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Rev Jim Rea: 'In the Shankill area, where I work, the community is still recovering and broken from the legacy of the past'


Mission founder: Rev Jim Rea

Mission founder: Rev Jim Rea

Mission founder: Rev Jim Rea

Rev Jim Rea was president of the Methodist Church in Ireland from 2003 to 2004. He is retired, but helps part-time at Shankill and Woodvale Methodist churches in Belfast. He has been married to Carol for 49 years and they've two daughters and a son and six grandchildren.

Q Can you tell us something about your background?

A I was born in 1945 and brought up in humble beginnings in north Belfast in a two-up, two-down house in Ottawa Street in the Woodvale/Shankill area. My parents were Billy and Peggy Rea. I have one sister, Pearl. I have been married to Carol for over 49 years and we have two daughters and a son: Judith, Barbara and Jonathan. They are all married and we have six grandchildren. I went to Mayo Street and St Mark's primary schools and then to Everton Secondary School. Failing the 11-plus, I somehow ceased to value education and left school at 15. Since then, I've always been on an educational catch-up. Having an aunt and a great-aunt who were Catholics caused me to resist sectarianism from those early days.

At around 18-years-old, I felt a call to the Methodist ministry through the influence of the late Rev Sydney Callaghan. I worked for seven years in various jobs, including as a supervisor in Magee's clothing factory on the Donegall Road. I studied in the evenings. I entered Edgehill College to train for the Methodist ministry. Later, I worked in east Belfast for 21 years and brought into being the East Belfast Mission. Many who sought help had alcohol-related problems. I decided to research the relationship between religious experience and recovery from alcoholism and gained a Master's degree at the University of Oxford. I have recently written a book, entitled Stories from the Streets. It was sponsored and has sold well. So far, it has allowed me to donate £10,000 to two homeless charities. It seeks to communicate the Gospel in accessible language.

Q How did you come to faith?

A I was nurtured in the Christian faith in the mission halls which my parents attended. Ultimately, when we moved to Ballysillan in north Belfast, we attended the Elim Church and, at 14, after a Watchnight Service, I prayed and sought to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. This was an important moment in a journey that never ceases to fill me with wonder. Later, I was drawn to Methodism. I was attracted by their evangelistic and social emphasis and by the impact of the 18th-century Methodist revival.

Q Have you ever been angry with God?

A My mother always told me never to question God. In contrast, reading many of the Old Testament writers, there is regular doubt and dismay about what is happening to them. I am never angry with God, but I do struggle when I see people who have so much more to offer being struck down early in life with cancer. I am deeply troubled by the suffering of the innocent in many parts of the world.

Q How do you react to criticism of your faith?

A When my personal beliefs are criticised by those who disagree with me, I accept that. However, if I fail someone pastorally, or feel I could have done more for them, then I become reflective and self-critical.

Q Are you afraid to die?

A Twice, I thought I might die. I had a heart attack in 2003 and, in 2008, I had a crisis with a neurological condition called myasthenia gravis. Leaving those I love was an issue, but dying? No. I believe in the confident hope that, for the Christian, as St Paul says, "To be with Christ is better by far".

Q Are you worried by hell?

A While hell is not an easy concept, the scriptures hold in tension God's mercy and God's judgement. We live in an age where there is little fear of God. While there may be no judgement in this life for the evil-doer, there is the ultimate accountability on a day to come. For all, repentance is essential in receiving God's forgiveness and inheriting the joy of eternal life.

My great comfort are the words written by St Peter, reflecting the nature of God: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."

Q Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?

A The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme miracle since creation. The fact that Jesus is alive means that we can have a transforming living relationship with him in this life. Many scholars have researched the authenticity of the resurrection, concluding that the witness of the early disciples, the Gospel records and the massive expansion of Christianity in the first century until the present time cannot be dismissed. If we don't believe in the resurrection, faith and forgiveness, then the promise of eternal life is of no account. At the cross, Jesus defeated death and rose again. If I did not believe this, I would stop preaching the greatest news that never ceases to thrill me.

Q What do you think about people of other faiths?

A Everyone is created by God. So, whatever their religion, or ethnicity, I want to listen, learn and offer the hand of friendship.

Q Are the Churches here fulfilling their mission?

A There are wonderful examples of great work being done by a variety of denominations, which often receive little publicity. I observe that, sometimes, Churches stay too much in their own comfort zone. We are Christians only, not the only Christians. It's not about building empires, but rather about building the Kingdom of God. I recall hearing the South African evangelist Michael Cassidy tell how Christians came together in sports stadiums at the end of apartheid to pray. It brought great unity. Unity in diversity and not uniformity. Things can change when we work together with one aim in mind. The Churches in Northern Ireland can often be perceived as being in competition, which is ultimately unhealthy. I recall the words of John Wesley: "If your heart is right with my heart, give me your hand."

Q Why are some people turning their backs on organised religion?

A On a Sunday evening in the Twenties, my grandfather, Davy McCaughrin, attended Townsend Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast. It held around 1,500 people and he needed to get there half-an-hour early to obtain a seat. He worked a 48-hour week in the shipyard and was too tired to attend a Sunday morning service.

It was a different world: no electricity, no TV, no telephone, poor living conditions and no social media. Church and an Irish League football match were the highlights of his week. So, it may not always have been about spirituality. There is certainly a falling away from Christianity in this country. People who go to church now want to be there. So, perhaps we are thinner and fitter. The Church often, rightly, has had some bad Press. In the Shankill area, where I do some work, the community is still broken and recovering from the legacy of the past and the Churches find them difficult to reach.

Q Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?

A On occasions, people have been hurt in Churches, feeling excluded and unwelcome. However, I am constantly coming across broken people, people with addictions, former paramilitaries, people from dysfunctional backgrounds, whose lives have been transformed by the Gospel and by the support they find in a local church.

Without mentioning names, there are several Church people who have stood above the parapet and given leadership, often standing out against the inherited evil of sectarianism that blights this community. If we don't learn from our history, we are bound to repeat it.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A When I have the incredible privilege of leading a congregation in worship.

Q What is your favourite film, book and music?

A The film is Marvellous. Neil Baldwin (Toby Jones), a man with learning difficulties, who has worked as a circus clown and then as kit-man at Stoke City FC, shares stories from his life. The book? Anything written by Alastair McGrath or RT Kendall. Music? Brass bands and, particularly, Salvation Army music.

Q Have you any regrets?

A Falling short of what I should be. As for my ministry, I wish I could turn the clock back and do it all again.

Q What is your favourite quote?

A This is from Corrie ten Boom: "Is prayer your steering wheel, or your spare tyre?"

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A The one on my parents' headstone: "Redeemed."

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