Addressing the evil of sectarianism: Bill Shaw on life, faith, and hope

The retreat and conference centre run by the Passionate community, Tobar Mhuire, was the venue for a guided interview with Bill Shaw, presented as an opportunity “to explore their experience of life, faith, and where they find sources of hope in their lives”. The event was included as part of Good Relations Week 2023.

Brian McKEE. Stories of life, faith, and hope. Conversation with Bill Shaw. Tobar Mhuire Retreat and Conference Centre, Crossgar, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Brian McKee, a professional facilitator and director of Seedlings, welcomed the attendees and invited Shaw to start from the beginning. Declaring himself, “I’m from Sandy Row,” Shaw spoke about how “peace walls” are a blight:

“I remember Belfast before the walls, but it was still segregated. I went to a primary school that was all Protestant, and a secondary school that was all Protestant. I never meaningfully engaged with a Catholic until I was 17.”

This engagement was at the time he was a student at Millfield Technical College, enrolled in a draftsman course. Shaw shared stories about his friend Sean and their regular chats about football and girls: “I knew Sean was ‘the other’, but he had the same interests as me.”

McKee was intrigued about how Shaw went from a promising career in the construction industry to an uncharted one in theology.

Bill SHAW. Stories of life, faith, and hope. Conversation with Bill Shaw. Tobar Mhuire Retreat and Conference Centre, Crossgar, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

“My uncle was a Mackie engineer, who gave me a set of compasses. I wanted to do technical drawing. I went from a summer job to a regular job. I sought something more permanent, and I took an offer from the civil service for the architect’s division.”

At this time, “We weren’t churchgoers.”

The epiphany happened during an Easter Sunday service he and his family attended in 1982, at an evangelical mission:

“I was gripped. I made a conscious decision to make myself available to God.”

Shaw explained how he went to an evangelical bookshop in Newtownards and told a clerk, “I want a Bible.” He would return during his lunch breaks to browse the literature: “I had this incredible hunger.”

Shaw didn’t think that he would leave the construction trade, even as he got more involved with the church, running its youth club. Was “the call” to serve as a youth worker? No, it wasn’t. What about serving as a minister? With the congregation putting him forward, Shaw applied himself by taking an A-level in religious education and enrolling in Bible college for four months.

This included summer work at a ministry in Portglenone — where this urban child didn’t know the difference between cows and cattle. Shaw was more comfortable as an assistant minister on the Shankill Road after his graduation in 1988.

Shaw accepted a call to two Presbyterian churches in Portadown, one located in a mainly Catholic-populated neighbourhood. His children made Catholic friends.

When the Drumcree contention started in 1995, Shaw described how the Orangemen originally liked me because of his Shankill Road association. At one pastoral visit, a man named Jimmy told Shaw how proud he was of standing up to (Catholic) nationalist protestors and the police: “We’re fighting for the faith!” Shaw replied, “Catch yourself on — wise up!”

This caused Shaw to reflect at the time: “How do I speak into this? Am I contributing to the intransigence? It caused a shift in my preaching — I wanted to address the evil of sectarianism. I spoke about the good Samaritan. I used a phrase to close, ‘What side of the barricade would Jesus be on?’ Jimmy’s son said that Gerry Adams would like that sermon. I replied, ‘I wasn’t preaching for Adams.’”

Shaw’s focus had changed with his experience of the Drumcree contest. From a conference on sectarianism at Cookstown Presbyterian Church (led by Doug Baker), Shaw’s pursuit was, “How do I equip my congregation to be good neighbours?” From scripture, he cited the salt-and-light parable from Matthew 5.

His wife saw a job advertisement for executive director of the 174 Trust and encouraged Shaw to apply. He was invited to a prayer meeting before he started his new job. Shaw was taken aback by the inclusion of a nun, Sister Carmel. You see, Shaw explained, in earlier days he used to go about town depositing Protestant Truth Society leaflets in various places, including leaflet racks in Catholic cathedrals. Now, he accepted Sister Carmel as a Christian. Following his first community meeting, he was given a bundle of leaflets and instructed him to “do the towers” of the New Lodge. Although conscious of his own ‘other’ background, upon completing the task: “I felt God saying to me, ‘I love these people and I want you to love them too.’ This was my job, my calling.”

McKee picked up on the scripture reference and asked Shaw to elaborate on what he saw as the role of churches. In Shaw’s view:

“If we’re going to be at the table, we need to be invited. And that will only be when people see value. For example, at Duncairn Presbyterian Church we opened up a former church hall to be used as a boxing club. If our buildings are not at the disposal of our community, then it is a waste of our resources.

“My hope is that we learn the lesson of humility. We shed our arrogance. We become more like Jesus — we’ve lost sight of that. Jesus would be in the middle of the messiness. We’ll be that salt and light.”

McKee closed with a poem, Round Tabled Churches:

And what of narrowlong table ministers, when they confront a roundtable people,

after years of working up the table (as in “up the ladder”) to finally sit at its head,

only to discover that the table has turned round?

The poem ends:

We can no longer prepare for the past.

We will and must and are called to be Church,

and if He calls for other than roundtables, we are bound to follow.

Leaving between the sawdust and chips, designs and redesigns behind.

McKee suggested that they will continue with future conversations with other individuals willing to share their stories of life, faith, and hope.

Article cross-published at Mr Ulster.

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