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Meet the man whose dream laid foundations for a new superchurch in Co Antrim

Green Pastures near Ballymena is not just a church but one of the largest private developments seen in Northern Ireland with social housing, hotel, supermarket, commercial property and even a nursing home, as Fionola Meredith finds out

Ten years ago, Green Pastures was a small evangelical church in the village of Galgorm, near Ballymena, housed in a factory building on the margins of the giant Wrightbus complex. Today, Green Pastures is about to be transformed into a state-of the-art super-church, with the capacity for thousands of worshippers, standing at the centre of "The Gateway", one of the largest private developments Northern Ireland has ever seen.

The 97-acre building site at Ballee, where this ambitious "spiritual and social regeneration project" is currently under construction, is clearly visible from the busy dual carriageway skirting Ballymena.

But many passing motorists will be unaware of the full extent of Green Pastures' plans. Once completed, the Gateway will include social housing, a hotel, supermarket, car showroom, riverside restaurants, an outdoor pursuits centre, a training and education centre, student accommodation, a nursing home, an all-weather football pitch and a wedding chapel. The church itself will have its own restaurant, gym, dance and recording studios.

Led by Pastor Jeff Wright, assisted by a substantial team of pastors and a veritable army of volunteers - 600 people at the last count - Green Pastures describes itself as "the church that helps you fall in love with Jesus".

Green Pastures prides itself on its informal, non-traditional style of worship. Don't expect ornate hats and old-fashioned hymns played on a wheezy pipe-organ.

This is a church with its own glitzy gift shop. Christian soft rock plays in the café, where the faithful meet for coffee before entering the main auditorium.

Services themselves are loud, high-octane and often highly emotional, led by young people in jeans and trainers, accompanying the congregation on electric guitars and drums. It's all streamed live on the Green Pastures website for the benefit of those beyond the immediate reach of the church.

So how did these tech-savvy country pastors transform themselves into multi-million pound property developers? And what do they hope to achieve with the Gateway project? Much of it is down to the Old Testament vision of Wright himself, or Pastor Jeff, as his people call him. Wright, now aged 54, is the son of Wrightbus founder William Wright, and was originally intended to take over the family business, until his life took a dramatically different turn.

Pastor Jeff has a soft voice, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the charismatic power of his personality. Beginning his testimony - a story that I sense he has told many times - Wright describes how he failed all his exams as young man. He knows how it feels to grow up with the "stigma of failure", like so many of the lost and disadvantaged people his church seeks to help.

"I had been tailormade to take over the family business (Wrightbus) but I didn't think I had the wisdom to do it," he says. "It came to a point one night, in that distressed state, I fell on my knees beside my bed, just cried literally to God, 'Look, if you'll help me, guide me to run this, I would give you this business'. I really felt I had an encounter with the living God that night."

From then on, Jeff Wright was completely driven by his faith. "We made God a shareholder in the business - 26% of Wrights is owned by an evangelical trust - in order to make sure He was central in everything the Wrights company does."

Believing he had been called by God to leave Wrightbus and strike out on his own as a preacher, he looked for guidance from Pastor James McConnell, of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, and began regularly working alongside the Whitewell pastors in the community. (Years later, McConnell became notorious for preaching an anti-Islam sermon, over which he was prosecuted and subsequently acquitted of criminal charges.)

But it wasn't the word of God, or even the word of Pastor McConnell, that spurred Wright on to make the final step of establishing his own church. Instead it was a disturbing encounter with a distressed little girl, while driving home from a street outreach project one night. Seeing that she was in trouble, he stopped his car and the other children she was with ran away.

"I remember just picking this wee girl up, her wee eyes rolling in head, she had taken some kind of drug.

"And that was the final challenge - okay, I'm going to leave work, and go to help. That was the moment. I'll never forget those brown eyes."

Despite renouncing his allotted role in the family firm, it's obvious that Jeff's inherited business acumen is central to Green Pastures' big plans, with the retail part of the Gateway project intended to provide finance for the church's ongoing ministry.

The Dream Centre, which is a training, support and mentoring organisation for the disadvantaged and long-term unemployed, is one of the first buildings on the new site at Ballee.

Nearby stands a row of 18 brand-new houses, smelling of fresh paint and all ready for trainees to move into. Support staff will live alongside the trainees as their neighbours, having dinner with them and meeting for coffee to help them develop the skills they need to live independent lives.

This scheme is financed by a group of social enterprise companies, Advanced Engineering, which supplies parts to Wrightbus, and also provides training and work placements. According to general manager Alistair Patton, a former bank manager, turnover last year was just under £3m.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the Gateway project. In 2012, eyebrows were raised when Green Pastures bought the 97-acre plot of government-owned land at Ballee, near Ballymena - previously valued at £75m - for the much lesser sum of four million and one pounds.

Even then Green Pasture's ambition was evident: the original title for the initiative, before it became the Gateway, was Project Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament figure who rebuilt the city of Jerusalem.

Their slogan - "loving Jesus, transforming communities, inspiring a nation" - is another indicator of the scope of their plans. So how on earth did they get the land so cheaply? Pastor Jeff says that they simply paid the asking price. "We were able to put a deposit down because we were able to sell the (original) church, and now we rent it," he says. "Wrights will take this place over, they need the space. That's the reason how we were able to get the land."

Objections rolled in from Ballymena retailers, fearful that the huge development would take business away from the already-struggling town.

Ballymena Chamber of Commerce warned if approval was given "this will have serious ramifications for the future of Ballymena town centre". Locals who resented having a popular dog-walking area removed fought a spirited online campaign. But eventually the plan was given the go-ahead. According to HPA Architecture, the design company behind the project, "voluntary community engagement suggests overwhelming support for this development".

In less than six months' time, the exterior of the vast new Green Pastures church at Ballee will be visible.

The GP pastors have calculated there are approximately 200,000 people living within a 25-mile radius of the new place of worship. So far, only a small proportion of this figure are known to be churchgoers. Pastor Jeff Wright and his team, confident that God is on their side, are determined to change that.

They have a saying at Green Pastures: "In traditional churches, you have to believe to belong. Here, you can belong before you believe." But will the people hear the call?

Belfast Telegraph


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