Tears in church as firebrand Islam storm pastor James McConnell retires
Members of the congregation of Whitewell Tabernacle have spoken of their sadness at the retirement of controversial preacher Pastor James McConnell.
Many of his followers broke down in tears and tissues were passed down the pews at the north Belfast church on Sunday evening as the pastor revealed he was going to retire.
The preacher hit the headlines earlier this year after delivering a sermon in which he blasted Islam as "Satanic".
The PSNI launched an investigation into the comments that remains ongoing.
The 77-year-old preacher suffers from ill-health, including cancer, and a few years ago had quadruple heart bypass surgery.
He said he had been considering his position for the past 18 months and had concluded it was time to "completely hand over the reins to Pastor David Purse and the pastors who assist him".
Yesterday, members of his congregation spoke of their sadness at his decision.
Julie Evans (47), from Belfast, has been attending the church with her husband for 27 years.
Far from the public perception of the pastor as a firebrand preacher, she spoke of his gentleness, recalling how he had comforted her when her husband fell seriously ill.
"One thing that stands out is when I wasn't long married my husband took seriously ill with a kidney problem," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I'll never forget the pastor coming to visit. I remember ringing him and being quite nervous because he does project this image of this firebrand preacher, but he was so gentle on the phone.
"We were a congregation of 1,500 at that time and you kind of think he'll not know who I am, but once I spoke he said, 'Of course I know who you are – you're the girl I married two months ago."
Julie also told how she was in tears on Sunday evening as the congregation was told about his retirement.
"I went through three tissues and we were passing tissues up the row," she said.
"I'm gutted he's going. I'm looking forward to Pastor David, but no one could replace Pastor McConnell, or the bishop as we call him.
"He's been through the mill. He's 77, has prostate cancer, quadruple bypass and diabetes. But he's a bit of a rascal, eating cream buns galore.
"I just think he's a lovely, humble man. He's not perfect – none of us are – but he's very gracious and I have nothing but respect for him."
Another regular attendee at the church is Paul Cairns (39). The Carrickfergus man was dedicated as a child by the pastor.
He said that while the media had portrayed the preacher very poorly, anyone who knows him thinks the world of him.
"For me, it was a sad night, it was never going to be easy," Mr Cairns added.
"One of my fears was for when the pastor retired. He's been my spiritual father since I can remember and one that the church will miss."
Sharon McReynolds (42), who was also married by Pastor McConnell, believes his prayers had a major impact on her life.
When she was just 13, she needed open-heart surgery and believes the pastor's prayers for her meant she only needed one operation instead of several.
The mum of three boys also believes the power of prayer helped her conceive, even though she had been told she might not be able to have children.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots paid tribute to Pastor McConnell, saying Northern Ireland was a better place because of him.
"Whilst I may not agree with all his doctrine, I can identify that instead of the headline controversial pastor, he was actually a caring pastor," he wrote on his Facebook page yesterday.
"He had a heart for people, in particular underprivileged people, whether that was in Belfast or Africa.
"He has had a positive impact on thousands of lives and Northern Ireland is a better place for his work and evangelism.
"Having served 57 years, he is well entitled to take life easier, and many thousands of people will wish him a healthy and happy retirement."