Faith Matters: Bringing Belfast together as a city of grace
The 4 Corners Festival returns next week with a prayer to see Belfast built into a 'city of grace'. Fr Martin Magill, who co-founded the festival with Presbyterian minister the Rev Steve Stockman, explains what to expect
WHEN we sat down in Belfast last March to start planning this year's 4 Corners Festival, we were careful to take time to consider what the theme should be.
As we do every year as an organising committee for the annual community inter-Church arts festival, we thought, we prayed and we discerned during our meeting in the Methodist Church's Belfast Central Mission.
After much deliberation we came up with 'Building a City of Grace'.
Grace is perhaps one of the greatest of God's gifts.
It is truly "amazing", as John Newton's famous hymn Amazing Grace, so loved in all Christian traditions and beyond, puts it.
Grace is the love and mercy of God Himself which none of us really deserves or has merited but which is offered freely to each of us to help us towards salvation and the eternal happiness promised by Our Lord.
In other words, grace is that divine gift that, although undeserved by us, helps us to live out our calling to be children of God, to love Him and to love our neighbour by, among other things, showing kindness and generosity of spirit - particularly when it is difficult to do so.
By accepting the gift of grace, we are realising God's will for us in our daily lives and helping to build His kingdom of love and justice and peace.
So, we concluded that a transfusion of grace was what this divided, wounded yet beautiful, city needed against a background of the collapse of the Good Friday institutions - thankfully restored since that meeting last March - as well as intermittent acts of violence, sectarianism and, of course, unresolved tensions over Brexit and its potentially drastic consequences.
On January 11 the prayers of so many of us were answered when power-sharing was restored after three years.
We commend our politicians and exhort them now to 'go the extra mile' in building the trust that is now so necessary if we are to have the political stability we as a community so badly need.
Apart from its theological meaning, grace means being pleasing and gracious to other human beings.
The hope and prayer of our festival is that we can make a contribution to the spread of grace and that can percolate into the wider community, including our politicians in the north; it would be amazing if they would exhibit more grace to one another and also receive grace from the rest of us.
The idea for the 4 Corners Festival emerged in 2012 out of an ordinary cup of coffee I had with my friend and festival co-founder Rev Steve Stockman, a Presbyterian minister, in my presbytery in Lenadoon, in west Belfast, where I was parish priest.
The first festival took place in 2013, so this year's - which starts next week - is our eighth production.
I suppose the inspiration came from Jesus' own words, recorded in John 17:21: "May they all be one, as you Father are in me and I am in you. May they be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
We believed that January's annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity had, in Belfast at any rate, become a bit jaded and was attracting predominantly older attendees.
It needed, we thought, to be augmented by something - which turned out to be a festival - that would entice people of different Christian backgrounds out of their own 'corner' of Belfast, whether they were in the north, south, east of west of the city, to meet and befriend people they would never otherwise have met.
We wanted to do this in the context of being entertained, challenged and enriched by talks, drama, poetry, music and indeed prayer in welcoming and comfortable settings.
It is no coincidence that during every event there is a cup of tea or coffee and a traybake, so that people of all traditions can meet and friendships be forged.
Indeed, it can be said that here in 2020, 4 Corners, with its motto 'Bringing Belfast Together', has become something of a movement, with the festival being the catalyst for the creation of friendships and enhanced social contact that to some extent permeate the community.
This year's festival features almost 20 events and runs from January 31 until February 9.
We broke new ground last week when we launched Festival 2020 in a prison, Hydebank Wood College and Women's Prison.
We were mindful of the words of Jesus: "I was in prison, and you came to see me" (Matthew 25:36.).
Every event in our programme is a highlight but I will mention a few that are likely to book out quickly.
In my own parish, there will be an evening of reflections on how Presbyterians were impacted by the Troubles.
Elsewhere, Miami Showband survivor Stephen Travers will talk and sing about his journey since the 1975 massacre.
The recently retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, Alan Abernethy, will revisit a Catholic church where as a teen he witnessed a sectarian attack that changed his life.
We also wanted to address the issue of climate justice and we do so in an event called 'Treating Creation with Grace', with an excellent panel of speakers including Naomi McKeown, an 18-year-old Belfast student who is passionate about the issue.
Belfast soccer club chairmen will examine how the sport can promote healing.
And bringing our festival to a close will be champion of the homeless, Fr Peter McVerry SJ.
:: Fr Martin Magill is co-founder and co-director of the 4 Corners Festival and parish priest of St John the Evangelist parish, Falls Road, Belfast.
:: For further details on the 4 Corners Festival and the programme, visit 4cornersfestival.com