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What my faith means to me

Ahead of Easter Sunday tomorrow, Laurence White speaks to four prominent NI Christians about why their beliefs are so important to them

Vi Dawson
Vi Dawson
Andrew Kerr
Norman Lynas
Nuala O'Loan

Vi Dawson is a contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Ulster: Vi Dawson admits that her faith was "like an anchor" when her husband, George, a DUP MLA, died at the young age of 45. The East Antrim representative, a businessman, was regarded as a potential minister in the Northern Ireland Executive when the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to share power.

Surely his death must have tested the faith of the Ballymena schoolteacher and member of the Free Presbyterian Church?

"I am not taking away from the difficulty of that time in 2007, or the sadness or sorrow, but if you know the character of the one in whom you trust and you know that his character is kind and loving and compassionate and that he has promised that all things work together for good, then you have to trust him," says Vi.

"Faith is not about understanding, but trusting when you don't understand. It is like when I go to take my granddaughter, Holly, somewhere. She puts her hand in mine because she trusts me, even though she doesn't know where she is going.

"I trust the Heavenly Father. If he would send his son to Earth to die for me and perform such an act of love, he would never allow anything to come across my path that was not for my good and glory.

"However, I must stress that I am not taking away from the death of my husband. It was very difficult and very sad, but my faith was like an anchor. I was fortunate I had a teaching job - I am now principal of that same school - so I was able to provide for my daughters, Emma and Sara."

Vi, who will be 55 next month, is originally from Rathfriland. Her parents were both members of the Free Presbyterian Church, and Vi describes both daughters as Christians. Asked about how important her faith is to her, she turns the question around.

"People often ask me that, but the thing that is important is the one in whom I have faith. The Lord's hold on me is never weak or wavering. My faith in him is the most important thing in my life," she explains.

For Viv, Easter is a special time for Christians to remember what Jesus suffered.

"He died for our sins and took the punishment that was due for us," she stresses.

"The resurrection is particularly important. Because he defeated death, we have not just a hope, but the certain hope that carries us through life on Earth to Heaven above."

Many people know Vi through her Thought for the Day comments on Radio Ulster.

"I consider it a great privilege to be asked to do that and I am always very conscious of the number of people I am speaking to in the morning," she says.

"I would pray a lot before writing for Thought for the Day and am conscious that the message I would put across is one that the Lord would give me, not just my own thoughts.

"At the end of the day, the people listening, especially Christians, know that it is only the Lord's word that can give comfort and help.

"The thoughts of Vi Dawson are of no use to anyone."

Baroness O'Loan was the first Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman from 1999 to 2007

Tonight is the favourite night of the year for former Police Ombudsman Baroness (Nuala) O'Loan.

The devout Catholic says: "The Easter Vigil is a wonderful night. It is the night when we pass through the shadow of the cross and come to the resurrection. To me, it is a night of affirmation and a very wonderful moment as we go into a new time when Christ has risen.

"It is my favourite night of the year."

She stresses that faith is of the utmost importance to her.

"It has a profound importance in my life.

"I feel that we are here on Earth to serve God and here on Earth to go back to God.

"The prophet Micah said, 'This is what the Lord asks of you: act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God.' That is what I try to do."

She agrees that faith can be a solace or strength in hard times. "We all have times that are profoundly difficult, even in our professional lives, when we may face real challenges.

"Those are the times that the fact I am blessed with faith has been a huge solace to me.

"Everyone has those times when someone you love dies, or you see people suffering terribly from diseases like cancer.

“I remember a friend of mine dying from cancer. It is hard to see someone suffer, yet you know that there is life after death. I have felt that my faith has help me up in the bad times.

“Sometimes, we find it difficult to pray on our own. Then it can be a comfort to be in the company of others and to listen to them praying until the time arrives when you can go back to prayer. I believe the family of the Church is profoundly important.

“There are times when we walk with others in their pain and times when they walk with us when we are suffering.”

Although Baroness O’Loan came from a Catholic family, they were not overtly religious. She was sent to Catholic schools and it was there that she came to a strong faith “from people I met on the journey”. “I try to love God and everyone I meet. Some of the people I meet are a little harder to love than others,” she says.

Baroness O’Loan admits that, initially, her religion caused some difficulty when she was appointed Police Ombudsman.

“When I was appointed it became known that I was a Catholic,” she explains.

“Some people had assumptions about me as a consequence, even other Catholics. Initially, there were question marks hanging over me because I was going in to investigate the police.

“However, when we got up to speed and when we showed we were there for everyone, it became less of an issue.

“It was obvious at the beginning there were some people who were suspicious of me. Perhaps that feeling remained for a few, but it largely passed.

“I tried to act justly and to follow the law and act for everyone who came to my office. It was a very difficult role.

“The ethos of the office was to find out the evidence, say only what you can show to be true based on that evidence, and I think that is what we did.”

Baroness O’Loan writes a weekly column for The Irish Catholic newspaper. It is not a role she chose.

“I had spoken at a conference and someone came up and asked me if I would like to write a column,” she says. “It is not something that you seek out, as it means quite a bit of work, but it is a privilege to be able to reach a wider audience with whatever thoughts I have in that column.”

The Rev Andrew Kerr worked as  a surgeon before retraining as a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church

Rev Andrew Kerr, pastor of Knockbracken Reformed Presbyterian Church in Belfast, candidly admits that life as a clergyman was the furthest thing from his mind when he was growing up.

