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The cross Jack's had to bear on Belfast's frontline

He has survived death threats and brought divided communities together. Pastor Jack McKee tells Laurence White how his faith has helped him overcome fear.

Published 28/12/2015

Strong faith: Pastor Jack McKee at his west Belfast Church
Strong faith: Pastor Jack McKee at his west Belfast Church
Pastor Jack McKee with wife Kathleen
Under attack: Pastor McKee beside his destroyed car
Hopeful message: Pastor Jack McKee at his west Belfast church

The description Christian soldier is one that rests aptly on the shoulders of Belfast pastor, Jack McKee.

For not only did he serve for five years in the Ulster Defence Regiment at the beginning of the Troubles, but he has also frequently confronted paramilitaries in his outreach mission from his church which straddles the peace line in west Belfast.

Indeed, his latest book, What Does It Take, reads more like a thriller than the life story of a man of God.

In it he details how he was shot at by the IRA, interrupted IRA bombers planting a device under his car, was threatened with death by both the UDA and UVF, and had his home smashed up by loyalist paramilitaries.

But all of that has only hardened his resolve to bring his faith to as wide an audience as possible.

Jack recalls how as a young boy living in Brown Square at the bottom of the Shankill Road, there was only one family in the street who had a car.

"The earliest memory I had of Christians was people from outside driving into the area every Sunday, parking their vehicles, going to church and then leaving again. We were still left with our one car. Those who attended the local church did not touch our community in the way that they could have done.

"That is why I was determined that our church would not be a drive-by church. I believe there is not another one like it in the world. We sit astride the peace wall dividing the Shankill and the Falls. That presents challenges, but we have chosen to try to touch the communities we serve.

"Every single day and night, people from both communities attend our services or other events."

This Elim pastor might seem like a lightning conductor for trouble.

Born in 1952, the first nine years of his life were spent living in Ballymurphy, then a mixed estate but later to become a republican stronghold.

"We were one of the last Protestant families to leave. That was in 1961. Bricks had been thrown through our windows and my parents later told me that they had received a note telling them to get out. It was signed 'The IRA'."

The family moved to Brown Square, where his mother was originally from. It was a more Spartan existence. In Ballymurphy the family had a three-bedroom house with a bathroom and inside toilet. In Brown Square, the bath hung on a six inch nail in the yard and the toilet was outside.

Jack admits that as a young teenager, often spending time hanging around street corners, his behaviour was far from blameless. "The first drink I had was stolen from the Coronation public house in Brown Square".

Although his family were not churchgoing - "like many at that time they believed in God and the church, but didn't want to make any commitment; they had a spiritual life by proxy through their children" - Jack was sent to Sunday school twice each Sunday, once to the Church of Ireland and once to the Elim Church.

It was at the age of 15 that his life changed dramatically. "I was invited to go to the Elim Church, but didn't really pay much attention to what was going on. It was just somewhere to go rather than standing on the street corner. But suddenly one day, November 7, 1967, the penny dropped and I realised that I wanted to hear more of this God's message. There were at least eight of my friends at those services. I have buried some of them during the past few years. Some ended up in prison. They didn't follow through on what they heard, but I did."

The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 tested him again. He admits he was involved in rioting as sectarian violence took hold and that after the emergence of the UDA and UVF, some relatives and friends joined the paramilitary ranks.

"They initially saw these groups as a formalisation of the vigilantes which preceded them, but obviously the organisations became much more sinister than that."

His reaction was to join the UDR. At one stage he and his best friend were warned they were on an IRA death list discovered in north Belfast. The friends lived opposite each other and one night they heard a noise outside. Upon investigating they saw a man working underneath Jack's car and another standing watch.

Jack and his friend drew their legally-held gun and approached the men, but were spotted and the terrorists fled. A subsequent investigation revealed that they had been trying to attach a bomb underneath the vehicle.

On completion of his five year term Jack, by then married to Kathleen, and father to Jonathan, decided to go to Bible College in England. It was there he received a phone call that his best friend had been shot and seriously wounded by IRA gunmen as he watched television in his home (he died two months later).

After graduation in 1972, Jack became pastor of two Co Down churches, but rural life was not really for him and he returned to Belfast three years later as pastor in Ballysillan, a post he held for 10 years.

It was there that he formulated his plans for greater outreach - simple sermons and church services he felt were not enough to make an impact.

His dream became a reality when he bought the former Stadium Cinema on the Shankill Road. The couple established several youth clubs and programmes, with Kathleen founding the Hobby Horse Playgroup.

"I knew there was much more to the ministry than standing behind a lectern and thumping out a message of love on one hand and damnation on the other. The Stadium gave me the opportunity to break free and become involved in the type of evangelism that touches people where they are," Jack writes in his book.

His outspoken comments on paramilitary activity have led to several frightening episodes. One came after 10 people, including one bomber, were killed in an explosion at Frizzel's fish shop on the Shankill. The IRA said the premises had been targeted because UDA commanders were using an upstairs room for meetings.

Later that day in a television interview, Jack condemned the IRA atrocity but added that the people of the Shankill would have found it easier to bear if the victims had been terrorists rather than innocent shoppers.

He was told soon afterwards that the UDA had voted to kill him for those remarks and that two brothers had agreed to carry out the death sentence. He believes God saved him from their guns.

He was about to leave a meeting in his church that same night when one of those present said he felt compelled to say some prayers for him. That delayed Jack's departure from the church and when he arrived home a neighbour said two men had been watching his home all night and had just left. The neighbour had no knowledge of the threat against Jack.

One of his most extraordinary experiences was when he was contacted by Martin McGartland, a security forces agent who had infiltrated the IRA and just narrowly escaped being executed when his cover was blown.

McGartland, who had been given a new identity in England, had launched a bid to gain compensation for injuries he received in fleeing from the death squad, but was told he would have to come to Northern Ireland for the court case.

Fearing that the long arm of the IRA might still reach him, he contacted Jack to see if he could arrange a security escort to take him to and from the airport to court in Lisburn.

Jack contacted the Secretary of State and the Chief Constable and security was provided, although Jack was included in the escort.

The case had barely started when two bombs exploded at an army base next door to the court. McGartland believed his fears were well-founded.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for Jack has been the effect the threats against his life and the attack on his home (every ground floor window was smashed and cars belonging to him and his son firebombed) have had on his family. "I get emotional when I think of what they have gone through. I made my choices, but those choices impacted on them.

"They have seen things that a lot of families have not seen, nor should see. They knew at times I was going out and that I might not come back.

"Those things probably affected my wife more than I ever thought. They are coming home to roost and I can see how my wife has reacted. However, we will respond to it and get on with things as ever."

Does he see himself as a courageous person? "I experience fear as much as the next person, but I will not allow it to dictate what my next move will be. I use God's wisdom to guide me.

"Of course I feared the UVF. I remember after one death threat I tried to enlist the help of other churchmen in my area of the city, but they didn't want to know. I felt isolated and more fearful, but also determined that I would not run away."

Later churchmen in the area were to unite against violence, especially during loyalist feuds.

Jack now feels his mission has borne fruit. Along with the 200 who regularly attend services at his New Life City Church, some 2,000-4,000 come into the building each week.

Along with the main auditorium it houses a pre-school playgroup, an afterschool club for children with additional needs, parents and toddlers groups, a coffee shop, and an indoor 3G five-a-side soccer pitch.

"We have people coming here from various parts of Northern Ireland," says Jack. "That is what encourages us to continue with our work."

  • What Does It Take, by Pastor Jack McKee, is available now, Maurice Wylie Media, £9.99

Belfast Telegraph

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