I have spent this past week visiting the Omagh Presbytery. It has been a whirlwind tour of churches, manses, farms, schools and businesses, and it has all been energising and eventful. After 27 events in 6 days, I am feeling a bit tired, but nonetheless thankful for the opportunity of seeing so much great work being carried on by Presbyterians in west Tyrone and Fermanagh.
The name of Omagh will always be associated with the Real IRA bombing of August 1998 when 29 people were killed and over 200 were injured. It was the worst atrocity of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The memory of that awful day is still fresh in the minds of many people, and many lives have been indellibly marked by the evil that was visited on Omagh that sunny Saturday afternoon.
The Omagh Presbytery stretches from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, in the north to Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, in the south. I began the tour by preaching in Douglas Bridge and Ardstraw on Sunday morning, and throughout the week, as well as Ardstraw and Douglas, I visited the manses of Mountjoy and Drumlegagh, Second Castlederg, Trinity, Omagh, Dromore and Drumquin, Fintona, Clogher and Glenhoy, Cavanaleck and Aughentaine, and Enniskillen. It was good to spend some time with my colleagues and to hear of the successes and struggles of their ministries. The ministers and their wives also enjoyed a superb meal provided by a team from Gillygooley congregation in Gillygooley Orange Hall. It has been a week of memorable meetings with wonderful people engaged in a wide variety of activities.
One highlight from early in the week’s round of activities was a visit to Grove Dairy near Castlederg, run by Jack and Hazel Mitchell and their family. It is an impressive operation combining a farm and dairy that not only raises its own cattle, but processes and packages milk from its herd for local consumption. We stood among the young calves in the field, saw the hi-tech milking parlour for the large herd, and were mesmerised by the machinery in the milk bottling plant.
Grove Dairy must be one of the few places that still produces the wee third-of-a-pint bottles of milk that were such a memorable feature of primary schools when I was growing up.
Grove Dairy is a successful business because of the vision, commitment and hard-work of Jack and his family. As well as being an elder in his local congregation, Jack is also an enthusiastic follower of local rugby. He and I had opportunity to reflect on our common interest and had plenty of advice for Declan Kidney as he plans Ireland’s upcoming Six Nations campaign.
As well as working for the benefit of many people in their community, Maurice and Mary Surphlis have a concern for others further afield who are in need. They presented me with a cheque for £1,000 for the Moderator’s Appeal for Haiti. It was a generous gift which is much appreciated.
Both Maurice and John are office-bearers in Drumlegagh Presbyterian Church. The meeting house is located between Drumlegagh Primary School and Surphlis’s store, and the influence of the congregation is clearly evident in both of these establishments. The children in the school welcomed us warmly and sang beautifully. And then they asked some great questions about what it was like being Moderator, which sport we preferred, and about where we had travelled to recently.
I was struck by the fact that built into the wall of the meeting house in Drumlegagh is an ancient stone bearing an inscription from the first epistle of John which is a wonderful summary of the Gospel. May the Lord strengthen and prosper the work of the congregation as they share this wonderful message with their community.
There is much more to tell about this amazing week…..