Archive for the ‘Ecumenism’ Category

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott

Wednesday 21st September was a special day in the calendar – it marked the United Nations International Day of Peace.  Established in 1981, Peace Day is commemorated globally as a way for all humanity to reflect and to commit to peace, despite differences of religion, culture and race; the day also encourages all of us, wherever we are, to facilitate and promote a culture of peace.

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I was privileged to take part in an event in Girdwood Community Hub with my fellow North Belfast Clergy to mark this important day.  We joined together as Moravians, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics to make our peace pledges alongside three hundred primary school children from twelve local schools.  It was a powerful reminder that when we come together, we are stronger and the cause of peace has a much greater chance of succeeding. It was, on reflection, an example of Galatians 3:28 in action, where Paul wrote: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.

And as we come together as Christians, the peace pledge also reminds us of our very personal obligations. Peace, after all, starts with us.  As the spiritual writer Thomas Merton once said: “We are not at peace with others, because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves, because we are not at peace with God.” 

Peace then, is not an ethereal concept that resides with ‘the other’.  It is found within; true peace then, comes from God and we receive it when our relationship with him is fulsome, honest and evolving.  As Jesus said:  “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

With that assurance of peace in our hearts we can reach out to a troubled world with confidence.  Not just on one day, but on every day.  Not just in one place, but in every place.  And so let us endeavour to make our small Christian community here, together with our other Brothers and Sisters across the denominations, a beacon of peace, today and every day.

Every blessing, Scott

Moravian Logo

As of today I have officially become a Minister of the British Province of the Moravian Church, serving the Cliftonville Congregation in North Belfast.  Many people have asked me: ‘Who are the Moravians’?  And that’s quite a common question that is hard to answer in a few short paragraphs! But here goes:

The Moravian Church is one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, with its heritage stretching back to the fifteenth century.  Doctrinally it is a mainstream church, with a global membership, and is a member of the World Council of Churches; the British Province is a member of  Churches Together in Britain and Ireland  and the Irish District belongs to the Irish Council of Churches.

The main motto of the Moravian Church is Vicit Agnus Eum Sequamur (Our lamb has conquered, let us follow him), which emphasises our focus on Christ as the head of our denomination. Another oft used motto of the church is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”

In a lecture series delivered at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Moravian Bishop Clarenice H. Shawe described the ethos of the Moravian Church as having five guiding principles: simplicity, happiness, unobtrusiveness, fellowship, and the ideal of service.

If you want to find out more about the Moravian Church, the following websites will give you much more detail. Whether you’re interested in doctrine, customs  or ecumenical relations, you’ll find that information here:

http://www.irishchurches.org/members/moravian-church-irish-district (An brief overview of the Irish District of the British Province).

http://www.moravian.org.uk/index.php/the-moravian-church/beliefs-and-practices (Information on Moravian beliefs and practices by the British Province).

http://www.moravianseminary.edu/moravian-studies/about/introduction (A quite detailed introduction to the Moravian Church by the Moravian Theological Seminary)

Viktor Frankl Institute

This is my opening lecture from the ‘Exploring Meaning With Thomas Merton and Viktor Frankl’ workshop held on 31st January 2015 at Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, Co. Antrim (and co-facilitated by Dr. Stephen Costello of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland):

We gather here on this beautiful day, from many different places across Ireland, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a man who was gifted with so many talents and interests. That man, Thomas Merton was born in France, on January 31, 1915 to Owen Merton, a talented New Zealand artist, and Ruth Jenkins, an American Quaker and artist.

Thomas Merton.  Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Thomas Merton. Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Merton himself reflected on his birth many years later in the classic ‘Seventh Storey Mountain’ and described it in these words:

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”

Powerful words indeed.

Today, and indeed in the run-up to today and for the remainder of 2015, there will be many lectures, retreats and get-togethers across the word celebrating, and reflecting on, the life, work and impact of Thomas Merton. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the International Thomas Merton Society have recently produced a press release which serves as a reminder to the wide-ranging impact Merton still has:

“Events celebrating the Merton centenary will be taking place around the world throughout 2015. A sampling of notable festivities in the United States includes events to be held at Bellarmine University, Columbia University, Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center, and Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY, and Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. Celebrations and conferences are being planned in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, and Ireland”.

