Towards a New Evangelism III: United Christian Aid

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In July 1996, at the height of the Drumcree tension, a couple in their fifties were enjoying a holiday in a caravan in Warrenpoint. Michael and Bridie McGoldrick turned on the morning news, to hear that another Catholic taxi driver had been shot dead, this time in Craigavon. Their world stood still, for their only son, also Michael, was driving a taxi at that very time, in that very locality. Within an hour they knew the worst: Michael had been shot by the LVF.

Michael, the parent, says that the two went almost mad with grief. He beat the ground outside their caravan, saying to God “Hanging on the cross was nothing to this!’ They thought of suicide – and even lined up a variety of medicinal drugs for the purpose. But then they remembered that Michael had a wife and daughter, and that there was another child on the way. They turned to prayer instead.

On the day of the funeral, as Michael touched his son for the last time – saying he would see him again in heaven – some power changed him. He was then not only able to help carry his son’s coffin in and out of the chapel, but to bear the full weight of the blow that had fallen. He went to the cameras and microphones of the assembled media and forgave the murderers of his son. Facing the danger of retaliation, at a time of extreme tension in that very locality, he appealed for restraint: “Bury your pride with my boy!”

Michael is the least histrionic of men. I know this now, for I have known him closely for about three years. His description of the extraordinary emotional transitions of those days sounds like something out of Willam James’s ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’. Yet it is the settled nature of his life now that impresses me most.

Richard Rohr observes that western Christianity is currently at a fundamental crisis: it will either move from theory to practice, or perish. We need to understand that inertia – but also we need to know that it is altogether possible to move beyond it, and what can happen when we do. Michael and his close friend Tom Lennon are the most astonishing example I know.

Tom is a Mayoman who almost died of peritonitis in his youth, and never fully recovered. He developed a deep commitment to prayer, believing that God wanted something from him, something beyond the raising of a family and the making of a living.

The plight of Eastern Europe in the 90s moved him to start a charity – United Christian Aid. It would gather from both communities in Ireland whatever anyone would give him. He had a dual purpose – to heal divisions in Northern Ireland by focusing our minds on the far worse material plight of the people suffering in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Empire, and to take aid from Ireland out there. He opened a map of eastern Europe for the first time, and headed for the Ukraine.

He quickly learned of all the pitfalls of such an enterprise – of the corruption of frontier officials who always had to have a piece of the action, of the difficulty of finding reliable helpers and administrators in a society where an ethic of ‘me first’ had taken hold on so many. Of the physical dangers of bad roads and bad food and dangerous nights in unlit streets, among people whose language he couldn’t even speak. Yet he persevered, learning from all of this.

And then one night, when he had explained his purpose to a small audience in Lurgan, a middle-aged man came forward and told him ‘I couldn’t do what you do!’ ‘Of course you could!’ said Tom, and began explaining how. He was talking to Michael McGoldrick. The two struck up a strong friendship, and now jointly run UCA.

Tom was by now focusing his efforts on Romania. He and Michael went out there in 1997 and decided upon an even narrower focus: just one town in eastern Romania – they eventually settled for Cernavoda. His first visit turned Michael into a dynamo. There is nowhere in Northern Ireland he is not now willing to drive the royal blue UCA transit van, no-one he will not talk to.

He came to Coleraine for the first time in 1998 – where I heard him tell his story. I was by now myself committed, and Cursillo had taught me a little humility. I was also fascinated by Eastern Europe. Our house became a depot for the bags of clothing and other goods people now wanted to give him, and we struck up a firm friendship.

He and Bridie would sit at our table and Michael would say “We’re just ….. normal!”. The pause was for emphasis. There is no trace of ‘look at us’ in these two. They are simply in love with the people of Cernavoda, whom it is normal, as well as necessary, to help.

They speak often of a Roma woman called Mrs Nikolai, who, when they met her, was trying to raise a family of six in one half of a stable. No-one occupied the other half – because it didn’t exist – two walls were missing. She had once delivered one of her children in a hospital where the staff, including a doctor, conspired to steal it from her, telling her it had died. She suspected the lie, and refused to leave without it. She had her way.

To understand this you need to know that Romania is a deeply layered society, in which the Roma (daftly named ‘gypsies’ by us westerners) are at the bottom of the heap. ‘Thieves’ and ‘murderers’ to many in the settled community, they occupy the social position of our travellers – always available as scapegoats for whatever anyone might need to blame someone else for. A quick search on the Web will tell you anything more you need to know.

Mrs Nikolai, who is an Orthodox Christian, now has her own house, gifted by UCA. They simply gave her the money to buy it – to the astonishment of educated Romanian Catholics. They were certain she would simply drink herself to death in a society where alcohol occupies the place it did in Ireland in the early years of this century – a social anaesthetic for people who have no other way of fulfilling their dreams.

