'We're now accepted in the heart of the Shankill and Falls... sometimes it's bewildering.'
Pastor Jack McKee has had more threats on his life in his time in the ministry than when he was a soldier, but it has not dampened his faith. By Lindy McDowell
Jack McKee MBE is Senior Pastor at the remarkable New Life City Church in Northumberland Street in Belfast. Situated smack bang on the peace-line, the church welcomes members from both sides of the community. Among the thousands who use it on a weekly basis (aside from the main auditorium, the church runs a pre-school playgroup, an afterschool club, parents and toddlers groups, a coffee shop, and an indoor 3G five-a-side soccer pitch) are former terrorists from both sides. One-time mortal enemies are now united in their shared faith. Here, Pastor McKee talks about his work in a divided and disadvantaged community, why he continues to bravely speak out against the paramilitary groups who have threatened to kill him, and how he believes the government tries to "buy" those groups.
Q. You spent your early years in Ballymurphy. Wasn't that unusual for a Protestant family?
A. I was born in 1952. My father, Tommy McKee, came from Sandy Row and my mother, Maggie, came from Brown's Square at the bottom of the Shankill. They'd moved to Ballymurphy around the time it was built. Ballymurphy was intended to be a mixed estate and there were Catholics and Protestants living in it at the beginning of the Fifties. We lived in Ballymurphy Parade and I remember having lots of friends who were both Catholics and Protestants.
Q. So why did your family leave Ballymurphy?
A. By about 1961 the Protestant community in Ballymurphy was almost non-existent. There were only two other Protestant families apart from ourselves still in that street. And then I remember a brick coming through the window. A note was tied on to it and it said, "Get out. IRA." Because of what was going on my parents did an exchange with a Catholic family in Brown's Square. The house in Ballymurphy was a good three-bedroom house with an inside bathroom and an inside toilet. The house in Brown's Square was a little kitchen house with an old jaw-box sink in what we called the scullery. It didn't have an inside bathroom. It had a tin bath hanging on a nail on the wall and an outside toilet. My father was a labourer all his life. It was very much a working class upbringing. But it was also a very happy childhood. I'll tell you what, we didn't have much, but the sense of family life was just incredible. The neighbours that we had, both in Ballymurphy and in Brown's Square, they were incredible. There was an old saying about the Brown's Square millionaires. They may have had nothing but they had each other and their sense of community. And what people did have they shared and they shared with each other.
Q. Your family were not church-goers so how did you come to be involved in the Elim church?
A. I went to Somerdale Secondary School on the Crumlin Road. I left at 15. We had no serious motivation to stay on at school or to go for higher education. I went to work in Halls brush factory as a despatch person. It was 10 years later that I went back into education and got O-levels and A-levels. Of the money I was earning, I was putting money into the house and anything left over I was gambling. From the age of 13, I was gambling on horses and dogs and football teams. I loved gambling and playing cards. I was approaching 16 when I was invited to a youth outreach in the local Elim church. And that was where I made a very conscious decision that I would become a follower of Christ.
Q. When the Troubles broke out though, you got involved in rioting?
A. Yes. My major challenge as a young Christian up until about 1969 was the likes of being called Moses and Joshua by my friends. But when it came to 1969 I faced the biggest challenge to my Christian commitment. Because when your streets are filled with people that are fighting - and Brown's Square was right in the middle of it - you don't go and hide until it's all over. I got very much involved in the riots. It was right on our doorstep. It wasn't that I hated Catholics. I had Catholic friends. It wasn't that we hated each other. But suddenly we were fighting each other in the middle of the street. There are people coming to attack your street. To burn down your houses. So the response was, it's either us or it's them. Eventually the Protestant paramilitaries began to emerge. I'd family members, friends, neighbours joining paramilitary groups, guys I'd gone to school with, guys I'd worked with. I knew I couldn't go down that road. That was a bridge too far for me. As a committed Christian I would not in any way entertain the idea of joining a paramilitary group. But I also felt that I had to do something because I saw the IRA as a threat to Northern Ireland's existence so I joined the UDR in 1972. Almost every day you were hearing about people getting killed, bombs going off. Those were very difficult years. I lost some very good friends, some very close friends. It was bad enough to lose someone who was in your unit but it was even worse to lose friends. I'd joined the UDR in February '72 and I got married in November '72 to Kathleen. We'd known each other for quite a few years before that. We have one son and two daughters. Our son Johnny is now 42. Chara is 39 and Paula is 36. And between them, we have seven grandchildren.
