One of the roles a parish priest fills is to serve as the “public face” of the parish we serve. Last night, I had such an opportunity. For forty years, a grassroots, peace and reconciliation initiative has been quietly at work here in the greater Milwaukee area.
According to their website, “The Ulster Project of Greater Milwaukee is part of collaborative effort between Northern Ireland and the United States to bring together teenagers from 14–16 years old in order to promote trust, respect, tolerance, and understanding among future leaders from different faith traditions.”
The process works like this: each year, twelve Catholic and Protestant teens and two counselors from Belfast, Northern Ireland, visit the greater Milwaukee area. They are paired with twelve teens and two counselors from here. This group then spends an entire month together, undertaking a variety of activities in order to foster the building of relationships across the barriers of division, distrust, anger, and generations of violence and bitterness. Since the Good Friday Peace accords in 1998, Northern Ireland has experienced a reduction in the extreme violence that was so much a part of “the Troubles,” but the work of peacemaking, forgiveness and reconciliation continues to this day.
The Project, with its emphasis on the slow, steady work of relationship building has exemplified a patient optimism in the capacity of human beings for learning the practices of neighborliness. This is a refreshing stance in a world still shredded by violent rhetoric and violent/inhumane acts — sometimes perpetrated on citizens by their own governments. And the Project accomplishes its mission through the simplest of ways: putting young people in the same room to talk with each other, having them eat together, and giving them opportunities to play, serve, and worship together — all in the service of forming the bonds of friendship within a supportive community.
Through the years, Trinity parishioners have served as host families for visitors from Belfast. We’ve supported the work of the Project financially. Some years, the Ulster Project Group has visited Trinity Church for Sunday morning worship. But for the past number of years, our primary way of supporting the Project has been through the offering of our kitchen and parish hall as the location for the Project’s weekly potluck gatherings, as well as making space available for the many organizational meetings that need to take place in advance of the month long residency.
This simple act of making space available for the Project’s use, is how, on a Friday evening in July, I was at the Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church for the “Ecumenical Worship Service,” which is a significant part of every Ulster Project summer program. I was invited, by the Ulster Project Board, to receive the Project’s “Peace and Justice Award” on behalf of Trinity Church. While the award is usually given to individual recipients, this year, the choice was made to recognize Trinity Church for the ways in which opening our doors and allowing the Project to use our space through the years without charge, has significantly supported the Project in its peace and justice efforts.
I was honored to be present and represent Trinity Church.
During my acceptance remarks, I mentioned that for over 130 years, people had gathered on the corner of Church Street and Milwaukee Avenue in Wauwatosa to worship God, pray, serve, share, and give as a way of living out the Gospel of Jesus. I told the young people and adults gathered that our congregation welcomes opportunities to share our spiritual home with others. And I reiterated my hope that as they continued their work together, they would come to think of our physical space as one of their spiritual homes in Milwaukee. I concluded, “We are all here tonight because of generations of people gone before us. The work we do together as a Christian community right now will have an impact through the years we can’t even imagine. May God bless you as you continue the tasks of living Christ’s peace and working for God’s justice.”
After the presentation, we exchanged the Peace, prayed prayers, sung a song, and adjourned for a lemonade and cookie reception. I was overwhelmed by the number of teenagers who came up and told me to personally thank the congregation on their behalf. One young person said, “I can feel the peace in the air when I walk through your doors. We may be talking about difficult things, but the atmosphere in Trinity makes the conversations go a little easier.”
Being instruments of God’s peace sometimes is as simple as opening a door and sharing from our abundance. Trinity Church is a place where folks share — their time, their energy, their compassion, and their neighborliness. And these are the sorts of things I’m happy to represent!