Merton’s relatively short life, he died after all in a tragic accident at the age of 53, was one characterised by diversity – he has been, and still is – described variously as a monk, a mystic, a priest, a social activist, a writer, a proponent of non-violence and a poet.  In the latter half of his life in particular, he reached out and engaged in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue. He counted among his friends Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians and many more besides, as well as Muslims, Jews and Buddhists – and even Atheists, whom he reached out to in a spirit of humility and a common desire for understanding.

Today,  Merton reaches out to people who want to understand the contemplative or mystical dimension of life.  Ironically, as the monasteries slowly empty, Merton retains his popularity, and in fact this popularity to continues to grow, impacting on people of all faith backgrounds and none.  Here in Ireland for example, the Merton Fellowship was borne out of a wide-ranging interest in how we apply Merton’s thinking in contemporary society, particularly as it relates to peace-building and contemplation.  And so perhaps it is of no surprise that our events have attracted a wide-range of participants from across the denominations – Moravian, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and Non-Denominational, and across the faiths – Buddhist and Baha’i as examples.

In today’s workshop, we’re going to be doing exactly what the International Thomas Merton Society/Thomas Merton Center suggests in their press release: The centenary offers an opportunity to consider how we too might set aside easy answers and wrestle with the urgent questions of our day”.

The questions of our day are many. But let me suggest to you that there is nothing more urgent, compelling and requiring attention than the issue of meaning.  Whether we collectively, and individually, wrestle with questions of ultimate and/or proximate meaning is one of the core questions of our time.  When we lack meaning, we lose focus and drive and our humanity is degraded.

Merton knew all about meaning.  In fact it could be said that the framework around which his own theology and worldview was constructed was rooted in meaning.  For him the ultimate was God and the proximate many; he derived proximate meaning from writing, activism, dialogue and contemplation, as well as those deep interpersonal relationships he cultivated throughout his life.

Merton has much in common with the second man in our workshop title today – Prof. Viktor Frankl.  An extraordinary character, Frankl was a holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, philosopher, neurologist and founder of Logotherapy & Existential Analysis.  And although they never met or conversed, Merton and Frankl understood the centrality of meaning; Indeed, Merton was aware of Frankl and recommended to his students (novices at Gethsemani Abbey) that they read him in order to get a better understanding of the subject.

There are many points of contact between Merton and Frankl, and I’ll leave it to Stephen to talk about those in more detail.  But there are two key issues it seems to me, that merit some thought in the meantime.

Both Merton and Frankl had a common understanding of striving for success, which is often seen as a positive attribute in contemporary society, and recognising and accessing meaning.  Merton said this in ‘Love and Loving’:

“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

And likewise, these famous words from Frankl in his seminal publication ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” 

So both Merton and Frankl are clearly on the same wavelength in this respect.  But there’s something else that links the two men in their thinking that perhaps is a bit more unexpected than their understanding of success and meaning.  And it’s the issue of love.

Merton writes, again in ‘Love and Living’:

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.” 

And here’s Frankl, writing beautifully  in ‘Man Search for Meaning’:

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” 

We could spend the entire day unpacking these statements and exploring them in great detail.  But suffice it to say that these points of contact provide us with a vantage point from which we can see the bigger picture; it’s the bigger picture that Stephen, and to a lesser extent myself, will be looking at and guiding us through in the next few hours.  And it’s our hope that today will be a starting point for that inner dialogue and that we leave here with much to think about and to apply in our daily lives.

Merton Fellowship Title

To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Birth, The Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland and Thomas Merton Fellowship Invite you to a One-Day Workshop:

‘EXPLORING MEANING WITH THOMAS MERTON AND VIKTOR FRANKL’

Facilitators:
Dr Stephen J. Costello, Director, Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland
Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, Thomas Merton Fellowship

Thomas Merton was much influenced by Viktor Frankl’s writings on meaning and often cited the latter’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This day will explore our spiritual search for meaning within a logotherapeutic perspective, relating it practically to our personal quest for purpose and values, through lectures, meditations, and reflective and experiential exercises.

Saturday January 31st: 11am-5pm, Bethlehem Abbey, Ballymena Rd., Portglenone, Co. Antrim (Cost: €55 or £50)

Note: this workshop will have different content to the ‘Meaning with Merton Workshop’ previously held in Dublin.

