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