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'Religion that has been used to incite fear and divide communities has dealt terrible damage to NI... but there's no hurt too deep that God's love and grace cannot heal'

In conversation with John McGrath

Building bridges: John McGrath with wife Hannah and daughter Abigail
Building bridges: John McGrath with wife Hannah and daughter Abigail
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

John McGrath is a law graduate, legal assistant and young leader in the Church of Ireland, who spoke at the recent retirement service for Bishop Harold Miller in Down Cathedral.

Q. Can you tell us something about yourself?

A. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1994. My mother died shortly after giving birth to me, so I was taken in by the Kenyan authorities. Mercifully, I was placed in the care of New Life Home, a children's home run by English missionaries Clive and Mary Beckenham.

I was initially fostered by an American couple until I was 10-months-old. They had a ministry of fostering new-born children. However, they never had the view to adopt me, or make the foster placement permanent. By the grace of God, I was adopted at 10-months by Ken and Annette McGrath, both from Belfast, but living in Kenya at the time. Dad was working as a head teacher in a school in Nairobi, while my mum was working in the school as well. My dad is now a Church of Ireland minister, serving in Holywood, and my mother is the communications officer for the Diocese of Down and Dromore. I have one sister, Charlotte, who is a barista with ambitions of a career in art and design.

I am married to Hannah, who is originally from Florida, and we have a beautiful daughter, Abigail Irene. We live in the Cliftonville area of north Belfast. I studied law at Queen's University Belfast and now work in the city centre as a legal assistant with a view to studying at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies next year to complete my professional training as a solicitor.

Q. How did you come to faith?

A. I was raised and shaped by the vibrant and dynamic faith of my parents. They modelled the virtues of faith beautifully. However, I made a conscious decision to follow Jesus for myself at the age of 14, following a sharp rebuke from my sister for some bad behaviour in school.

My faith and my life are one and the same. My faith led me to marry my wife, who was doing missionary work in Rostrevor at the time. Faith compelled our family to move beyond my Protestant background and find a new home in a predominantly nationalist community in Belfast. Faith compels me in my work with refugees and asylum seekers.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

A. I had a prolonged personal crisis upon my return to Northern Ireland after living in the Middle East for some months. I was deeply wounded emotionally by experiencing the plight of the Syrian refugees I worked with in the Lebanon. Additionally, the often cruel system of indentured servitude in the Arab world, known as the "Kafala system", was particularly difficult to witness. This was a watershed moment in my spiritual life. Through prayer and family support, I have found much healing, but I struggle to this day.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God?

A. God's presence has often been the place where I have felt permission to be angry. Much of my anger around my early years and the lack of information I have about my birth mother/family has been directed towards God. However, Jesus has always found a way to transform my deepest pain into the source of my energy to love and serve.

Q. Have you ever been criticised for your faith?

A. I would be criticised more if I was braver to be more like Christ.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church?

A. I am ashamed of the Church's failure to prioritise the poor and speak up for those who have been marginalised. The Church has preferred the prayers of the privileged for some time. I am ashamed of our lack of mercy for the broken and bruised in Northern Ireland today. The impact of Universal Credit, the alarming number of suicides and the growing drug problem are areas where I see the Church has been reticent to move in love.

Q. Are you afraid of death?

A. I am afraid to die, because I am afraid of what I do not know and what I cannot control. I hope death provides the opportunity to ask what all this has been about.

Q. Are you worried about hell?

A. Heaven and hell are much more about present realities than future events to me. When I see justice, grace, forgiveness and love without conditions, I see heaven; when I see those struggling in addiction, shame, violence and sickness, I see a living hell.

Q. Do you believe in the resurrection?

A. I believe in resurrection, because it is axiomatic in the very rhythm of the universe. All things must die to truly live. For me, that has been self-evident in marriage, parenthood and ministry. To truly be a good husband and father, I must die to my own selfish desires and wishes, so that I may live a life not for myself, but for others. I hope my greatest visions of resurrection fall utterly short of what really lies ahead.

Q. What do you think about people of other faiths, or denominations?

A. I have been richly blessed to have many friends/spiritual guides from the Catholic faith. They have taught me so much about prayer, family, faith, joy and love.

I believe that dialogue and respect give us a chance to learn deeply from each other. I have also been struck by the kindness of the Catholic community to my family and me.

Q. Would you be capable of stepping out from your own faith and learning something from someone else?

A. In my experience in Northern Ireland, Church has often become a middle-class pastime, detached from the realities of poverty, poor mental health, isolation, trauma and many of the other realities of our society. We have sanitised much of the Gospel, or even sometimes manipulated it, to suit political and person ambition. I believe the Church must champion and cultivate real community between classes, offer hope to the hopeless and enter prayerfully and humbly into the many diverse worlds that make up Northern Ireland.

Q. Why are people turning away from religion?

A. They are doing so for several reasons. Firstly, since the Enlightenment, much emphasis has been placed on trusting what can be proved empirically, or explained rationally. If something cannot be quantified, ratified, or observed easily, it's hard for the modern, Western-centric mind to believe it. This means that any belief in a transcendent, immaterial reality, or god, does not sit easily within the modern, Western, rational-thinking mind.

Also, the Church in the West has faced a litany of abuse scandals, cover-ups and compromises. I believe this has given many people cause to abandon religious institutions entirely.

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

A. I believe that the blend of ethno-religious problems has hindered Northern Ireland. I think that what the Book of James calls "pure religion", which is feeding the hungry, caring for widows and defending orphans has been practiced - and is still being practiced - in Northern Ireland. This work is to be celebrated and encouraged.

Religion that has been used to incite fear, divide communities and exalt individuals has dealt terrible damage to Northern Ireland. However, I believe that there is no hurt too deep that the love and grace of God cannot heal.

Q. What is your favourite book, movie and music, and why?

A. My favourite books are the Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien. I love Tolkien's epic, because it beautifully illustrates how the least and most easily passed over (in this case the Hobbits) are those who persist and triumph over evil. My favourite film is The Great Escape. I've always wanted to be as cool as Steve McQueen. I think The Great Escape speaks to the unceasing endeavour of the human spirit. When we are faced with seemingly impossible situations, there is a creativity and resolve in the human spirit that also rises to face whatever obstacles are opposing us.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. I feel closest to God when I play, or listen to, music, or spend quality time with my wife and daughter.

Q. What is your greatest regret?

A. My major regret is that I have struggled to be honest with others. This has been to my own detriment.

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