She didn’t, for her dream was simply any kind of house with four walls – and now she has enough capital to run a small clothing retailing business – buying the clothes not from UCA but from Romanian sources. “You changed my world forever,” she tells Michael.

Cernavoda is on the lower Danube navigation system. Meaning ‘Dark Water’, it was fairly prosperous when a navigation canal, complete with massive locks, was being built through it in the Ceausescu era. Now its only dubious claim to fame is a nuclear power plant, built by Canadians. It has a population of about 30,000, mostly Orthodox, most of whom would have to drive right by the reactor if some emergency forced them to flee. What would happen if the Nuclear plant was the cause of the emergency? Tough. A bridge is to be built to provide an alternative escape route – but there is no sign of it being finished at a time when the Romanian economy is contracting.

Which means, of course, that prayer seems to be an entirely reasonable option in Cernavoda, where there is little employment, virtually no social welfare or health service, and where the winter temperature can fall to 15 below. On the (often wooden or mud) walls Christians put simple hanging tapestries of gospel scenes – the Good Shepherd is a favourite.

For many of them, Tom and Michael are good shepherds, renewing a faith that came westward to us almost sixteen centuries ago. Michael once told the mother of a family of eight to pray hard. “Why should I?” She asked. “God has never done anything for me!”

“Why do you think we are here?” asked Michael, watching as she pondered and understood this. Virtually her only reliable income was the Romanian equivalent of £20 sterling monthly – family sponsorship from UCA.

This is the point of this story. The words and truths of the gospel are beautiful – but wealthy westerners – and most of us are millionaires by Romanian standards – need to show those words have meaning when they think of evangelising the rest of the world. What would we sacrifice in order to convince anyone of their truth? Is there anything we would not give to do so? If so, how convinced are we?

So this spiritual commerce is overwhelmingly to the benefit of us westerners also when we make this journey eastwards. Our money buys almost three times as much in Romania as in Ireland – which means that very little of it can make an astonishing difference to the wellbeing, material and spiritual, of a Romanian family. The families in Northern Ireland who now sponsor Cernavodan families are kept abreast of all developments by UCA’s Romanian helpers, and by Michael and Tom’s bi-monthly visits. East and west are linked to the great benefit of both.

UCA will never rival the major charities – but that is not the point. It shows that Christianity moves people as nothing else can – in their hearts and souls first – and then in their bodies. As Michael says, the real mystery is why so many in Ireland remain unmoved by their faith.

The probability is that our own social layering, combined with the rising economic tide of the second half of the century, has made us add, time after time, new luxuries to our store of necessities. We must have what our status entitles us to. It takes an almighty shock to make us realise that Christianity is fundamentally a challenge to the whole hidden ideology of status that drives our economic advance.

To put it at its simplest, every single human life and person is infinitely precious and to be loved. If we deny this by denying that people come before wealth, we deny the faith we verbally profess, and make it bankrupt.

Intellectuals often make much show of compassion for the pain of the poor when they reject Christian belief – but intellectuals too are victims of the pride that dominates us. They ignore the fact that it is usually those who have suffered most whose faith is strongest. This is true especially of these two men, whose faith and love do so much to restore the dignity of an Irish Catholicism that is completely worthy of Columba and Columbanus. They too speak eloquently, far away from Ireland, of the power of the Trinity to change the heart, and then the world – and there are many like them in Ireland today.

Theological sophistication in the articulation of faith comes nowhere near what a ‘new evangelisation’ requires today – because the essential task is to close the chasm between the word and the deed – to demonstrate an unconditional compassion which will in the end restore good cheer, and an equal dignity, to all the peoples of the world, as UCA is doing. When this is done in the Lord’s name, the essence of Christian theology is being conveyed – more effectively than by the greatest academic theologian.

There is something else to be said. Christianity’s long dalliance with the state has had a devastating effect upon the manner in which we interpret the fatherhood of God. In the middle ages, to explain the crucifixion, theologians came to associate it with a need to restore dignity to the Father, whom sin dishonours – just as medieval kings were thought to be dishonoured by the disloyalty of their subjects. Inevitably this came in time to separate son from father in the mind of many Christians, for it seemed to imply that although the son could be infinitely forgiving, the father could not. This complicated Christian theology, and out of this complication arose many Christian divisions, and Christian fundamentalism.

What if the father is as forgiving, and as gentle as the son? What if the crucifixion is instead to be explained as the father’s ultimate gift – of his son, despite the humiliation involved in his death, a humiliation experienced by the father also, and accepted out of love for all of us – a love as great as the son’s?

Then those six words “Bury your pride with my boy!” would be his words also – words given as a gift to all on this island, in recompense for all our pain, and all our lost sons – the most perfect summary of the gospels in the English language.

Michael still hopes to meet someday the father of the murdered founder of the LVF, Billy Wright – to shake his hand in recognition of a common sorrow, and a common faith in resurrection.

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