Ireland, to bear witness to the possibility of reconciliation, even between formerly sworn enemies. For this, Packy received death threats from the ranks of his former comrades in the UVF. He continued to speak out publicly for reconciliation, but he slept with a gun under his pillow.
Despite this, Packy still could not accept or understand that a Catholic could be properly called "Christian."
He told me a great deal of his story, especially the harrowing bits, as he gave me a tour of the famous Falls and Shankill roads one Saturday. He pointed out lookout posts, meeting places, targets and places where terrible things occurred.
And then it happened. Walking down the Shankill Road toward the YMCA where he worked, we were greeted by a Catholic Priest. We stopped. I could sense the tension in Packy's body. The Priest was genial and detected my American accent immediately. He asked the purpose of my visit. I told him that Packy and I were working with the YMCA in Belfast seeking relationship building and reconciliation among Protestant and Catholic youth.
It did not need to be said that Packy was former UVF. It was tatooed all over his massive arms. Packy was silent and uneasy under the Priest's inquiring eye. Then the Priest reached into his pocket and produced a twenty pound note (about $50 at the time). He handed it to Packy, not me, and said "God bless you, and your beautiful work." Then he strolled away.
I turned to look at Packy. Trembling, the tears were streaming down his cheeks as he held that note. Something released. Something way deep. Something at the core. Something perhaps he wasn't even aware of. Something he practically inherited and had become part of his identity. Something only a Catholic Priest could address. Because a priest was its symbol--everything he was NOT--that which he hated, demonized, swore oaths against, and risked his life to destroy. That one held the key to this deep chamber, and opened it with a blessing.
In that hiccuppy voice that comes through sobs, I heard Packy say, "I never dreamed... A Catholic Priest... would bless me..."
I shall never forget that moment. I saw grace. I felt a rebirth.
It lent new meaning to Jesus' words to Peter, "I give you the keys to the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
I have seen and lived in a far more violent and apparently hopeless political climate than our current one in the U.S, or in other parts of the world. Like the Priest, we have the "keys to the kingdom." It is not complicated, though it is hard. It is why I do not despair, and why I believe hate is the "temptation" we ask to be rescued from in the Lord's Prayer. "Only love has the power to overcome hate." said Martin Luther King, "Hate cannot overcome hate." I don't just believe it. I have seen it.