Bookings/Enquiries to scottpeddie@sky.com

Viktor Frankl Institute

About Thomas Merton (1915-1968): Trappist monk, poet, social activist and author of the spiritual classic, The Seven Storey Mountain.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997): Neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, founder of logotherapy and existential analysis, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

As the Merton Fellowship for Peace and Contemplative Living met this weekend on a day retreat in All Souls Church in Belfast, I found myself reflecting on how far we have come in the four or so years we have been in existence.  Since the first tentative steps were taken in an initial meeting held in University Road Moravian Church, Belfast, we have met in a variety of locations across Ireland.  Indeed, we have found ourselves welcoming new and existing members in locations across Ireland that include the Tobar Mhuire Retreat Centre (Co. Down), Malin Presbyterian Church (Co. Donegal), the Avila Carmelite Centre (Co. Dublin), Drumalis Retreat Centre, Bethlehem Abbey, McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Corrymeela Community (all Co. Antrim).

Photo courtesy of Tanya Jones.

Photo courtesy of Tanya Jones.

The topics for our retreats have been as diverse as the backgrounds of those who join us, whether on a regular basis or occasionally.  We have discussed meditation, contemplative prayer, the monastic life, non-violence, faith and meaning among an eclectic mix of people from a range of denominational backgrounds – Catholic, Moravian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and Non-Denominational.  In that sense our ecumenical journey reflects something of Merton’s thinking as explored in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

 If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West, of the Greek and the Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church, and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church. For, if we want to bring together East and West, we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend them both in Christ.

The Merton Fellowship has also been blessed with the presence of friends from the Buddhist and Baha’i communities, all of whom have enhanced our understanding of Merton immeasurably. Together we have explored that false divide between faith and action, sacred and secular, and so much more.

Thomas Merton.  Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Thomas Merton. Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Our eclecticism has also been enhanced by the life experience of those we count as Merton Fellows: teachers, lecturers, a novelist, a poet, a neuropathologist, monks (Christian and Buddhist), businessmen & women, activists, ministers, priests, therapists, nurses, physicians, nuns and a plethora of others, have brought their unique life experiences to bear on our discussions and spiritual reflections.

A blessed community indeed……

Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

The Merton Fellowship for Peace & Contemplative Living in Ireland will be meeting at All Souls Church, Elmwood Avenue, Belfast on Saturday 29th November from 11am-4pm.

The retreat, entitled ‘Merton on Meditation’ will consist of periods of meditation, reflection and discussion.

Our events are ecumenical and are open to all.

There is no need to have any prior knowledge of Merton.

Please contact me (scottpeddie@sky.com) to book your place. There will be a small charge (£10) to cover costs. Please bring along a packed lunch; alternatively there are a number of cafes nearby.

Sea of Faith was a six-part documentary television series, produced by the BBC and first screened in 1984.  Presented by English philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt, the series explored the interface between the history of Christianity and critical thought through the lens of scientific advances, political atheism and societal secularisation.

Of all the Sea of Faith productions, Cupitt’s short documentary on Carl Jung is particularly noteworthy in that it describes the Swiss Psychiatrist’s understanding of science and religion with alacrity and insight.

Jung’s understanding of religion departed sharply from that of his one-time mentor Freud; Jung understood that the religious question is inescapable in the life of the psyche, and that a marriage of the conscious and unconscious is critical to fully understand the centrality of the religious quest.  He therefore grasped, at quite an early stage, the place of myth and symbolism in facilitating spiritual health, and possessed a more optimistic view of the unconscious than did Freud.

Professor Jung also clarified his thinking on intuition and reason.  Indeed he once wrote that “intuition does not denote something contrary to reason, but something outside of the province of reason.” Further, he postulated that natural science gives us our only understanding of the external world, but the inner world of the psyche expresses itself in the language of myth – religion is about that inner world.

Interestingly, location was important when it came to Jung.  Cupitt, in his film, explores the importance of Jung’s beautiful, but simple and symbolic retreat house at Bollingen for the propagation of his ideas – ‘thoughts rise to the surface which reach back into the centuries’.

