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Pastor David Purse: Why I've forgiven IRA man who killed my father when I was 14

Pastor David Purse wants to meet the IRA gang who killed his father, a police reservist, but says that he would forgive them if they asked

David Purse

They're not exactly the sort of words you usually expect to hear from a cleric's lips but Pastor David Purse readily admits that he did think about getting a gun to take revenge on the IRA gang who murdered his policeman father 40 years ago.

But the senior pastor at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road in Belfast adds that he swiftly banished his teenage notions of avenging the killing at the home ground of Crusaders Football Club not far from his church.

"In the immediate aftermath of the killing my old nature was telling me to get a gun and shoot someone," says the pastor, a 54-year-old family man who lives in Ahoghill. "But I'd not long come to the Lord and my new nature was telling me, no, no, no. You'll only be as bad as them.

"So I left it to the Lord to sort it out," he says. "My immediate instinct was one that I know has been felt by many people who've lost loved ones in the Troubles and who wanted to get their own back.

"But those thoughts quickly passed. I realised that I was either a child of God or I wasn't. It wasn't like a pick and mix in the cinema."

David was a month short of his 15th birthday when his father, who was also called David Purse and was an RUC reservist, was cut down by an IRA man with a rifle as he opened the gates of the Seaview ground near the end of a Crusaders match against Portadown.

David remembers everything about the day - January 12, 1980 - with crystal clarity, right down to the clothes he'd been wearing when he heard the dreadful news at the family home in Glengormley.

"I was in the bath," says David, who was listening to a radio commentary on his favourite team, Liverpool who were playing a 1-1 draw at Anfield against Southampton.

"A friend of my dad's rapped on the door and told me to get out quickly. A baby had been killed in a bomb attack in our area a while earlier and I thought this was another security alert.

"I pulled on my blue jeans and dark blue jumper which had pads on the shoulders. But there was nobody around when I got out of the bathroom. I reckoned that they'd all cleared out because of the bomb scare, but there were no blue lights, no police or Army vehicles outside.

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His father David Snr

His father David Snr

"And then I spotted Pastor James McConnell arriving through the front door. He was a friend of my father who had helped him set up the Whitewell church. And from the way he was looking at me I sensed that something was terribly wrong.

"In my bedroom, which was plastered with posters of football heroes like Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott, the pastor told me that I would have to be very brave, because my father had been shot.

"My first reaction was that maybe that wasn't too bad because you often heard on the news about people getting shot and surviving.

"But the pastor told me that my dad was dead. The two of us burst into tears," says David, who was then comforted by his mother's best friend Jean Cairns whose funeral he conducted at the Tabernacle just a few weeks ago.

David says that as he walked to the Cairns home on what was a frosty evening four decades ago he looked up to the star-filled sky and delivered an angry message to the man whom he'd accepted as his saviour just 18 months earlier: "I said who gave you the right to let that happen to my dad? He loved you."

At the Cairns house David kept expecting to be roused from a bad dream. "But I'm still waiting to wake up because it was real," he says.

In the week after the murder Ian Paisley visited the Purses to pay his condolences and he offered to help David in the future in any way he could. "He had his faults," says David "But that day he left a soft spot in my heart."

David says his father, whose photograph he keeps on a bedside table, never really discussed the threats under which he and his colleagues worked. But he adds: "When he was at home he always sat with his personal protection weapon under a cushion beside him.

"And if someone called at the house he told us to stay where we were and he went to the door with the gun behind his back. The only place he didn't take it with him was to church where he was a Sunday School superintendent and an elder.

"And every time he went out in the car he checked underneath it for bombs."

David says his father was regularly on duty on Saturdays at Seaview and there was nothing to suggest that the fateful game against Portadown would be anything other than uneventful like so many matches that had gone before.

He adds: "There was no pre-warning that anything might happen. And I've since heard that my father was quite happy to open the gates before the final whistle because he said the match was rubbish."

David Purse Snr worked as a maintenance fitter in the Michelin factory at Mallusk, but signed up for the RUC Reserve because "he hoped he could do something to make troubled Northern Ireland a safer place", according to his son, who adds: "He loved this wee country and he wanted to make a difference.

