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How Northern Ireland charity’s mission changed from evangelism in 19th century to providing homes for vulnerable today

Rev David Campton, superintendent of Belfast Central Mission, tells Linda Stewart how he was the target of an arson attack when he first began working with the charity and why he is now planning to walk from Carrickfergus to Millisle to celebrate its latest project

Lunchtime at the Childhaven site
Lunchtime at the Childhaven site
Grosvenor Hall Band in 1925
The Brother Man Service (1950s)
Ian Beggs and support worker Jesse Rowell from Belfast Central Mission
Ian Beggs and support worker Jesse Rowell from Belfast Central Mission
Betty Craig put her name down for Kirk House after having respite care there
Rev David Campton

By Linda Stewart

Belfast Central Mission superintendent Rev David Campton is marking the 130th anniversary of the charity this year by undertaking a walk from the historic Castlerocklands in Carrickfergus to the mission's newest care home in Millisle.

Dr Campton (54) is from east Belfast and his wife, Sally, is the voluntary and community director for Abbeyfield Wesley. They have two sons, Owain (24) and Ciaran (18).

"I was born and brought up in east Belfast and have spent most of my ministry in Belfast, not by design by any manner or means," he says.

He left Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s to study biology in Edinburgh, never intending to come back, and was planning a career in theatre.

But he was struck by a new sense of vocation as a result of a series of events back home - the Enniskillen bombing and the 14 days of violence that culminated in the deaths of two soldiers in Andersonstown.

"It was everything I left Northern Ireland to get away from but, at the same time, it was part of my vocation to come back ... it was a sense of , 'What are you doing to make a difference?'" he says.

He returned home at the age of 26, now married to Sally, and started out in the Methodist ministry, first serving in Glastry and Portaferry before being moved to the Belfast Central Mission circuit.

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He was working with churches in Sandy Row and the Springfield Road, including a church at Workham Avenue where the peace wall ran through the premises.

"Four days after I took over as minister, I had my first arson attack," he says. "I was thrown into the deep end in my first experience of the Belfast Central Mission circuit and it's strange 20 years later to be coming back as superintendent to the circuit."

The mission started life 130 years ago as an evangelical initiative of the Methodist church in Sandy Row as part of the Church's response to the pressures of inner city life, developing quickly thanks to the insight of founder Rev Crawford Johnson.

"As it wasn't really reaching those who needed the most help, it developed very quickly into, not an evangelical project, but a social welfare mission, based on the model of the missions that were developing in Britain at that stage," Rev Campton says.

The missions had two main objectives: promoting the Christian religion and providing services to address social need across Northern Ireland.

"At the minute, the main social welfare initiatives of the mission include extensive housing support and supporting both older people and young parents in their homes," Rev Campton says.

"It operates from Dungannon to Belfast in different forms. We have sheltered housing for young people coming out of care or who have been made homeless at projects in Dungannon, Magherafelt, Belfast and Bangor. We have support for parents in Newtownards and Dungannon. That is there to prevent some of the issues that can result in children ending up in care.

"At the other end of the spectrum, we have our housing support for older people and sheltered housing for older people, such as- the residential supported housing at Kirk House."

The latest initiative is a new £5.5m facility in Millisle called Copelands, which will offer continuity of support from sheltered housing through to nursing support for those with dementia.

The seed money for this project was provided by the sale of the former Castlerocklands residential home in Carrickfergus, a Victorian building which had to be closed 25 years ago as it was unsustainable, Rev Campton says.

The new Copelands is being developed on the site of the former children's home at Craigmore.

"The approach for Belfast Central Mission has always been to respond to the need as it is now, rather than to simply keep doing what it has always been doing," Rev Campton says.

"Copelands will be a gold-standard dementia facility. It's a new phase of work and model for us to work with others in terms of addressing this very pressing need."

Rev Campton came up with the idea to celebrate the new facility and mark the 130th anniversary of the mission by walking from the former Castlerocklands home in Carrickfergus to the new Copelands home, although he drew the line at walking a mile for every year of the mission's history.

"I didn't feel brave enough to walk 130 miles. It did feel symbolic making the move from Castlerocklands to Copelands and taking in some of the projects in Belfast en route. It's a good way of marking 130 years," he says.

"As a 54-year-old diabtetic who spends most of his time at a desk or in the car, I didn't want to overstretch myself, so I'm doing it in three days, which allows time for other people to join in and stop off and enjoy a coffee on the way. Depending on how far we meander off the route, it's a walk of 33 miles over three days, starting in Carrickfergus and going to our headquarters on the first day, then going via Kirk House to Ards, then from Ards to see some of our newest facilities in Bangor and visiting the summer fete at Killard House.

"We're hoping very much to be there in time for it closing and then to reach Copelands in late afternoon. That is the plan."

Rev Campton is off on sabbatical at the moment and has spent part of that time in the Cascade mountains in Washington State, although he admits he didn't get as much walking practice there as he had hoped because of the threat of bear activity.

