Alf McCreary talks to Naomi Long: ‘Nothing prepared me for losing my dad... I was angry with God and was unbearably sad’
In conversation with Naomi Long
Naomi Long (46) has been married to Michael for 23 years. A native of east Belfast, she has represented the area over the last 17 years at Belfast City Council, the Assembly and Westminster. She was elected Alliance Party leader two years ago. Before politics, she was a civil engineer.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I grew up in a Christian family, so faith and the Church was always a big part of my life. I was baptised in St Christopher's Parish Church in Mersey Street, confirmed in St Mark's, Dundela, and joined Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in my twenties. It was at about eight years old that I realised that I needed a personal relationship with Jesus. I was in Calvary Baptist Church, in Dee Street, at a children's meeting and I said a simple prayer right then.
Q. Does this faith play a real part in your daily life, or is it just for Sundays?
A. Yes, it does. It has shaped my outlook on life and my beliefs. It's a big part of who I am.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. Anyone with faith has had doubts and crises. I'm a engineer who likes to have evidence of things, which doesn't make it easier.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God. If so, why?
A. Yes. When my dad, James Johnston, died. I was 11 and a daddy's girl. He dropped dead in the street outside our house. He died from a massive coronary and stroke at 62. It was very sudden, though he had been unwell for 18 months. He also lost his job in the shipyard, which was hard, for he had been there since he was 14.
Although I was young, I had experienced loss and grief before. However, nothing prepared me for losing my dad. I was almost unbearably sad, and angry at God for letting it happen.
People assume faith will be a comfort in grief, but as a child, my belief that an all-powerful God let him die was no comfort at all. I was angry he wasn't with us at home.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?
A. Constantly. I get criticised for being a Christian, for not being the right kind of Christian, for not being a Christian at all, according to some. I get criticised by atheists, Christians and everything in between. Thankfully, in my line of work, you learn to filter what is fair and valid from abuse and ridicule. However, some of the comments, especially from other Christians, are painful.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?
A. At times. Right now, my relationship with the Presbyterian Church is at a low, because I feel that, when it comes to LGBT people, it has adopted an increasingly legalistic and judgemental approach, like modern-day Pharisees, rather than demonstrating the generosity, compassion and love which Christ commanded.
The treatment of David Ford, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Susan Brown, and the decision not to baptise the children of LGBT couples, has made attending church too upsetting at the moment. That's hard, because Sunday worship was always an important part of my life.
Most people assume you'd just leave if you disagree, but the Church is like a family. I love the people in my congregation - they are some of the kindest and most gracious people I know - yet, right now, I don't feel at peace there, because of the stance being taken by the wider Church. I don't know what my long-term future with the Presbyterian Church will be, or even if I will have one.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. When I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2013, I thought about it really seriously for the first time. I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and it happened in the middle of the flag protests.
After the death threats, attacks and upheavals in the previous months, I was almost numb to bad news. The diagnosis was not a shock, because I knew it was cancer before it was confirmed. Thank goodness, it healed.
It left a very fine scar, just under my watch. Every time I glance at my watch, I have an added reminder of how precious time is. None of us knows what time we have left, so we need to do the most that we can with now. I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of dying - the process is rarely pleasant. I nursed my mother with cancer and so I know the reality of that. I held her hand as she passed away. It was peaceful in the end, and I guess that's the most we can hope for.
Q. Are you worried at all about hell?
A. No. I have the assurance of knowing that is not my destination.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection. If so, what will it be like?
A. We're told we will spend eternity with God and be perfected. I'm nowhere near perfect now, so I can't begin to imagine what that might be like.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. I've never been very denominational. I enjoyed liturgical worship and marking the seasons of the Church calendar in the Church of Ireland, but I also like the way that, in theory at least, the Presbyterian Church is less hierarchical and more democratic. When it comes to other faiths, I'm an advocate of religious freedom.
Q. Would you be comfortable with stepping out from your own faith and with trying to learn something from other people?
A. We can always learn from other people, of all faiths and none. The better we understand each other, the less room there is for prejudice or fear.
As Lord Mayor, I hosted Chanukah in City Hall for the first time and I've also visited the Belfast Islamic Centre many times. I was vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion and belief in Westminster, due to work I did with those of the Baha'ai faith and Open Doors.
I also led a delegation of all the main faith leaders in the UK to the Foreign Office about attacks on religious minorities, including the Coptic Church in Egypt and atheists in Indonesia.
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. There are some amazing examples of Churches tackling hard issues - homelessness, poverty, debt, loneliness, despair, sectarianism - and reflecting God's love in a hurting world. The Churches are made up of imperfect people, but they try to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. For the same reasons that Jesus' ministry criticised organised religion: too much focus on legalism and not enough on grace means it's often exposed as hypocritical in its conduct when compared to its preaching and teaching.
People associate it increasingly with power, wealth and control, rather than humility, generosity and freedom.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Religion, as opposed to faith, has often been a divisive thing in a country where it has become so entwined with politics. However, people's personal faith has been a comfort and has inspired great acts of generosity and reconciliation.
Q. What is your favourite book, movie and music?
A. Favourite book is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It's a powerful story of having the courage to challenge prejudice even if you have to stand alone. My favourite movie is The Wizard of Oz. I like music of the '70s and '80s, anything from Erasure to Aerosmith. I also like sacred music, but I don't mess with the words of old hymns.
Q. And finally, do you have any regrets?
A. I don't dwell on the past, which cannot be altered. What matters is what I do now and in the future.