‘Eye-opening, heart-lifting’

July 4, 2023 in Featured News, News

The Dialogue For Diversity programme » headed up by Brian Lennon SJ in Armagh, focuses on prisoners, peacemaking, care of the earth, and community development in Northern Ireland. Their AGM on Tuesday 27 June 2023 at 5 pm bore witness to this ongoing work, as board chair Tom Layden SJ asked various people to report on their group projects over the year.

In his prison visitation » Osmond Mulligan spoke about the relationships being formed with current and former prisoners. He spoke about the importance of non-judgemental love and acceptance being offered to offenders who are being welcomed back “into our community”. The work, he noted, was both testing and rewarding. He cited the instance of one man who was diagnosed with lung cancer whom they accompanied through his terminal illness and another prisoner whom they helped to get employment upon his release from prison.

As well as the physical and psychological needs of prisoners being addressed the spiritual needs were the subject of concern for Martina Killeevy. In her report to the board, Martina, the author of a newly published book on Ignatian spirituality and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, explained how she had developed a programme for delivering the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius to prisoners in jail.

Over 300 prisoners had taken part up until the pandemic and Martina noted that after the first 6 sessions with prisoners, they always want further input. She said that all of those who took part had had some often vague connection with God. Most of the men had addiction issues of one sort or other, “like us all,” she noted.

She said that 12 Step spirituality fits in very comfortably with the insights of St Ignatius particularly in the first week of the Exercises and by connecting the two she was able to offer the men a retreat, conducted in silence, focusing on themselves and God. She said she was pleasantly surprised at how this type of retreat brought them so close to God, even those who did not have addiction problems. She said she also used the Stations of the Cross written by Pope Francis » and these moving reflections also went down very well with the prisoners.

Martina’s book, Freedom from the Prison of Addiction: Spiritual and Secular Wisdom, has just been published by Messenger Publications ». It is based on workshops she delivered with Brian Lennon SJ in Maghaberry Prison, using both the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and the Twelve Steps. It’s written in simple language, with a foreword by Greg Boyle SJ and an afterword by Peter McVerry SJ.

The cross-community and cross-border work of the peacemaking committee » was reported on by Kathy Wolff of the Dialogue Project. She outlined some of the visits that had been made by groups consisting of loyalists hardliners and republican prisoners, unionists, nationalists, working-class people from Dublin and others. These are people who have chosen to step outside their own comfort zone and to dialogue and learn from one another both through sharing and visiting different communities together, she explained.

She spoke of the visit made to Cherry Orchard in Dublin, to a very deprived community that was running “a wonderful music programme for their young people. We walked into their resource centre and found a room full of violins. Our loyalist lambeg drummer was mightily impressed!”

The return visit saw a group from Cherry Orchard visiting an Ulster Scot village and celebrating at a night of music and dance in Newtownards. “The people from the South said they never realised just how many different groupings and communities there were up North. They got great input from the places they visited about poverty, Brexit, and cross-community work. Some of them had never been beyond Newry and it was an eye-opener for them, and heart-lifting to make new Northern friends and get guided safely around areas they would have previously been terrified to visit.”

Kathy cited one woman who joined their project but said she could never see herself talking with any Republicans or nationalists. “Over time she has changed and she now engages with those she would never have spoken to before and is listened to in return.” Kathy quotes the lady in question as saying, “We might not agree but we now understand where each other comes from. Everyone has two eyes but no one has the same view. This is what comes out of the Dialogue for the Diversity project.”

Tom Layden SJ then invited Rosemary Mallon to give an account of the ACRE project » which was set up by the Jesuits in Northern Ireland in 2020 to support and encourage ground-level groups to save the planet ‘from burning and drowning’ at the same time. It works out of the vision of Laudato ‘Sí » Pope Francis’ letter on caring for the earth, our common home. (See photo)

Rosemary began by noting the great tree-planting work in the community » that Dympna Mallon did before moving on. Her replacement, Ciarán McLarnon, has ‘hit the ground running’, she noted, as he quickly built up trust with a large network of groups in his community development and ecology work. His trusty ukulele was the means by which he engaged so successfully with a wide spectrum of communities, the instrument helping him to gain the trust of those who wanted to listen or to play!

Ciarán, for his part, said his work was an ”absolute pleasure”. He reported that phase one of his project – building networks with other community organisations, helping them with funding applications for environmental projects, and getting young people engaged through music – was all going well. He had written a song for the groups that made for a good first ‘in’ that allowed him to then share his expertise with them.

He also reported on a pilot project that ACRE was developing in Ballycreegy, a small loyalist estate. The group is the beneficiary of a large parcel of green land from the local council and has been charged with managing and developing it ecologically.

Ciarán also spoke about the Don’t Box Me In project which involves bringing kids together to share and play – some of whom have special needs and some who don’t. This is all part of phase two of the work plan, creating opportunities for young people in open spaces such as classrooms or housing estates, and helping them to make the best use of the projects ACRE can offer them, even in areas that might not always have been welcoming.

The AGM concluded with Brian Lennon thanking all those who are part of the Dialogue for Diversity Project, and a common theme throughout the meeting was the gratitude those same participants felt towards Brian himself for his expertise and support.

Tom Layden’s last words fittingly ended the Zoom call, as he thanked everyone for “all the work in which people of diverse backgrounds are coming together and discovering commonality”.