As Wrightbus workers rally, under-fire pastor leads prayers for firm's salvation
Warm applause broke out 30 minutes into yesterday morning's service at Green Pastures church on the outskirts of Ballymena when Pastor Jeff Wright took to the podium to address his congregation.
The church, which has found itself at the centre of the story around the Wrightbus collapse, lies on the Fenaghy Road in the Galgorm Industrial Estate, just across the River Maine from the now-closed factory where four days earlier the 1,200-strong workforce learned their fate.
Police maintained a presence both inside and outside the building as families made their way into the church for the 11am weekly service.
They found themselves navigating their way past the workers of the collapsed firm who had gathered along the perimeters in peaceful protest.
While many Bible verses adorned the placards and banners of the 500-plus former Wrightbus workers protesting outside, inside the church the atmosphere was very different.
In fact it was more akin to a live music concert than a traditional church service as the hundreds in the congregation raised their hands in the air in prayer and song as they awaited the words of the pastor.
They ranged in age from newborn babies in the arms of their mums and dads, to the elderly Wrightbus founder Sir William Wright, aged 92.
Sir William was not seated in the front row but in the middle of the building, flanked by his wife of 65 years Lady Ruby and their daughter, Lorraine Rock.
His son Pastor Jeff is well-known for his passionate weekly sermons on a wide range of topics, from those close to his heart to current affairs.
Yesterday was no exception as the congregation was worked up ahead of his appearance by a live band and singers belting out various popular hymns including Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art.
In the wake of the 1,200 job losses at Wrightbus, he wasted no time in acknowledging that it was "a difficult and sad day".
"The phone just dinged and dinged all week," he said as he thanked the congregation for their love and support.
Behind him on the big screen appeared a photo of the Wright family taken over 60 years ago, standing in front of a blue bus.
"This picture represents the heart and soul of what it takes to make a good company, a great company," he said.
As the redundant workers' company shirts fluttered in the breeze on the gates outside, a tearful Jeff said his family had fought to build the company from when he was a teenage apprentice in a boilersuit.
He said "blood, sweat and tears" had made the firm such a success in the past. During the service, those who had lost their jobs and their families were singled out and asked to stand and pray for all affected, including those outside the building in the hope that God would rescue and provide.
Later some workers walked into the church and handed over a book of personal reflections and questions for Jeff Wright for his consideration.
While members of her family were inside the church, Fiona Knowles, a granddaughter of Sir William, joined the protesters in a show of solidarity, saying she knew how they felt at the prospect of having to rebuild their lives again.
She said: "Our family has been destroyed by this and it could have been avoided.
"When you watch your granda who has built this place up since he was 16, to have it destroyed, it is very hard to watch."
She said 3,000 families were affected, just three months before Christmas.
Ms Knowles added: "I know the hurt and loss and it is the hopelessness that gets you.
"I wanted to show my support here."