They brought me to meet the Lord Mayor of Belfast. Distinguished guest speaker visiting from the states -- that sort of thing. The Lord Mayor was a little, round, ruddy-faced guy with a thatch of white hair, looking every bit the typical mayor of a medium sized industrial city struggling to make it into the 21st century. The heavy gold chain and insignia around his neck was picturesquely archaic.
This was during a reception at City Hall for the Health Libraries Group annual meeting in September 2004. The Lord Mayor was making the rounds, chatting up the delegates, thanking them for coming to his city. That we were librarians was incidental. The night before it might've been an agricultural conference. Later in the week it'd be some textile manufacturers. His job was to make them welcome; make them remember their trip to Belfast with fondness. Make them think maybe it wasn't such a scary place after all.
Genially he took my hand, one ear cocked to my host who was making the introduction, "...from Alabama..." and his face was transformed. "Alabama!" he said. "Oh, Alabama is very important to us!" The "us" he referred to was his political party, Alliance, straddling the chasm of Sinn Fein and the DUP. He told me about making a pilgrimage to Selma some years before. He wanted to walk across the Edmund Pettis bridge, to stand on the same streets where Martin Luther King, Jr. had marched. "And then it was raining that day," he laughed. "And my children stayed at the hotel!" He shook his head at the memory of their foolishness. But it was clear it had been a sacred day for him. I was humbled. I thanked him and we shook hands again and he moved on to chat with one of the other guests.
I tell this story everytime I sing Steve Earle's "Jerusalem". I think about the bus tour we took on a beautiful fall day, on top of a double-decker bus, with our witty young guide making black jokes all the way about the Troubles and the ironies of growing up in Belfast. We looked at the Protestant murals as we drove up the Shankill Road, and the Catholic murals as we drove down the Falls Road and we were stunned to see that they ran parallel just two blocks apart.
"Maybe I'm only dreaming," Steve sings. "Maybe I'm just a fool. But I don't remember learning how to hate in Sunday school." I'm afraid he was lucky. Children don't hate naturally. They have to be taught. And Sunday schools are as good a place as any for that.
He was voted out in the elections last May, and now the DUP is in charge. The Stormont talks that were going on while we were there ended in failure. Hope remains elusive. But I remember that little round politician in Belfast, going to the office every morning, trying to drum up some business for his town, knowing that there's somebody gunning for him, and still believing.
"I believe that on that day
all the children of Abraham
will lay down their swords forever