"He did 40 hours a month with the police. He used to joke that the money he got kept the car on the road and paid for our two-week holiday every year in Portrush."

The very mention of the seaside resort lights up David's face as he recalls how he and his mother and two brothers loved the family's two-week holidays in Portrush and the long-lasting memories of those times "because we got dad to ourselves".

But his father never completely switched off. "There was one evening we were eating knickerbocker glories in Forte's ice cream when he dashed off to break up a fight," David recalls.

"But my exasperated mother reminded him afterwards that he was on his holidays," says David, who remembers that the day after the murder he wanted to go to church as usual but was stopped because friends and relatives feared it would be too much for him though he did attend the subsequent funeral.

However, David later got his hands on a recording of the service after the killing and heard Pastor McConnell breaking down in the middle of his sermon about his friend of 23 years.

On the 40th anniversary of the killing earlier this month, David delivered his own sermon at the Tabernacle about his father's murder and said he wanted to meet the terrorist gang to tell them that Jesus would forgive them.

But I asked him if he has he forgiven the IRA gang himself? He replied: "Yes, I arrived at the place in my heart where I accepted that if the men who killed my dad came to me and asked me to forgive them I would have to be prepared to do that.

"I knew it would be immensely difficult but it has got easier as time has gone on. And I believe that I have come out of all this not bitter but better.

"My father's killers were never caught. And while I know they have evaded the courts of our land they will not evade God's courtroom.

"I still pray that one day I will meet these killers. I would be prepared to go anywhere. But am I going to ask them to hand themselves in? No. Am I going to put them on a guilt trip? No.

"I simply want to tell them about the Jesus that my dad loved and about the kingdom of heaven."

Four years after the shooting, Pastor Purse was approached in Belfast by a man who said he wanted to apologise to him over his father's killing.

He says: "I wondered if he was going to tell me he was one of the gunmen, but he said he had been in an RUC Land Rover that just happened to be passing Seaview when the shooting took place.

"He said the Land Rover gave chase to the gunmen's car and followed it into the New Lodge Road area where the terrorists escaped through the back of a house after jumping through a window.

"He told me he was sorry that they hadn't been able to catch the gang."

An off-duty UDR soldier who's still a Crusaders fan was at the game and ran onto the pitch after the shooting with his gun drawn.

"But he told me the killers were long gone by the time he got out onto the Shore Road," says David, who adds that the man became a Christian some time later at the Tabernacle. The pastor says his own faith was "challenged" by his father's murder, but he says he thanks God for his goodness, adding: "God used that situation to speak to an awful lot of people about their own need of salvation. The greatest thing in life isn't living, it's being ready for eternity."

The fact that David went on to succeed Pastor McConnell as the senior pastor at the Whitewell Tabernacle is remarkable.

"There's a picture somewhere of Pastor McConnell opening a forerunner to this church in April 1969 and a four-year-old boy in short trousers is walking behind him.

"That youngster is me and Pastor McConnell has said the photo was almost prophetic in that I would one day take over from him," says David, who discovered after his father's murder he'd been given aid for a trip to take him and his brother Mark to Anfield to see a match between Liverpool and Leeds United.

However, he was killed before he could spring his surprise on his sons, but the RUC arranged for the boys to go Liverpool only to find out that the game had been postponed because of snow.

David says: "The police took us the following day to see St Helen's rugby league team who had a whip round to pay for us to come back to see the Liverpool v Leeds game when it was re-arranged in mid-week in March. We got to meet the Liverpool players and the manager after the match which we won 3-0 and were also able to attend another match against Brighton on the Saturday. And we've also been St Helen's fans ever since."

For David the afternoon that his father was shot dead is etched forever in his heart as 'Black Saturday'.

But seven years later tragedy visited the Purses again when an uncle of his wife Donna was killed in the IRA's Poppy Day bombing in Enniskillen.

He says he's never had any dealings with members of Sinn Fein who supported the terrorists who murdered his father and his wife's uncle.

He adds: "I must admit it sticks in my throat when I hear certain politicians say there's no place in our society for guns and you feel like saying that's rich coming from you, it was okay for guns whenever you were the ones.

"But as I say I'm not perfect. I'm in a process towards perfection that will culminate when I die or Jesus comes again."

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