"If you went walking, you had to have bear spray with you - that's a hazard that I probably won't have on the road from Carrickfergus to Millisle. However I am heading out on the Lagan towpath today to get a bit of practice in," he jokes.

Anyone who wishes to join Rev Campton on his walk can obtain more information by emailing or by calling 9024 1917. Full details of his route is available on both the Belfast Central Mission website and Facebook page, while donations can be made by searching for 'David Campton' on BCM is running the Copelands Summer Fete on Saturday from 10am to 2pm at Killard House School in Donaghadee. Details can be found on the BCM website and Facebook

‘I have remained friendly with Michael Palin from the days when I was working on Belfast Festival'

Former Belfast Festival assistant director Betty Craig (93), originally from Birmingham, has been living in Belfast Central Mission's Kirk House facility for two years. She has three children, Maggie (70), Malcolm (67) and Alison (64).

She used to live in Bournville and her dad was an employee at the Cadbury's factory. "My dad invented the Cadbury Creme Egg," she says. "It was a great place to be brought up."

Betty moved to Northern Ireland with her ex-husband and stayed after her divorce, embarking on the role of assistant accountant at the students' union at Queen's.

"Towards the end of that time, I was approached by the bursar, who told me they wanted to start up a festival at Queen's. They wanted somebody who was knowledgeable about accountancy," she says.

"Because of my great interest in the arts and my love of singing, I was asked to consider being seconded to the festival and I was there for 16 years.

"This was in 1971 at the height of the Troubles and I think people forget slightly now that at that time there was no operational Grand Opera House, no Waterfront Hall and no Odyssey. We operated from the Ulster Hall and Queen's let us use the Whitla Hall and the drama studio.

"It was a very small festival then compared with what it was when I left - within five years it became the second largest festival in the UK, next to the Edinburgh Festival."

It could be challenging attracting big names during the Troubles and Betty found herself travelling to London to knock on agents' doors.

"I remember when Rowan Atkinson came - we were giving away tickets because nobody knew the name," she says.

She also remains friendly with Michael Palin, describing him as a "really genuine person".

"In front of me now, I have a card to send to Michael Palin - I heard that he was having a heart operation and I wanted to wish him well," she says.

After she retired, Betty bought an apartment in Belmont and kept busy fundraising for a variety of charities, but she became anxious about living alone several years ago when she developed heart problems.

She had already put her name on the list for Kirk House because she had stayed there for respite care and found it extremely good.

"The staff are absolutely wonderful here - I couldn't say enough about them," she says.

"We all have our own little flatlet - it's not a huge room, but there is an ensuite bathroom and we each have our own outside door and you can go in and out privately all the time.

"If you have friends over, there is a little kitchen where you can make a cup of tea.

"On the first day of the month they have different speakers, which is something that I've got involved with, getting local speakers in. Pamela Ballantine from UTV has been extremely good to us and it's people like that that I've met and kept in touch with."

Betty is one of the oldest there, but she's still busy - in fact, she was asked to sit on the Copeland committee as a resident who can provide advice.

"The staff are so good at remembering things like birthdays and it makes such a big difference - they bring a cake to the table and they give you a present," she says.

"As I sit in my room now, I'm looking out at the window ledge and it's a mass of geraniums. That makes a difference too."

‘My support worker Jesse is a godsend and I couldn’t do without him’

Retired transport worker Ian Beggs (84) MBE, originally from Carrickfergus and now living in Belvoir Park in Belfast, has been supported by Belfast Central Mission since his wife, Jean, moved into a care home. They have one son, Michael (50).

He began working for British Rail in Belfast and ended up as a cashier for Stena Sealink in the passenger office in Donegall Place.

"I'm a member of the Methodist Church in Belvoir Park and I've been the treasurer for more years than I can remember and looked after their finances - still do," he says.

"We've always supported Belfast Central Mission in all the different activities that they have.

"Every Christmas there is a toy appeal for needy children and we collect money."

Ian became involved with support worker Jesse Rowell (42) two years ago when his wife, Jean, went into hospital with a broken leg.

"The result was that she wasn't able to climb the stairs and the accommodation in Belfast had stairs in it," he says.

"Now the Housing Executive has given us a bungalow with no stairs."

Jean now stays in a care home because she has dementia.

"With my age being 84, if anything happened to me, she would be completely lost - she wouldn't know what to do or who to contact," Ian explains.

"Her memory has deteriorated over the last year or so. She knows me when I go to visit, though. A couple of people out of church will take me up by car sometimes and she recognises them as well, but it (her memory) is deteriorating. She is being very well looked after.

"If she was here in the house, I wouldn't be able to cope. It would be 24-hour service for me as I wouldn't be able to go out and leave her."

Ian was put in touch with Jesse when Jean first moved into the home.

"He has been better for me than anything else," he says.

"Living on my own, I can still cope, but it's filling in paperwork and claiming benefits and things (that are hard).

"He's brought me up to see my wife a few times. He's helped me with getting the carpets in and helped me to get work arranged.

"Jesse was an absolute godsend to me when I moved in and he still is. I couldn't have done without him."

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