Alf McCreary

In our con­tin­u­ing se­ries, we talk to lead­ing fig­ures about their faith

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW - Alf McCreary RE­LI­GION COR­RE­SPON­DENT

In con­ver­sa­tion with

Alan McBride

The co-or­di­na­tor of the Wave Trauma Cen­tre in Belfast has been en­gaged in peace-build­ing for the past 30 years. Alan was work­ing as a butcher on the Shankill Road when his wife, Sharon, and fa­ther-in­law Desmond Frizzell were killed in a bomb at­tack at the fam­ily fish shop in 1993. He lives alone in east Belfast, and has one daugh­ter, Zoe, from his mar­riage to Sharon. He has a first-class hon­ours de­gree from Ul­ster Univer­sity and an MPhil in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion stud­ies from Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin. Q How and when did you come to faith? A I be­came a Chris­tian when I was 19 at a mis­sion in the Church of God on the Whitewell Road in Belfast.

Be­fore that, I had been ac­tively in­volved with the 26th Com­pany of the Boys’ Bri­gade, and would have been a reg­u­lar at­ten­der at Sun­day Bi­ble class. It was through one of the Boys’ Bri­gade of­fi­cers that I came to be at the mis­sion.

I met my wife, Sharon, at the Boys’ Bri­gade. We both looked af­ter the An­chor Boys chil­dren. Q Does faith play a part in your daily life, or is it just for Sun­days? A I’m a Chris­tian with a small ‘c’, un­like some evan­gel­i­cals, who tend to shove re­li­gion down peo­ple’s throats. I am not a fun­da­men­tal­ist. I be­lieve fun­da­men­tal­ism can be in­her­ently evil, whether it is Chris­tian, Is­lamic, or — dare I say it — athe­ist fun­da­men­tal­ism.

I try to be kind and con­sid­er­ate, to be lov­ing and gen­tle and to care about other hu­man be­ings. In short, to show the love of Christ in all I do and say. Q Have you ever had a cri­sis of faith, or a gnaw­ing doubt about your faith? A There have been doubts, pre­dom­i­nantly over is­sues such as Heaven and Hell — how can a God of love see peo­ple burn in Hell? I also have had huge is­sues with the Old Tes­ta­ment sto­ries about the chil­dren of Is­rael’s geno­ci­dal pur­suit of the promised land. My great­est strug­gle has been with my­self and my propen­sity to act in the most un-Chris­tian way.

I spend a lot of time in prayer and have even fasted on oc­ca­sions, but it has made lit­tle or no dif­fer­ence. Sin is at­trac­tive and it is some­thing I will strug­gle with un­til my dy­ing day. Q Have you ever been an­gry with God? A No, not even when Sharon died. There was a time af­ter the bomb when I couldn’t go near church, but it wasn’t any­thing to do with be­ing an­gry. I wasn’t in the mood to wor­ship with peo­ple, and God some­how felt dis­tant.

I learned a valu­able les­son about Chris­tian faith. Get­ting through it was noth­ing to do with me hold­ing on to God, but ev­ery­thing to do with Him hold­ing on to me. Q Do you ever get crit­i­cised for your faith, and are you able to live with that crit­i­cism?

A lot of peo­ple wouldn’t know that I have a Chris­tian faith, be­cause I tend not to shout it from the rooftops. How­ever, those who know me well are aware that my Chris­tian faith is the cor­ner­stone of my life. I start each new day in prayer and quiet med­i­ta­tion, and Chris­tian think­ing guides the ma­jor­ity of ma­jor de­ci­sions that I have made.

I be­lieve that Churches and faith com­mu­ni­ties who refuse to marry a gay cou­ple should be re­spected and that the law should be changed to al­low abor­tion in some cases. But we should stop well short of le­gal­is­ing abor­tion in ev­ery case. The way this de­bate has been han­dled by some Chris­tians has left me ashamed — there has been a se­vere lack of Chris­tian com­pas­sion. Q Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or de­nom­i­na­tion? A The word ‘ashamed’ is too strong, but I did feel un­com­fort­able in the way that the Pres­by­te­rian Church han­dled gay mem­ber­ship. The Church should be a wel­com­ing space for ev­ery­one, but I don’t think that is the mes­sage that went out from the Gen­eral Assem­bly. It was hard, in par­tic­u­lar, to ac­cept the bit about not chris­ten­ing the chil­dren of gay cou­ples. Q Are you afraid to die, or can you look be­yond death? A I would be afraid to die if I was star­ing death in the face, but you don’t know how you would re­act un­til it hap­pened to you. God will sup­ply what­ever grace is needed at the time.