Perhaps problematically for some, Jung concluded that all religious ideas are equally valid in terms of human psychic life and referred often to the ‘God Image’ in the human psyche.  This understanding naturally lead to Jung’s eclecticism, exemplified by his interest in Gnosticism, alchemy and many other mystical outlets.  But what Jung was really getting at, was that regardless of the route taken, a rediscovery of the life of the psyche was a necessity. It is perhaps not surprising then, that he saw the Christian message as being of central importance in Western circles – although he argued strongly that it needed to be seen in a new light and applied in a new way.

Jung’s religious naturalism, exemplified in his view that knowledge of God is harmony and is intrinsically linked to the knowledge of self, is where Cupitt leaves his exploration of Jung.

You can watch the documentary here:

Heat or Eat poster

Northern Ireland has the worst fuel poverty levels in the UK. The local Church Action on Poverty group in Northern Ireland is building partnerships and providing much needed practical assistance.

 Scott Peddie, Chair of the Northern Ireland group, explains what they have been doing:

According to the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition, around 300,000 households in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes. Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of fuel poverty in the UK and one of the highest in the EU; the most recent estimates indicate that 42% of households are experiencing fuel poverty.

It’s against this backdrop that the NI branch of Church Action on Poverty launched its ‘Heat or Eat’ Campaign in 2010.  Focusing on the South Antrim area, where most of the NI branch committee members live and work, the campaign was a response to what we were hearing on the ground.

The shocking reality for many families living in the South Antrim area is they face the stark choice each winter of heating or eating.

Moreover, the increasing cost of home heating combined with rising living costs places many individuals and families in a desperate predicament.

As Christians from across the denominations, we were very much aware of our duty to help the vulnerable among us, many of them hidden and voiceless. Church Action on Poverty NI’s campaign is therefore grounded in the biblical injunction exemplified in 1 John 3:18 to demonstrate Christian care in action:‘Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth’.

Our campaign, which essentially asked local churches, businesses and concerned individuals to contribute to a central fund, raised a modest amount in the first year.  Donations were received from Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist churches and community groups among others.

Our aim was, and still is, simple: to provide gifts of heating oil, gas and electricity to those most in need. Moreover, we had the specific aim of enabling local people to help local people in need over the Christmas/New Year period.

In order to do this most effectively, Church Action on Poverty NI built a coalition of partners to help raise funds, administer the scheme, identify needy families and to distribute grants. Our particular focus in the early years was to help struggling vulnerable young families.

Heat or Eat photo

Today, our coalition of partners includes Citizen Advice Bureau (Antrim and Newtownabbey), the Newtownabbey Methodist Mission, Home-Start Antrim and local MLA Danny Kinahan. In addition to identifying needy families, the CABs offer benefit checks for people involved in our scheme, while Home-Start has particular expertise in working with young families. Mr Kinahan has been invaluable in raising funds and in increasing the profile of the campaign among the local business community.

Given the success of the ‘Heat or Eat’ campaign to date, we look forward to continuing to raise money and build partnerships during 2014.

The problem of fuel poverty, as we and our partners experience it on the ground, is not going away; with more money we could do even more in our local community to help those people who desperately need it.

But there are, of course, wider policy implications for our legislators and representatives.  Fuel poverty is an injustice that requires concerted cross-party efforts, both in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Church Action on Poverty NI will therefore continue to lobby our local and Westminster politicians on this issue, as well as running our ‘Heat or Eat’ campaign, and we look forward to making substantial progress on both fronts.

For further information, visit the Church Action on Poverty NI website at: http://www.cap-ni.org.uk, or the main site at: http://www.church-poverty.org.uk.

I have finally got round to watching Velcrow Ripper’s award-winning documentary, ‘Scared Sacred’.  Against the backdrop of a world overwhelmed by turmoil and suffering, Ripper sets out on a unique, and often difficult, pilgrimage.  His task is to visit what he calls the ‘Ground Zeros’ of the planet, and in doing so, he poses the question – ‘is it possible to find hope in some of the darkest moments of human history?’

To answer his own very pertinent question, Ripper travels to the toxic wasteland of Bhopal, the minefields of Cambodia, war-torn and fear-ridden Afghanistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ruined cityscapes of Bosnia.  He talks compassionately to the survivors of Hiroshima and gains insight from those who have suffered most in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This he does with consummate skill, resulting in a beautifully crafted and emotionally intense documentary which charts Ripper’s five-year sojourn to discover if wounded humanity can transform the ‘scared’ into the ‘sacred’.

(more…)