Q. You'd been in the UDR for five years in the Seventies before going to study at the Elim Bible College in Surrey. That must have been a bit of a culture shock?
A. It absolutely was. We'd been living in a council house in Denmark Street and we sold everything we had in that house to try to raise the fees to get us through Bible college. When we arrived at Bible college we had one wooden box and inside that box was everything we had in the world. We just sat and cried. At first we just wanted to go home. But we decided we'd stick it out to Christmas and then come home. And then back home we decided to give it another go until Easter and that was how we got through the two years, coming home, going back. Our first churches - they gave us two churches - were Rathfriland Elim and Moneyslane, which is about six miles from Rathfriland. When they told us Rathfriland we thought they'd said Rathlin Island. We had no idea where Rathfriland was. We had to get a map to find out. We were city people and that was a bigger culture shock for us than even going to Bible college had been.
Q. What brought you back to Belfast?
A. Even when I was at Bible college I always had it in my mind that maybe 15/20 years down the line I'd get the chance to be a pastor in Belfast. But after only two-and-a-half years in Rathfriland I got the invitation to come back to the city, to Ballysillan church, and I grasped it with both hands. I was so delighted and excited. We were there for 10 years from 1982 to 1992. During those years we saw some incredible work at Ballysillan. We had to extend the buildings and bring in extra seats. We were seeing great work done and we were seeing the work grow.
Q. What prompted you to buy the old Stadium Centre on the Shankill?
A. In 1989 my wife was reading the paper, she had it spread out on the floor, and she said to me, "Jackie, the Stadium's for sale." And I thought to myself, "So what?" But for some reason over the next few days I just couldn't get it out of my head. I made inquiries and it just grew out of that. That led to us raising the money to buy the Stadium. And we made that Stadium Centre the heart and soul of the Shankill community. We were there for 10 years and we had so many people coming into it every day and every night. We did a lot of work with young people who had been caught up with paramilitaries and drugs. That was probably the starting point of me becoming a thorn in the flesh of the paramilitary groups. I was encouraging young people to leave the paramilitaries or not to join them in the first place.
Q. Your life has been threatened many times and your home attacked, yet you bravely continue to speak out against paramilitaries. What motivates you?
A. One of the worst things that had happened when I was in Ballysillan was the murder of a young man of 17, a shining light in our church and a close friend of my son. He'd been murdered by republicans. But that brought out an anger in me against all paramilitaries. So, when we developed youth groups at the Stadium, what was very much in my heart was to distract young people from the paramilitaries. That's very much been my life. I've been sentenced to death several times both by the UDA and the UVF. When I was in the UDR, the IRA had tried to kill me and my friend. They put a bomb under my car to try to kill us both. That failed. But they shot my friend dead some time after that. There was another time when an IRA man came after me and fired several shots at me but missed every shot. Yet looking back I can say I've had more threats on my life and more attempts on my life as a pastor than I ever did as a soldier. I live in the community and I work in the community and speaking out against the UDA and the UVF or against organisations that are based in your own community, that's more difficult than speaking against the IRA.
