There is peace in Belfast, officially. But a wall still separates Catholics and Protestants. And a gate between the two still closes every night to keep the communities apart.
The war between Republican Catholics and Unionist Protestants ended in Northern Ireland 20 years ago, but true peace remains elusive.
‘Fortress’ Church Welcomes Mortal Enemies
New Life City Church sits squarely on Belfast’s so-called ‘peace barrier’; part of its building in Catholic Belfast, part of it in Protestant Belfast. It welcomes those from both communities, including those who were once mortal enemies.
“Among those that come into our church regularly Sunday after Sunday are those who are from terrorist backgrounds who at one time would have wanted to have killed each other, says New Life City Church Senior Pastor Jack McKee, “There was a time when I would have killed some of them I was a soldier.”
McKee served in the British army during “The Troubles.” He says, “I think that many Americans looking on would believe that in 1998, under the influence of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and others, that we reached peace in this country. We never really got there. There is a semblance of peace but peace does not really exist.”
Inner City Belfast Fights a New War
Parts of Belfast today are still wracked by violence, drug abuse, and broken families. Members of Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups have morphed into gangs – running drugs and protection rackets – and killing anyone who gets in their way.
“The paramilitary organizations the terrorist they still exist and they still control those communities,” McKee says.
No Other Church Like It in the World
It’s one thing to preach peace and reconciliation. It’s another thing to put your church on the borderline between forces that want to kill each other. McKee’s church, which he pastors with his son Johnny, sits like a fortress in the middle of it all.
“I don’t think there is a building quite like this in the world…” says Lead Pastor Johnny McKee, “…where you have had two opposing communities two opposing people groups that have literally killed each other by the thousands.”
Boy Terrorists Seemed Destined for Hell
Most of the ex-paramilitaries at New Life City Church joined the fighting as teenagers, and some spent the prime of their lives in prison. Alec, ‘Oso’ Calderwood murdered a man before he was 18.
“I came across a group of men who had two Roman Catholics up against the wall,” Calderwood told us. “They asked me ‘Have I got a gun.’ And I said ‘No, I don’t have a gun but I can get one.’ As I said that one of Catholic guys run away. So, I took the other guy and I took him away. I set myself up as judge jury and executioner on a young man’s life.”
Tommy Rowntree was a paramilitary commander who told us he did such terrible things, “At one time I believed that there was no redemption for me. There was no hope for me. I actually believed that I couldn’t go to God or to the things of God because what I did was too bad.
But Rowntree “…cried unto the Lord, ‘Would you forgive me for my sin?'”
“Most of my family had been in prison,” said Ryan Smith, who joined the conflict when he was a boy. “I was involved in what is referred to as the conflict here from when I was 14 for two years until I joined the army at Sixteen. I was a boy soldier.”
Lifting the Cross Above the Gun
Today, Ryan, Pastor Jack and former paramilitary members of his church carry the cross down the middle of the Shankill road, in what was once a war zone in Belfast, lifting the cross as the only hope for this divided community.
Former Irish Republican Army member Tom McCarthy said, “Today I carried the cross because I come from republican west Belfast and today is my personal token of reconciliation to the unionist loyalist community and to literally raise that cross above that gun.”
Tommy Rowntree said it was important for the people of Belfast to see a former commander of the Ulster Volunteer Force carrying a cross and not a gun down the Shankill Road, and to know he has been born again.
Oso Calderwood said of the crosswalk, “You’ve got Republicans who have been born again. You’ve got Protestants who’ve been born again. So, the significance is that the cross is for everybody, in Ulster or Ireland, and that here was a man that died on the cross for the sins of everyone. And that was a great opportunity to walk around both communities and the lift his name above every other name.”
Jack McKee said of the transformation in these men: “As far as I’m concerned a terrorist is a terrorist, and for the Holy Spirit to break into that is something that is supernatural. And yet we’ve seen that happen so many times even here in Belfast.”
“I have Catholic friends now, Catholic friends who many years ago I would have tried to kill,” said Stevie Watters, a former paramilitary, “I gave my life to the Lord Jesus and he changed my life so much. All the hatred was gone. Drugs were gone. Alcohol was gone.”
A Pastor Marked for Death
For taking a leading role in trying to end the violence in Northern Ireland, Jack McKee has been threatened with death more than once.
“I know that I am the most hated pastor in this community possibly in Northern Ireland,” McKee says. “I don’t know any other pastor in this country who’s been sentenced to death or had more death attempts on them than I have, and I’m not overstating that.”
He has written the book, What Does it Take, “and I am simply asking the question of, ‘What does it take in order to move communities away from division?’ The church has the answer to that.”
Jack McKee worries that the war could return. “I do think that that the potential to go back to conflict is as real today as what it was in 1969,” he said.
‘This is the Lord’s Doing and it is Marvelous in Our Eyes.’
New Life City Church opens its door daily to the community with a soccer field, a coffee shop, and programs for those who need help.
“This community needed another church but not just another church,” Jack Mckee says.
Johnny McKee added, “It’s only through the grace of God and what he is doing here. Very often things take place within this building that we never orchestrated, that we never planned, that we never purposed.”
Jack said, “I stand by sometimes and I say, ‘This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.’ And I just get amazed when I see people coming to faith in Jesus at any time. But Knowing they come from a terrorist background and that they’re able to come and sit in the same row from those who were on the opposite side and worship God alongside them. Only God could have done that.”