That was def­i­nitely my ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the Shankill bomb — if some­one had told me a month be­fore the bomb that Sharon would be killed, I would have pan­icked and not known how to cope, but God took care of things in His im­mac­u­late tim­ing. Q Do you be­lieve in the res­ur­rec­tion and, if so, what will it be like? A I choose to be­lieve in an af­ter­life, but I have no idea what it will be like.

In Bi­ble study once, the leader told us about how Heaven will be, with res­ur­rected saints wor­ship­ping the lamb. This sounded fan­tas­tic, but when he said that there would be no night or day and we would just wor­ship the lamb for ever, it sounded like a church ser­vice that never ended.

I am also a bit of a wuss, so if I knew I was near­ing the end, I would like to slip away in a drug-in­duced con­di­tion and dream of some of the stuff the Bea­tles sang about, like Straw­berry Fields For­ever. Q What do you think about peo­ple of other de­nom­i­na­tions and other faiths?

A

I am very much into in­ter-faith di­a­logue. We have much to teach each other. Re­li­gion is a force for good. Q Do you think Churches here ful­fil their mis­sion? A The Church is called not to be pop­ulist, but to cau­tion about the evils of our time, such as abuse of power by the haves over the have-nots.

The Churches have been out­spo­ken and have been car­ing for the poor. How­ever, more should have been done by the Churches dur­ing the bank­ing cri­sis and the age of aus­ter­ity in chal­leng­ing the Gov­ern­ment to en­sure peo­ple don’t fall into des­ti­tu­tion. Q Why are so many peo­ple turn­ing their back on or­gan­ised re­li­gion? A I am glad this ques­tion was qual­i­fied by the in­clu­sion of the word ‘or­gan­ised’.

Many of the tra­di­tional de­nom­i­na­tions are in de­cline, and the rea­sons are multi-faceted. How­ever, the Chris­tian faith is not in de­cline — look at the growth in house Churches and non-tra­di­tional places of wor­ship. The Gospel mes­sage still has a role to play, but how we de­liver that mes­sage is key. Q Has re­li­gion helped or hin­dered the peo­ple of North­ern Ire­land? A It has done both. I don’t think the con­flict was any­thing to do with re­li­gion — it was de­mo­graph­ics that meant Catholics were in­volved with the IRA and Protes­tants with loy­al­ist groups.

Nev­er­the­less, some Churches and Church lead­ers used their po­si­tion to sow dis­cord and fan the flames of con­flict. How­ever,

the Church had some peace-build­ing gi­ants that blazed a trail for a bet­ter North­ern Ire­land dur­ing the dark days — the peo­ple who put their heads above the para­pet to pro­mote peace, not just in the ab­sence of war, but as a way of liv­ing. Q What is your favourite book, movie and mu­sic? A The John Bun­yan clas­sic The Pil­grim’s Progress has had a pro­found im­pact on how I un­der­stand life, with all of its pit­falls and moun­tain-top ex­pe­ri­ences. Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing and, more re­cently, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are among my favourite films. My favourite mu­sic is the sound­track from Les Mis­er­ables. Q And what about re­grets? Do you have any? A My big­gest re­gret is that I messed up my sec­ond mar­riage. I was very for­tu­nate to have mar­ried two in­cred­i­ble women. One was cru­elly taken from me, the other I threw away. I will al­ways re­gret that to my dy­ing day. She was the first per­son who made me laugh af­ter Sharon died. She was a beau­ti­ful woman in ev­ery way that I never truly ap­pre­ci­ated un­til it was too late. Q Where do you feel clos­est to God? A Up on Napoleon’s Nose at the top of Cave­hill. It is the most beau­ti­ful place in Ire­land. Q What would be in­scribed on your grave­stone? A I want to be cre­mated, be­cause I have a fear of be­ing buried alive, but, oddly enough, not of be­ing burned alive.

Peace-builder: Alan McBride and (be­low) his first wife Sharon, whowas mur­dered in the 1993 Shankill bomb­ing

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