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Hate attacks a hard cross to bear but they won't break the Church

By Alf McCreary

Published 30/07/2016

United front: there has been support for Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church
United front: there has been support for Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church

There is no logical reason why anyone would try to burn down a church building, but obviously those who do so are immune to logic, reason or common sense.

They are trapped in their befuddled hatreds, well beyond the decency of ordinary people. The first reaction to their horrible deeds is anger, followed by despair and then a deep sadness that anyone can do this kind of thing. This is true, also, of course, of the ghastly murder this week of Fr Jacques Hamel as he celebrated Mass in Normandy. In the long-term, hatred will never overcome Christianity.

Over the years a number of church buildings from both main communities have been daubed or badly damaged, and last weekend the premises of Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church in south Belfast were targeted in two arson attacks.

It is a lovely church, and I have had the honour of speaking there at one of their evening services, which adds a personal dimension to my expression of sympathy for these God-fearing people.

The congregation and their leaders have behaved with the quiet dignity that is the hallmark of the best of Presbyterianism, and one of the few silver linings in this dark cloud is the way in which other church congregations have come forward to help.

There were swift and welcome condemnations of this dastardly attack from the Secretary of State James Brokenshire, the First Minister Arlene Foster, and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, as well as from other local Church and community leaders.

Such condemnation is welcome, and absolutely necessary, though one wonders whether or not this will have any effect on the thick dunderheads who carry out such atrocities.

The congregation of Saintfield Road Presbyterian will take comfort from such support.

Attacks like this are deeply unsettling, and they will need all the help they can get in the weeks and months to come.

I write as someone who has direct experience of arson in their own church. Some years ago there were several attacks on Whitehouse Presbyterian Church, and finally a fire which virtually destroyed the original Victorian building.

I remember standing the next morning near the embers at the front of the premises where our three children were baptised, and I felt a deep, deep sadness that anyone could do this to a church, and the precious memories it held for so many people.

Under the dynamic leadership of our minister, the Rev Dr Liz Hughes, the church was virtually rebuilt to the greater glory of God, but this took much patience and a lot of hard work.

At that time I was a member of the Kirk Session and Committee, and we seemed to have endless meetings as each stage of the rebuilding and refurbishment progressed.

There was also heart-warming support from a wide range of local Churches, and from individuals from a wide area of Belfast, and well beyond that.

The experience of losing one's former church was daunting, but we all learned a lot about the goodness of many people. We would not have chosen to go down that path voluntarily, but in the end our journey was deeply inspiring.

The recent events at Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church are a reminder that many other Churches and congregations have come through troubled times, and they have not been alone during their journeys.

People will continue to help Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church, and remember them in their prayers and donations.

The most important point to remember, however, is that no arsonists or attackers can eliminate a church.

They can destroy a building, but a church is not a building - it is a body of the people of Christ, and that witness to Christianity can never be destroyed by people with hatred in their hearts.

Belfast Telegraph

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