'I used to throw rocks at people on the Falls Road, now I pray with them'
As open air communion service held at peace wall, congregation tell how their lives have been changed
A woman from the Shankill who used to throw rocks across a wall at people on the republican Falls Road now prays with them at a church built across the same Belfast peace line.
The New Life City Church for the first time yesterday held an outside communion between a set of gates normally used to keep Protestants and Catholics apart.
The church, houses in a warehouse, uniquely straddles either side of an 18ft high peace wall on Northumberland Street in the west of the city.
Large steel gates are shut every night at 6.30pm for 12 hours, separating the two communities.
Yesterday morning, Pastor Jack McKee led a mixed open air communion service for people between the large peace gates.
Many taking part said the church has changed their lives.
Among them was Dina Elwood (44) from the Shankill, who said joining the church turned her life around.
"In our church we have people from all races, creeds and cultures and it's fantastic. It would be good if the walls were down and we could live like this all the time," she said.
"When I was young we climbed the peace walls and used to throw bricks and stones at each other and that's the way it was."
Explaining her new perspective, Dina said: "Five years ago I gave my life to the Lord and it just changed my whole heart and outlook on life. I live in the lower Shankill which is quite notorious.
"I'm hoping I'm a bit of a light in there to change opinions. The people of the Falls are just like us in the lower Shankill, we all have our own issues and problems."
Passing buses full of tourists viewing the peace walls slowed down to watch the mixed crowd of more than 100 taking part.
"The gates divide but the message we bring unites people," said Pastor McKee.
"We like to do things that are a bit unusual. We decided it's not enough to have church near the gates, so we've taken church outside, right to the gates of Northumberland Street."
He continued: "We want the gates open more, because at 6.30pm the communities are shut off from each other.
"Eighteen years after the peace agreement was signed we're still shutting gates for people to take risks to come through communities they shouldn't have to."
Asked what would happen if the gates were left permanently open, he replied: "If we just opened these gates for several months, no one would notice.
"But because it's been highlighted and people will be taking note, there are people who don't want these gates open and I'm talking about paramilitary influences."
"If we make a song and dance about opening the gates then we draw attention to it, I don't want to do that. They made a song and dance about taking the flag down from the City Hall and look what happened there."
Church member Adecola Toye (34) moved to Belfast from Nigeria five years ago.
"I believe what the walls have done for years is create an invisible wall in the minds of people that don't really exist," he said. "I see past that, whether you shut the gates or not,"
"I found it a little shocking at first. I didn't know what it was about and I've had to go into the Falls when I lived in the Shankill. I heard what transpired here years ago. Where I come from there's no such thing as walls to divide people.
"If we start by keeping the gates open longer at night, then maybe by the time they pull the walls down people won't notice."
Arlene Gill (50), from the Ballygomartin area, said the church had changed her life.
"I've lived through most of the Troubles and I never envisaged this would happen and the church would be here," she said.
"When I was at school we didn't know anybody that was Catholic.
"It wasn't the done thing to mix, friends of mine didn't know Catholics - I didn't. But now some of my best friends are Catholics and it's through this church."
City Life centre manager Tommy Latimer (68) said events like the communion service on the wall showed an appetite for bringing down the walls.
"They will come down, but not immediately, because people would jump on the bandwagon. 'Why were we not consulted' and so on," he said.
"But there is a bright future for here. We work very closely with people on the Shankill and the Falls, we mix with the young people, we treat them like human beings and there's no issue.
"Our mindset has totally changed, we don't want to fight and there is a better lifestyle."