Coming out of our corners

Fr Martin Magill and Rev. Steve Stockman describe an ecumenical success story in Belfast

Bob Geldof is fond of sharing a quote by mountaineer W.H. Murray that says, “at the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt could have come his way.” As the two of us look back at a conversation we shared just 16 months ago and find ourselves in the papers, with snippets of our interviews on the radio, we could never have dreamed up what the 4 Corners Festival has become – all because of a cup of coffee and a vague notion to commit.

What were we committing to? Well, we had recently become aware in our friendship that there were parts of Belfast that we had never been in. It was our city but the benign apartheid had us contained in our corner. What if we created a festival that caused people to cross into other corners? What if we could bring Belfast together? Could that be a space where people could meet ‘the other’ and even make friends? We had become aware of the power of friendship. Friendships like ours. They can become forces of reconciliation. Mentors like Fr Gerry Reynolds from Clonard Monastery and Right Rev. Dr Ken Newell from Fitzroy Presbyterian had proved it and been rewarded with the Pax Christi, Vatican Peace Prize, as a result.


So, after the coffee we gathered a few like minds and souls and pieced together a few events. It was all very DIY. We have no budget or staff. We are all busy ministries and jobs. Yet, as in the Murray quotation, providence moved and a whole stream of events started happening. We all had a good idea. We put them together. People responded with their time and genius. The Belfast flags protest even gave us publicity we were not expecting. We became a fixture with consummate ease. At only the second event in only the second year, Lord Mayor Máirtín O’Muilleour has described it as “an established part of the civic year”. Goodness me!


This year, that stream continues to flow. Someone suggests feeding the homeless, the Lord Mayor offers the City Hall parlour, and generous people throw money at it. Someone says they know Jo Berry whose dad was killed in the Brighton bomb and who has been building a friendship with one of the bombers, Pat Magee. They would love to speak. A poet, a singer, politicians and Church leaders quickly volunteer. The City Hall staff gave us constant support and house events like the Peacemakers Networking events. So many people and ideas and again suddenly we have a programme of events that is beyond our ability. The only answer is that providence moved.

Of course we define that providence as God moving among us. For us he always seems to be ahead of us. The providence to set it up has been followed by the providence to see an impact. It has been a joy to have a range of denominations spreading the word about the same festival. We have marvelled as we have watched Belfast citizens from every colour of geography, faith and tribal background becoming little tartan clusters of chat; heard of people who are doing parallel ministries in different denominations becoming friends; been thrilled to sit at a dinner table where the Lord Mayor has sat with the homeless; smiled as former British soldiers and Republican politicians yarn; and heard testimony of how former paramilitaries and those who’ve lost loved ones to the paramilitaries shake hands and shared stories.


As well as the power of connection and friendship we have discovered the potency of story. This year we’ve put that storytelling and story listening at the heart of the festival – the opportunity to tell one’s story and have people hear the stories of others has been therapeutic for some. In the ministry of Jesus himself, stories loomed large and long after his time on this Earth; these stories still play a key role in the lives of his followers today.  We’ve also emphasised the listening to stories – to hear what it is like for another – it’s a form of entering into the world of the other. We believe that allowing people to hear each other in a space that is absent of debate or argument, with open minds and open hearts to the other, can bring moments of transformation.

4 Corners is built around the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Our aim is to bring a creative impetus in what is almost a fringe event to that week. It is also about being incarnational. We are a less than a month after celebrating the birth of Christ. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood. While the Week of Unity finds Churches seeking understanding within the walls of the churches, 4 Corners has a desire to get outside the walls and bring societal peace on the streets of our city. This year we were excited to not only be found in the religious section of papers but in the arts section too!

Psalm 100 begins “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth/Worship the Lord with gladness/come before Him with joyful songs”.  We see our ‘new kid’ on the block 4 Corners Festival as an attempt to explore what we can celebrate together, without avoiding the hard conversations. What we have learned most is the truth of Murray’s quote. A few ordinary people with few resources but passion and imagination, if they commit, can make a difference to where they live. If we don’t commit then…


*Fr Martin Magill is parish priest of Sacred Heart parish and Rev. Steve Stockman is minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast.