East Belfast Mission is a church based in East Belfast. Connected to the Methodist Church in Ireland it is the youngest of five inner city missions in Ireland; their purpose is to show the love of God in practical and social ways.
The east of Belfast is an extremely proud area of the city. For many years it has been the hub of Belfast's industry, with trades such as shipbuilding and aeroplane manufacturing being major employers in the area. It is also a mainly Protestant/loyalist area of Belfast.
As many other areas of Belfast have experienced relative poverty and depression, the east of the city took pride in its industrial success. The people of the east have also always been very proud of the sons and daughters they have given to the world. Internationally renowned musician Van Morrison, the world famous soccer star George Best, and literary genius C. S. Lewis are all men who have hailed from the east.
All these factors have fed the pride of a once prosperous area. As we move into the 21st century, that pride still exists but the factors that created it have all but disappeared. The big industries of the area have moved out, or are in the process of doing so. Once large and strong workforces are now almost extinct. For example, the shipyard of Harland and Wolfe employed over 30,000 labourers in the early 1970s. Today that mighty workforce is no more and there are now less than one hundred staff at the yard, which is facing closure.
Today, East Belfast is a depressed area. As industry has moved out, high rates of unemployment have moved in, and this is most certainly a factor in the high rate of alcohol abuse in the area. There is also a growing drug and substance abuse issue and, on top of all this, the breakdown of many family units. These are all typical problems of the inner city but in East Belfast we add to this list the problem of local paramilitary groups who hold on to a massive influence and power in the area. The militaristic and threatening murals of these groups on gable walls are enough to put any investor off the area. The paramilitary groups have also been infamously involved in the pushing of illicit drugs and the running of protection rackets over the years. All of this has led to the breakdown of family and community life in inner East Belfast.
The area retains a fierce pride based on its background and history, but the reality is that East Belfast is now a place of deep depression and massive deprivation. To the naked eye, the situation could be considered as hopeless.
At this point you may wonder what the church is doing in the midst of all this. I am happy to be able to report that the East Belfast Mission is spearheading much of the community work in the area through its commitment to the social outworking of God's love. We have projects such as Job Bridge, which is an outreach programme to the unemployed that trains and prepares people for employment. Hosford House is a homeless unit with space for up to 21 people. We run family-based projects, as well as a strong programme to care for the frail, elderly and lonely of our area. Alongside all of this we also have the youth project that I run.
Our youth ministry has been in existence now for just under three years. I want you to know some of the young people I work with, to hear their stories and be encouraged by the fact that, in the midst of depression and deprivation, and perceived hopelessness, God is at work.
I work with two distinct groups of young people and, while I hate these terms, they are best described as a "churched" group and an "unchurched" group. The guys that have been around the church for all of their lives are a real privilege to be with. In all the time I have known them, I have found them easy to come alongside and eager to know God. They are the type of young people to whom we all like to attach ourselves. The "unchurched" guys are, as you might imagine, a little bit different. …