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Rev Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley on finally forgiving IRA gunmen who murdered his father

Rev Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley, who was just two when his father was shot, tells Stephanie Bell his faith has sustained him and how he learned that his father, Colin, had also wanted to be a minister


Jonathan with his late dad Colin and mum Carolyn

Jonathan with his late dad Colin and mum Carolyn

Jonathan with his late dad Colin and mum Carolyn

A Belfast minister has told how faith helped him to finally forgive the IRA men who shot his father dead when he was just two years old. Rev Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley (34) still has the tickets to the circus which his father Colin Abernethy took him to a week before he was murdered in 1988.


Jonathan's late dad Colin

Jonathan's late dad Colin

Jonathan's late dad Colin

The trauma of his loss stayed with Jonathan throughout his childhood and he believes, shaped the man he is today.

Serving with the Presbyterian Church, he had just taken up a new post in Manchester weeks before the Covid crisis hit.

Now alone in isolation he is missing visits back to see his mum, Carolyn (56), Sister Laura (31) and stepdad Sam Barkley in Belfast.

He admits that life as a rector and single man in lockdown is proving tough: "It's been a real challenge. I moved here in January full of great ideas and then suddenly this massive panic button was hit.

"I was just getting to know my congregation so it has been difficult, but my message is that the church is not closed, it just looks different.


Colin Abernethy’s funeral service at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in 1988

Colin Abernethy’s funeral service at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in 1988

Colin Abernethy’s funeral service at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in 1988

"I am streaming Sunday services live on Facebook and posting a 'thought for the day' every day.

"As a minister you are supposed to be a rock for everyone else but I have to admit that actually you can also have a bit of a wobble and it's not easy.

"Being single I have to fend for myself on all fronts as well on top of trying to stay strong for everyone else.

"Being away from family and friends and not being able to enjoy a simple embrace or hug is very hard.

"Mum sends me parcels in the post from Northern Ireland with things I miss from home including my favourite orange Smarties which I look forward to.

"She sent me a card recently with a squirt of her perfume on it so that I had that mummy smell in my nose, which was really sweet and left me a bit weepy as it was a very kind gesture."


Jonathan today

Jonathan today

Jonathan today

His mum Carolyn has been his rock since their world was torn apart by the brutal murder of his dad.

She was just 24 years old and six months pregnant with Jonathan's younger sister Laura when her husband left for work in Belfast and never returned.

Colin (29), who worked for NIE, had boarded a busy rush hour train at Lisburn and was killed as the train arrived at Finaghy, where his killers fled and have never been apprehended.

His family had been looking forward to celebrating his 30th birthday.

The loss has haunted them ever since and even though Jonathan was only two years old it had a profound effect on him

He says: "Dad was soon to turn 30 and as a family we were looking forward to celebrating that.


Jonathan (second right) with stepdad Sam Barkley, mum Carolyn and sister Laura

Jonathan (second right) with stepdad Sam Barkley, mum Carolyn and sister Laura

Jonathan (second right) with stepdad Sam Barkley, mum Carolyn and sister Laura

"The week before he died we had all been to the circus and they found the tickets in his pocket when he was killed and I still have them. That was our last outing as a family.

"My only experience of cake and people and cards before that was on birthdays and during the wake I was going round wishing everyone a happy birthday.

"It must have been traumatic for my mum. It couldn't have been easy as she was six months pregnant and dad was a devoted family man.

"She became my rock and inspiration. She is someone who has always put other people first and always taught me and my sister to seize the day as life is not a dress rehearsal.

"I feel that it really has formed the person I am and I think it if had not occurred my life would have been completely different.

"I think experiencing hurt as a young person helps you to develop emotional intelligence a lot quicker. It teaches you that while people can be amazing and wonderful, they can also cause hurt and pain too."


Jonathan preaching

Jonathan preaching

Jonathan preaching

Growing up in a single-parent family was difficult for Jonathan as it was a rarity in the Eighties and made him feel out of place.

