For many years I have had an interest in the work of the Belfast City Mission, largely as a result of my friendship with the late David Hamilton, a Kells man, who was for a number of years the full-time Secretary (or leader) of the Belfast City Mission. David was a great encourager, whose wise counsel was appreciated by so many young men in the ministry of the church as well as in the City Mission.
The work of the Belfast City Mission dates from 1827. Today the Mission continues its work in a number of neighbourhoods across Belfast, and is seeking to minister in the changing urban context of post-conflict Belfast. Bobi Brown, the current Secretary and leader of the BCM, took me to see some of the current work undertaken by the Mission.
Searchers Cafe on Dublin Road is run by BCM and is a rendezvous for people from many different ethnic backgrounds who have come to live in Belfast. Willie and Stanley are the two mission workers connected with the cafe, and they introduced me to a group of Somalian people who have escaped from the violence of Mogadishu and have come to Belfast in the hope of finding asylum and a secure and peaceful place in which to live. In all kinds of practical ways, the BCM workers are providing support and counsel to these people, and are showing them the love of Christ in a very practical way.
This ability of the BCM to adjust its style and pattern of ministry to the shifting patterns of life in Belfast is crucial to its effectiveness in advancing the kingdom of Christ. Because urban mission and ministry is often messy and untidy, it requires flexibility and dedication from its workers.
I was also able to visit Glencairn City Mission Hall in north-west Belfast which is the centre for ministry in an area where many people have been affected by the Troubles that blighted Belfast for so many years.
George has been the BCM worker in that area for over 20 years and, assisted by David, they supervise a wide range of activities and ministries that touch the lives of many people in Glencairn. The impressive and well-maintained facilities are well-used for the benefit of the local community and for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. My moderatorial theme of “passion for Christ and compassion for people” is well-illustrated in this excellent ministry.
George brings great energy and commitment to his work, as well as a real love for people and commitment to their welfare. He clearly understands the basic principle that all ministry is relational.
I believe that the remarks which I made at the BCM Rally a few years ago remain relevant.
The Belfast City Mission is one of the oldest urban missions in existence today, reaching the churchless, the careless and the Christless. And from its very inception it was focused on meeting the needs of people wherever they were, particularly those who were poor and disadvantaged. We believe that the Belfast City Mission can continue to be a vehicle that God can use to make a positive impact for Christ in this city and for the benefit of everyone who lives here.
Of course the situation has changed greatly since the mission began all those years ago. One of the main ways in which our world generally has changed in recent decades is in the growth of cities across the world. It is estimated that around 50% of the world’s population live in cities. There has been a massive growth in the population of the cities of our world, as people have flocked from rural communities to seek the prosperity and the jobs offered in the cities. Right now, the world’s population is at an historic turning point. Just this year we reached the point where half the world’s population will be urban. The urban population of 3.3 billion people in 2008 will be larger than the entire global population was in 1967, just 40 years ago.
Cities and urban areas are gaining an estimated 60 million people per year – over 1 million every week. In many developing countries, cities are growing two or three times faster than the overall population. As urban areas – particularly smaller towns and cities – continue to grow in size, about 5 billion people are expected to live in cities by 2030 – about 61 per cent of the global population of 8.1 billion, the UN projects.
And it was that search for work and employment which was the original reason for the growth of Belfast. With the mills and factories of the nineteenth century, people came to live in the city. And by the middle of the 20th century the population of Belfast had grown to 400,000 people. Some cities have had astonishing population growth rates. Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, nearly doubled in population between 1990 and 2000, gaining some 6 million people. Mumbai (Bombay), India, has now grown to over 17 million, and by 2015 it will probably be the world’s second largest city, after Tokyo, Japan.
In the first decade of this 21st century, cities around the world continue to be engines for economic growth in a global economy, and centres of social change and cultural diversity. Cities attract people from the countryside, from neighbouring countries, and even from around the world. Yet many cities face a crisis. If they cannot cope with the massive influx of people, then poverty will continue to be endemic, and discontent and civil unrest could become chronic.
If the majority of the people in our world will soon be living in cities, and if people matter to God as the Bible says they do, then it shouldn’t surprise us that God is interested in our city and in the people of our city. The call to mission in Belfast is as real and urgent as it was 200 years ago.
But we face a unique challenge here in Belfast. For a variety of reasons, the population of Belfast has declined steadily during the past 50 years. Crime, social deprivation, poor housing and the Troubles have all contributed to people moving out of the city. And unlike other cities in the British Isles, Belfast hasn’t known the same surge of international migrants as places like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Cardiff. Wards like Blackstaff, The Mount, Clonard, Duncairn, New Lodge, Woodvale, Shankhill and the Falls lost more than 15 % of their population between 1991 and 2001. But places like Botanic, Stranmillis and Windsor gained large numbers of students due to the expansion of higher education.
And the planners are proposing that significant steps be taken to make city living more desirable again in Belfast. Through family-friendly residential development, through making the city a safer place to live in by addressing criminal and paramilitary activity, and through the quality of schools and education which this city has to offer, they hope to make Belfast a better and an attractive place to live in. If cities like New York and Vancouver can have centres that are well-populated and have a vibrant, safe and successful 24-hour street life, why not Belfast? And important decisions are being taken so that the population of the city centre and the surrounding areas will begin to increase again. We can see evidence of that beginning in the new Victoria Square and in the proposals for the Titanic Quarter.
Can this city, notorious for its violence and hatred and sectarianism ever be transformed? In face of the problems we face, and the decline in our city population, what does God want us to do? Should we just run away as quickly as we can to the comfortable suburbs or to the provincial towns and escape from the city and give up on it? Not at all. If cities across the world are growing and developing, then we have good reason to believe that Belfast will start to grow again. I believe that God has a plan and purpose for his people here in Belfast. And central to that plan are people who are committed to Christ and to the advancement of his kingdom.