Rev Ivan McElhinney was a former Donegal farmer who later became President of the Methodist Church in Ireland. His recently published autobiography is entitled The Fugitive Moment: From Hill Shepherd to Holy Calling.
Q. Can you tell me something about your background?
A. I am 75 and my early background was on a small farm in Donegal. My parents were George and Sadie McElhinney and my siblings, Adrian, Charlotte and Irene. My wife of almost 50 years is Phyllis and our family is Mark, Robert and Andrew. All are married and we have seven grandchildren.
My initial education was at a local county primary school and Donegal vocational school. I owned my first ram lamb at primary school and grew vegetables for sale door to door in Donegal town. That gave me my first pocket money.
After my schooling, I spent three years on the home farm in the hills of Donegal. Life was tough, especially in bad weather, when crops could be spoiled and you could have bad luck with livestock as well. I lived on the meagre income from the sheep and vegetables. I then went to work with at the Magees of Donegal tweed factory for a year before going to college in England.
Q. How did you come to faith?
A. I had a distinct conversion experience on January 24, 1965. My parents and family played no direct part in this. I think that a sense of call to ordained ministry was with me all my life, but you could say that it “exploded” with my evangelical conversion. The best door of opportunity that ever opened for me was Cliff College in Derbyshire, leaving me with the academic qualifications which I needed as a candidate for the ministry.
Q. What happened next?
A. My ministerial training was completed in the West Indies and I was ordained by the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas. It was exciting to work and to be ordained there. The context was different. The Irish sectarian divide was irrelevant and I was to learn about the real meaning of poverty. I worked there for several years and led evangelistic missions in various parts of the Caribbean region. I returned to Ireland and spent my ministry in west Fermanagh, Ballynahinch, Glengormley, Mountpottinger and Joanmount. I had the high privilege of being elected Methodist President for the year 2006-2007.
Q. What is Christmas like in the Caribbean?
A. Christmas is lively and colourful throughout that area. In the dreadful days of slavery, Christmas Day was the only annual holiday allowed to slaves and the tradition of dressing up in African costumes to dance in the streets grew up. It is carried on, with local variations, to the present time and the music and spectacle is amazing. The Caribbean candlelight service is based on the seven-branched candlestick of the Book of Revelation, with robed choral processions. Everyone holds a lighted candle during the last hymn and the benediction.
Q. After your retirement here you went back to Jamaica?
A. Yes. It was the same vocation that had always motivated me which took me back, as I felt that I wanted to give the West Indies whatever energy I had left. I spent 15 months there in a hilly pastoral charge and also took part in evangelistic missions and preacher training.
When I finally returned from Jamaica, I thought that I should turn back to my roots as a “son of the soil” and cultivate a fruit and vegetable garden and help to raise funds for childcare in Jamaica. I make it clear that I am not selling produce, but if anyone cares to make a donation that I would glad take donations.
Q. What part has your faith played in all of this?
A. My faith has been the major determining factor in my life since my conversion. I have never had a crisis of faith, or doubt about the validity of the Christian doctrine, and I have never been angry with God, mainly because I keep the cross at the centre of my faith.
Q. Have you ever been criticised for your faith?
A. Criticism for my faith has been minimal and has never been a problem. The only shame I have felt about my denomination has been over the behaviour of a few individual Methodists.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. No. I am not afraid of death and I look beyond it with hope. I have no fear of hellfire and I believe in the resurrection to the life eternal. I regard it as a mystery to live with in anticipation.
Q. What about people of other denominations and faiths?
A. I think of them as fellow Christians and people of other faiths as those with whom I have faith in common. I have engaged in inter-faith dialogue for many years and I am always comfortable with it.
Q. Are the Churches here fulfilling their mission?
A. The Churches are sincerely trying to fulfill their mission in an increasingly complex and difficult situation. Insofar as religion has taken the form of sectarian division, it has hindered Northern Ireland, but insofar as it has provided the impetus for love and reconciliation, it has been helpful.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. The film Ben Hur has remained in my mind since my teens, because of its sheer drama. The autobiography of Nelson Mandela testifies to the faith of a good man amid great evil. Handel’s Messiah says it all for Christian and biblical faith.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. In my own front living room, where I pray for about an hour each morning.
Q. What will be the message on your gravestone?
A. It will be marked by my full name and by the years of my birth and death.
Q. Have you any major regrets?
A. I am happy to record that I have no major regrets.
** Rev McElhinney’s autobiography, The Fugitive Moment: From Hill Shepherd to Holy Calling, is published by Cedric Wilson Books