FACEBOOK REMINDED ME that it was ten years ago this fall that I drove a small delegation of Jewish and Roma Hungarian peace activists from Dublin Airport to Belfast and Derry/ Londonderry. This started a surprising-to-me decade of introducing folk from outside Northern Ireland to cross-cultural experiences, new connections and a sense of wonder.
My posts show a focus on the rented Mercedes minivan that I called the Blue Beast, with its multiple gears, and my concerns about getting it and the passengers safely through narrow busy streets. I had no idea, of course, that saying yes to a request from an acquaintance would lead to ten years of shepherding visitors from other countries around Northern Ireland.
Ministry kind of creeps up on you, and it’s only by looking back that we see pieces that complete a picture. Back then, Jon Van Til and I were members of Swarthmore Friends Meeting. It was a large meeting, and we didn’t really know each other, but Jon knew I had visited and built up connections with Irish Quakers over several years, having attended Ireland Yearly Meeting sessions as part of my responsibilities with Friends World Committee for Consultation. He probably also figured that I was experienced in driving on the left side of the road. He had all the contacts in the peace movement — he had taken Rutgers students to Northern Ireland over the years and had written a book about Derry/Londonderry. In addition to driving, I carried maps in my head and had a good sense about how long it would take from one place to the next — as well as ideas about good places to stay.
We had a few meetings in coffee shops in the Philadelphia suburbs, mapped out the itinerary and drew up a budget. He made all the contacts in Northern Ireland, and he stayed in touch with the Hungarians. He had been in Hungary several times on Fulbright-funded research, and had come to realize that the rise in anti-Roma and anti-immigrant violence was built on the Nazi sympathies that had lurked below the surface. In 1944, almost 435,000 out of the pre-war Jewish population of 825,00 were sent to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz. 80% of them had been gassed on arrival. What could the Hungarians learn from ‘good practice’ in Northern Ireland following the Troubles? I, clearly, also had much to learn, about both Northern Ireland and Hungary.
It was a plunge so deep that, in the years after, I felt ready to invite friends to accompany me to Ireland Yearly Meeting sessions and travel afterwards to places where I had driven the Hungarians, and beyond. In 2010 I built connections and heard personal stories of the impact of conflict and of painstaking reconciliation work.
The following year, when I was thirsty for a personal retreat after retiring from forty years of full-time employment, there was only one place I wanted to be. I stayed for six weeks at Moyallon Centre in County Armagh, surrounded by fields and the friendly spirits of occupants of the Quaker graveyard. I continue to take people to Yearly Meeting, to Moyallon, and elsewhere. This year’s pandemic made me push the pause button, but I hope we can get back later in 2021.
This November I took another personal retreat. Not six weeks at rural Moyallon, but three weeks in bustling Belfast. Instead of flying in as driver and cultural interpreter, I flew in as an exhausted American in Quarantine. Let me tell you, it was worth every day. I arrived frazzled and sleep-deprived from a sense of bombardment by U.S. election rhetoric. I had worked as a poll inspector in a state where there had been a plot to storm the State house and kidnap the governor, and armed gangs were threatening to attack polling stations.
During my two weeks of self-quarantine in Belfast, friends — some new, known only through transatlantic Zoom worship, some longstanding — showed up at my door with food, drink, a teapot and tea cosy. I was isolated but not alone. Never underestimate the gift of welcome and hospitality. During that time, I slept and began to heal. In the third and final week I went on long walks in Belfast neighborhoods, relishing every moment I was there.
It wasn’t plain sailing — or flying, but things had a habit of working out better than I imagined. First, the flight: I had called the airline to see if there was any value in the unused portion of a journey that should have been completed in March — part of a Covid disruption. After forty minutes involving recorded elevator music and a conversation with a helpful young man in a call center in India, my unused one-way was transformed into a round trip ticket at no cost to me. When my downtown hotel canceled my amazingly cheap room because they decided to close for a while, rather than run almost-empty, I found a place on AirBandB that matched the hotel’s price. Instead of a room, I got an entire apartment. The airline canceled my ticket several times, but always rebooked me onto something that worked.
When the decade-old memories appeared on Facebook, it seemed I was going full-circle, back to Belfast, but of course, that’s not really true. That would suggest that I, the people and places were the same, but no. I am a decade older, and pummeled by the political situation in the U.S. Northern Ireland is another decade beyond the Troubles, and who could have imagined this year’s pandemic? So, my orbit is more of a spiral. The north of Ireland is in my heart and spirit in a way that I don’t fully understand. It calls, and nurtures and teaches me. That makes it possible for me to invite others into the learning journey, and I can’t wait for the next chapter to emerge.
Margaret Fraser is a member of The New Association of Friends, and a Good News Associate.