Q. Are you concerned the grip that the paramilitaries have on both communities shows no sign of weakening?
A. I'm concerned that 20 years on from the signing of the [Good Friday] Agreement we still have the gates that are closed every night, we still have the division that exists between the two communities and the paramilitaries still exist on both sides and, in many respects, have morphed more into criminal gangs. There was a time when paramilitaries on both sides had respect and support in their own communities. People felt that they needed the paramilitaries to protect them. But that's all gone. The paramilitaries that once protected their communities are now among the worst in inflicting pain on those communities and, tragically, death in many cases. Drugs are a major problem. At one time paramilitaries were the main barrier to drugs coming in but unfortunately paramilitary members supported by their organisations are now some of the biggest drug dealers. There are younger men coming into the paramilitaries and I'm concerned that there are those who will want to open up another chapter of violence. Every time I hear there's been a raid and people have been arrested I'm glad because I think that makes a bit of a dent in those who might want to go back to the conflict. I'm more optimistic than pessimistic but I do think there are those who would want to take us back to the bad old days. I think that politics is more polarised today than ever. And I think that when you've got that polarisation in politics, it creates a vacuum and there are others who are quite prepared to step into that vacuum. And that's where the danger is.
Q. Do you think the authorities are doing enough to combat the paramilitaries?
A. It is politically expedient for those in authority to turn a blind eye to certain activities. I was told by a very senior politician that one of the reasons why government is not throwing money where we're at - and we are in desperate need of funds - is that they don't need to 'buy' us. They already have us. But when it comes to other organisations they don't have them, so they need to buy them in. It's shocking.
Q. Your present church, New Life City Church, straddles the peace line in Northumberland Street. While you oppose paramilitary groups, it has welcomed former paramilitaries from both sides. How did that come about?
A. We're reaching out to the whole community and we're prepared to help anyone who comes to us. In our church we have quite a number of men from paramilitary backgrounds on both sides. We bought the building in 2006 and moved in, in 2009. We get visitors coming in who waken us up to the reality of what we're doing. Can you imagine a church in Jerusalem straddling the dividing wall between Jews and Palestinians? We're here everyday so to us it isn't a big deal but visitors are absolutely blown away by it.
Q. And how do you feel about your son, Jonathan, who's also a pastor in your church, following in your footsteps?
A. I am absolutely 100% proud of him. He has had his own journey. He's not riding on my coat tails. He has an incredible understanding, particularly of young people. He did a funeral recently of a young girl who had taken her own life. Over 1,000 people were there. How he was able to respond to what had happened and to communicate to those who were there made me so proud. I only hope that he never has to go down the road that I've had to go down in terms of being outspoken against paramilitaries and drug dealers. That shouldn't be part of his future and I hope it's not.
Q. What are the big issues you face in the area on a daily basis?
A. 2018 has been a particularly bad year on the Shankill Road. We've had so many deaths to suicide, deaths to drugs. Each case is obviously different. There are, of course, mental illness issues for some. Suicide is seen as an option now the way it wouldn't have been, say, 20 years ago. Social media puts so much stuff out there as well. For some I do know, though, that it's down to debt for drugs. I know for a fact that some have taken their own lives because they owe money to paramilitaries
Q. Do you feel other churches are doing enough?
A. In the past I was on record as saying that I believed the churches in general had failed the communities during the whole conflict. And I have to say, I don't see a great improvement. There are some churches that are doing incredible work. There are churches on the Shankill Road that are doing incredible work. But mostly I think the churches are failing the community.
Q. What would you say has been your biggest achievement?
A. Developing the outreach that we have now. Both church and community outreach. The church, I believe, should always be a part of the community - not to dictate, not to judge but to be there for the people regardless of what they've gone through. We're in the position now where we're accepted in the heart of both the Shankill and the Falls communities and it's drawn people together in both communities in ways that I never imagined. Sometimes it's absolutely bewildering. There was one day in our coffee shop - we'd have over 400 people in our coffee shop every single day - and there were eight of us just sitting round the table, just talking. And then it dawned on me - one, me, was ex-UDR, one was ex-RUC, there were two ex-UDA/UFF, there was ex-UVF, there was one ex-PIRA and one ex-Official IRA all sitting around in that same circle. We didn't orchestrate it. We were just friends, just sitting having a coffee and talking to each other. I remember a few years ago Arlene Foster saying how she dreamed of a place where people could sit together and drink coffee together without fear of threat or intimidation. Arlene, we're living your dream here.