When Shaw began in 1998, the original church building had been turned into a used furniture store. Two decades and several million pounds later, it’s now a cultural center that regularly exhibits artwork, with two artists-in-residence, a café, a conference space, and live music events. There’s a kiln and a printmaking machine. One of the artists is a fashion designer, and the other hand-makes his own instruments. A whole panoply of stringed instruments hangs within reach, ready for playing.
Our program coordinator, Raymond Lennon, a native of Belfast and music director at the legendary Clonard Monastery, remarks that this is what church should really be about. “Not once a week, but every day, reaching out to people in their need,” he says. He and Shaw show us around the cultural center. The bones of the church are still visible, and Shaw says it was important that little touches from the original church, including plaques to past ministers that date from its founding, remain visible to honor that legacy. Local Catholic women from the community have researched the history of the Presbyterian congregation, producing a timeline that emblazons one wall.
We climb the stairs to the former choir loft. Shaw gestures to the rose window, with its mullions and tracery. When they moved in, he had the window put into storage, and now, twenty years later, it has been cleaned up and reinstalled. “Isn’t it just gorgeous?” he comments. He proceeds to tell a story I’ve heard him tell before, about a woman—a fortyish Catholic woman, smartly dressed—who came to one of the first shows put on in the new space. Approaching Shaw at intermission, she described having once been a “wee girl” in the neighborhood. “She told me, ‘We used to look at that window from the outside, and we used to wonder.’” The woman had moved away, but her cousin still lived in the New Lodge and had brought her by, proposing that the two meet up at the old church and then go into town. Shaw recounts what the woman told her cousin after arriving. “She told her, ‘We’re not going into town. We’re staying here tonight!’ She said she never dreamed, in all her life, that she’d be inside, looking out through that window.”
Shaw stops, an almost jubilant look on his face. “That really encapsulates everything I wanted to do: people that were outside coming in, and feeling comfortable.”
Shaw’s work in North Belfast is all about creating shared space in a society where that is still rare. When the center undertook an art project on the theme of travel, with students from Protestant and Catholic schools fashioning suitcases, he challenged the students to make a new friend from another school. “That’s what this space is about,” he says. “When we’re in this space, the labels that we carry, like the suitcases, don’t matter. The fact that I’m a Protestant and you’re a Catholic, or you’re a Muslim or an atheist. Those things do not matter. We make peace in this world when we recognize ourselves in each other. It doesn’t matter how much hatred our groups have for each other. When we meet at that level, and we recognize something of each other in each other, then we’re changed.”
A student asks if he felt comfortable in the New Lodge as a Protestant. Shaw pauses. “The day I drove up the road for the interview, I’d never driven up that road, my entire life,” he says. “Some people think that I’ve ‘gone native,’ that I’ve changed my colors. But the misunderstanding is more from people on the outside.”
Several years ago, 174 Trust suffered an arson attack. It could have destroyed the church, but a neighbor saw it and reported it to the fire services. Shaw felt traumatized by the episode; but he reminds himself, when arson or thefts have happened, that “the people responsible for it are the people we’re here for.” The challenge is daunting, but it is a challenge he embraces. “If I wanted a quiet life, I’d have opted for a Presbyterian ministry in a quiet parish,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m called to do.”
The clarity and consistency of Bill Shaw’s mission come from his faith, but he doesn’t need to proselytize in order to live the Gospel. Every day at his organization, the work of peacebuilding nourishes community, creating a space where all can gather. Meanwhile, outside this place, many people still struggle with the legacy of the Troubles. In 2011, a study showed PTSD rates in Northern Ireland were higher than just about anywhere in the world. Suicide now has claimed more people than the Troubles did. Government in Northern Ireland lurches from crisis to crisis, with two polarized parties perpetually failing to accommodate each other. Violent organizations still lurk in the shadows; dissident IRA groups dream of murdering more police, while Loyalist paramilitaries have morphed into gangsters with a hand in the drug trade. Every summer, when the Orange marches strike up to commemorate the Unionist holidays, trouble stirs and sometimes breaks out into riots. Much of it is driven by young people trying to find an identity, having missed the cruel clarity of the Troubles.
That’s where Shaw’s work began at 174. The first thing he did when he arrived was meet those lads throwing stones, figure out what was motivating them, and work to turn them in a new direction. One day, he caught some local Catholic boys trying to break into the building, and with them he began a cross-community youth football group. He soon matched them with a group of kids from the Shankill, Protestant kids who had never crossed the invisible line from their neighborhood to the New Lodge. One of them had never been to a corner store a mere two-minute walk from his house.
At first, the boys from the two neighborhoods didn’t talk with each other. Shaw mixed the teams up for football and then they’d go swimming together, then to Kentucky Fried Chicken. For weeks, the two groups would sit separately at KFC. But gradually they began sharing music and talking about football teams. Over time, friendships developed. “The year before last, there was a photograph on Facebook,” Shaw says. “It was one of the Shankill guys and one of the New Lodge guys at a formal at one of the Protestant schools. The photo didn’t say, ‘This is Dan from the New Lodge and Stevie from the Shankill.’ What they were saying to their peer group was, ‘This guy is my friend.’”
What Shaw practices is the slow, sustained work of encounter, building relationships that over time can break down decades of discord. I keep coming back to Northern Ireland because it is a living laboratory of conflict transformation, where the likes of Bill Shaw provide hope for a future in which the Troubles will seem a turbulent dream, a distant part of history. I come back because the dominant narrative here is that peace won—not war, not power, not division. I come back to be part of the pilgrimage from all over the world, to study how people who once would have killed each other on the street because of their ethnicity or religion now live together in relative harmony.
I realize that—in part because of the predominance of the peace narrative—many victims whose lives were broken and have never recovered are still crying out for justice; for all the good of the Good Friday Accords, there has not yet been, as there was in South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an adequate accounting of the full history of the Troubles. Still, when I hear Shaw, I have hope, and for more than Northern Ireland. What I have learned in Belfast is something we need everywhere: on the troll-heavy internet; in our own society, where divisions seem to grow with every election; in the streets of Cleveland where I live, and where too many die at the hands of law enforcement, from gangs and despair; and in my own heart. I’ve learned that peacebuilding is a daily labor involving justice and mercy, conflict and negotiation, difference and dignity. That real peace is not a static state, but a vital and resilient dynamism that can withstand everyday conflict and occasional acts of violence.
Violence will continue to haunt human relationships. But the question is: How can complex and diverse communities recover from such ruptures, rather than retreat into tribal isolation? “If we’re ever going to have a society,” Shaw says, turning to look at each of us, as if inviting us to carry this little seed, “if we’re going to have a world that’s safe, for you, for your kids, for grandkids, we’ve got to recognize that we are the same. That we are each other.”
He smiles, and he is still the spry kid chucking rocks at the local Feinians, and the teen who befriended Sean over a pint, and the young adult who wanted to serve God by being a minister, even if that meant living in a rundown Catholic neighborhood in North Belfast. “As a Christian, my primary calling in this broken world is to be a peacemaker,” he says. “That’s not just because I’m an ordained minister. That’s all of our callings.”