As a child he found solace in attending church and from an early age wanted to become a minister.

He was later delighted to learn that it was also an ambition of his fathers who was an active member of his local church, St John's Presbyterian in Suffolk where he served as warden.

He recalls: "Family members would have me and my sister to church to give mum a break and I found a whole other community there and a place of welcome.

"My minister was Rev Ruth Patterson who was a hero of mine and I suppose I must have been an incredibly irritating child, as I would come home from church to say to my mother 'let us pray'.

"It became clear to me at a young age that was the direction my life was going to go in.

"Also in Sunday school when I was eight I had this teacher Ronnie Mud who was a kind and gentle man who always had time for everyone and I remember thinking I wanted a little bit of what he had.

"I had made the decision to become a minister myself but later learned that dad wanted to be a minister.

"My uncle sent me a bible that had belonged to my dad and in it I found a letter in which he wrote about wanting to become a minister which was quite poignant."

His faith also helped him to learn about forgiveness although he confesses that it was many years before he enjoyed the peace of being able to forgive the men who killed his father.

He explains: "For a long time I was thinking about forgiving the people who killed my dad. I don't even know who did it as no one ever admitted to it and I struggled with how to forgive an invisible person!

"I could have walked past my father's killer hundreds of times and I would never have known.

"I did struggle with forgiveness as my dad missed all these landmark occasions - my 18th birthday, my graduation, leaving high school - and all those things would bring the hurt back to the surface.

"Even at university I was still trying to work through what forgiveness could and should look like.

"Now I'm at a place when I can be comfortable saying I have forgiven whoever that person was who fired that gun. When I encounter a Jesus who could forgive even those who inflicted real pain on him at his crucifixion then how can I not forgive and keep forgiving."

Jonathan studied for at Queen's University for a degree in Scholastic Philosophy and Politics and later did a post grad in events and public relations in Dublin.

He first applied to become a minister at the age of 21 but was told he was too young and needed to get some life experience first.

He got a job in events management and PR in Dublin, organising charity balls and parties and enjoying a 'sparkle and champagne' lifestyle.

He finally trained as a Presbyterian minister at Union College at Queen's University when he was 28.

His first posting was as assistant minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, known for its peace and reconciliation work.

He then spent four years as a rector in Scotland before taking up his current post in Manchester in January. Throughout his career he has had the support not just of his mum but of his stepdad Sam who came into his life when he was 16.

While at first he struggled to adapt to having a new father figure in his life, he now adores his stepdad so much so that he took on his surname.

He says: "Sam to me is the gift of a second dad. He is really lovely and he didn't have to love us, he chose to be part of the life my mum created.

"It wasn't easy at the start as I was used to having one parent but he has now been part of my life for half of my life and I wanted to show how much he means to me by taking on his surname and making mine double barrelled."

As well as his work Jonathan loves to read and is currently studying for a PHD on how faith impacts people who experience abuse as a child.

He also enjoys working out in his local gym and during lockdown has been trying to maintain his fitness while at home.

He adds: "l think a lot of the time people assume ministers must only pray and read the Bible - but of course we are entitled to lead full lives.

"My whole philosophy has always been about trying to lead an authentic life. Being a minister is obviously a huge part of my life, but it isn't all of who l am. l still have lots of friends who I went to school with and I love going to the cinema or going out for a drink."

Jonathan’s top five reads for lockdown

Michael Cashman, One of Those - "Made me laugh and cry and left me unable to put it down"

Ken Newell, Captured by a Vision - "His life story of what reconciliation looks like"

Suzie Boyt, My Judy Garland Life - "Who doesn't need a bit of escape and a trip down the yellow brick road!"

Henri Nowen, The Wounded Healer - "Which reminds that healing cam come from sharing the scares in life"

Hiliary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light - "Because let's face it in lockdown there is time to read something of length"

Belfast Telegraph