The 52-year-old came from a family steeped in medicine — his father was a GP who had also trained in pharmacy and later became a homeopath, and his mother was a nurse tutor.

He was to follow what seemed an obvious path, training in medicine and working full-time for six years as a general surgeon, with some orthopaedics work, and another four years as a locum.

The medical connection continued into his personal life — his wife, Hazel, is a part-time GP. They have three children, Rebekah and twins Paul and Andrew Jnr.

“I was brought up in a home where there was a lot of compassion and, in the case of my parents, selflessness. That was my life,” he recalls.

“I had no thought of ministry. In my childhood and teens, it was one of the careers I would have ruled out.

“I was brought up in a joyful, happy, loving home and always loved Church, but, I guess, in my early to late teenage years, I became conscious that all parts of my personality and character were in some ways affected and influenced by sin.

“However, later, after a period of spiritual reflection and a period of spiritual upheaval and turning away from God and then being brought back to repentance and faith, my life was turned upside down by God.

“Subsequently, I saw life in a very different way and I sensed God’s call on my life.”

So now how does he regard faith?

“I see it in several ways. Primarily, it is God’s gift to us. Some people think of faith as a collection of doctrines and teachings, but I am talking about personal faith,” he says. “We don’t naturally have faith; God gives it to us. The way I think of faith is not just a collection of facts, or agreement to those facts, but a childlike trust in God.

“The key to faith is the object of faith — Christ. It is not faith for faith’s sake that saves, but faith in Christ.”

Rev Kerr has been holding a series of services during the run-up to Easter, concentrating on Christ’s passion, suffering and death.

“The cross is the key thing. It is where he suffered all the pain, even Hell, for my sin and where he stood as a substitute in place of sinners,” he says.

Rev Kerr is also Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at the Reformed Theological College in Belfast and has a working proficiency in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Official Aramaic and Classical Syriac.

Courses at the college last for three years and attract on average six students during each cycle. The Reformed Presbyterian Church has 40-plus congregations in Ireland and has begun work in Nantes in France and in the south of Spain.

Sister congregations in Canada, Australia, Scotland and Japan work closely with the Church in Ireland and training is also undertaken in Pittsburgh and Kobe in Japan.

Norman Lynas is the founder of Lynas Foodservice, which employs 540 staff in food distribution

On Norman Lynas’ business card are written the words: “Husband, father, grandfather and follower of Jesus.”

To the businessman, who built up very successful Lynas Foodservice company, faith is central to everything he does.

The firm began life as a fish shop in Coleraine, owned by his father, but it now employs 540 staff and provides its customers with frozen, chilled and ambient food ranges. It is now run by Norman’s son, Andrew.

Norman (76) describes himself as a Christian first and a Baptist second, and recalls how his parents sent him and his siblings to Sunday School and Church every week.

He says: “Being a Christian is a journey. I believe that, at some point in life, you choose to follow Christ. As a 13-year-old, I started on that journey. It was only when I was 23 that I realised the implications of becoming a follower of Jesus in business, in life and in everyday things.

“I believe you go through a commitment crisis, followed by a process of growing in Christ.

“The latter is very important and I would like to think that, even at my age, I am still growing in my faith.”

Norman says that he would be classified as an evangelical. “It is not just what you do on a Sunday that is important. Being a follower of Jesus is going to affect my business, my family and what I do with my time,” he adds. He also admits, however, that there have been times of crisis in his faith. “I had a number of crises, in terms of facing issues such as deciding if the Bible is true and could I believe it. Getting the Bible as the textbook of my life has been vital to me,” he says.

Easter is a time when he gets excited. “At one time, it was all about the Friday (Good Friday) when Jesus died on the cross and all my sins were forgiven, but that was me thinking as a 13-year-old,” he explains.

“When I came to 23, I realised the importance of Easter Sunday. Jesus had died for me, but he rose again. This was a call for divine action and gives us purpose, adventure and victory.”

Norman’s faith is not just a personal issue. With his wife, Lynda, two decades ago he set up a Christian nightclub in Portstewart. “I realised through my own experience that a lot of folk only ever get to Friday when they think about Easter — they don’t realise that God has a plan for them,” he says.

“We decided to try to help young people, aged 15 to 25, who would be heading off to university, or jobs, and give them some stability in their lives. I had never taken alcohol because of family addiction problems, and the nightclub did not serve alcohol. Many of the young people who came initially would have been churchgoers or ones who did not want to become involved in the traditional nightclub scene.

“This developed into an organisation called Exodus, which offer discipleship courses. On our first venture overseas, we sent 23 young people to Romania to show an example to young people there and encourage them in the Christian faith.

“This year, we are sending out 70 teams of young people to eastern European countries, like Romania, Moldova and Hungary, as well as Spain, South Africa and India.

“Jim Brown heads a team of 14 people in their late 20s or early 30s who work full-time in mentoring these young people.

“Some are just looking at their faith, some are growing in faith and some want to develop leadership skills.

“It is very exciting to see these young folk develop. You realise that, in five or 10 years, some will be in key jobs or working with young people in schools and that they will still believe in their Christian faith. Some, of course, will drop away.

“However, if I want to leave a legacy, it is in the lives of these young people.”

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