Though Rev. Alex Wimberly, the newly appointed leader of Corrymeela in the North of Ireland, is originally from the United States, he is no stranger to Ireland. A fourth-generation Presbyterian minister, married with three children to Rev. Kiran Young Wimberly, a fellow minister, Rev. Alex worked in Belfast as minister of the McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church for almost seven years.
“My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather were all ordained Presbyterian ministers,” he said. “It was my father who brought us to Northern Ireland for the first time when I was five years old. He did a pulpit exchange with a minister from Antrim, so we came to Carnlough and learned about and fell in love with Northern Ireland and Ireland in general.”
Growing up, he was encouraged to “think big thoughts and ask big questions” without feeling embarrassed. “I grew up thinking that church was a place we could come together with people that are different than us because there was probably something that would connect us at the end that was true and right.”
While he hadn’t always planned on being ordained, as he felt “a fourth generation was probably pushing it”, he took the opportunity to attend seminary at Princeton Theological Seminary.
He was unsure whether he’d take the pastoral or academic route then, but when asked if he would return to Belfast in his mid-20s, he took it. He would be learning from a minister there to experience congregational work to see if it really was a calling. His plans soon changed.
He began running two services each Sunday, handled all the youth work and the meetings, took on the pastoral care and funerals.
“Not two days after I arrived, that minister took ill and was in the hospital for four months,” he said. “So I found myself, very green behind the ears, looking after a congregation of about 500, not really knowing what I was doing.” He began running two services each Sunday, handled all the youth work and the meetings, took on the pastoral care and funerals.
“The congregation was extremely patient and kind and gracious with me and I learned not only how to do all the work but that I loved it,” he explained. From 2007 to 2013, Alex worked in Belfast as minister of the McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church. When he returned to the US to pursue a doctorate in History at Notre Dame University, he knew he wanted to continue his work in pastoral ministry.
“I also felt as if I was being led back to Ireland in some capacity, but didn’t know exactly how that would work,” he said. “So coming back as the chaplain for Corrymeela allowed me to do ministerial work, to offer a prophetic voice from this perspective of faith that Corrymeela holds but also to provide a pastoral presence to the people in this community.”
He now strives to bring that same sense of welcome and belonging, to both faith and community, through his work with Corrymeela.
I really fell in love with the work here, trying to transform divisions through human encounter and trying to bring people together in the way that our faith can inform what we do and never in a way that our faith becomes a barrier to other people.”
“I really fell in love with the work here, trying to transform divisions through human encounter and trying to bring people together in the way that our faith can inform what we do and never in a way that our faith becomes a barrier to other people.”
He first came to Corrymeela two years ago as a volunteer while finishing his doctoral dissertation. A year in, he took on his first major role.
“I was appointed as the chaplain at Corrymeela, which has come to mean looking after the volunteers, but also working with our faith-based elements, both at the centre and out in the community,” he said. “We allow people to speak into that space… because we believe that scripture is a great way to start a conversation, but never to end a conversation because we don’t like to think there is only one way to think about these issues.”
Earlier this year, he was appointed to succeed Pádraig Ó Tuama as the leader of Corrymeela.
“I have come to know the people who are involved in this community very well, and like all communities, there is fracture within us,” he said of his new position. “Part of my sense of calling to this role of peace and reconciliation is that we can bring this peace and reconciliation if we aren’t really attending to our relationships within.
“I’m also very aware that, because I’m an American, that may provide some advantage of fresh eyes, but will also require the community to help me lead,” Rev Alex said. “It’s important to me that I not be a leader that is just out front and embodying Corrymeela for the community but who is encouraging the community to step up and embody our work of reconciliation collectively.”
Going forward, Rev. Alex is hoping to focus on Corrymeela’s cross-border work, both between the North and south of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
“Brexit is obviously very important to us, so I think being a Christian organisation that can speak from a position of faith to the issues that this island is going to be facing is going to be very important,” he explained. “And I think that as people in Ireland feel less and less at home in their home denominations, their home congregations, to know that there is an ally in terms of a place for faith and witness is going to be increasingly important for people.”
Rev Alex is married to the Rev. Kiran Young Wimberly, also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and they have three children. It is expected that he will take up his post in the early months of summer 2019.