24. BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
The thought of Belfast, Northern Ireland conjures up thoughts in our minds of hate, strife and war. The eyes of the world observe the seemingly unending horror where Catholics and Protestants are in bloody conflict. Most people in Northern Ireland have long memories, going back hundreds of years, of the injustices of past generations. The Catholics generally want a united Ireland and the Protestants generally want to remain a part of the United Kingdom (Great Britain). Everyone sees himself as a patriot in defense of his homeland.
I have carried the cross in Northern Ireland five different times on five different trips. The first was in May 1971, then in October-November 1971, March 1972, May-June 1972 and October 1979. The following are excerpts from these trips. To adequately share and express the stories and observations would be a book within itself.
One morning as I was carrying the cross through Belfast’s city center, I was stopped by a car just before I got to a bridge in the downtown area. The young man behind the wheel learned toward me had asked me to speak to his mother-in-law about Jesus. She sat in the front seat next to him. I shared with them the good news of Jesus Christ and then told her I’d like to pray for her to receive Jesus.
She shook her head no, “I don’t need that. I don’t believe in that.”
At that moment, a tremendous car bomb exploded. The shattering concussion threw me head first into the car, halfway into the woman’s lap. She threw her arms around me, “Pray, pray! I believe.” So, with me in her lap, we prayed and she gave her heart to Jesus. The Lord had saved her and had protected me. If I had continued walking I would have been among those who were blown up.
I crossed the bridge and the scene was horrible. Parts of bodies were lying all over the street. One person was killed and many critically injured. Rescue workers arrived on the scene at the same time I did. The first moment I just stood there, letting all the horror of these crying people sink into my mind. People were running about looking for members of their families. Some were bleeding and staggering. There I was, with the cross, face to face with exploding bombs, blood and war. Tears poured down my cheeks. I leaned the cross against a building and went into the tragic scene seeking to minister first aid and the hope of Christ in a troubled country.
“I must talk to you, preacher,” whispered a man that had approached me. “I’m a killer. Can Jesus help me?”
We moved away from the crowd and sat down on the ground. The man opened up his life to me. He told me that on that very day he was on his way as part of an assassination squad to kill several people. He had driven by City Hall and had seen the crowds and heard me sharing about Jesus and the spirit of God had gripped his heart. He had the driver stop and let him out. He left his gun in the car and came over. I sat with him and explained the word of God. We read from II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creature. Old things have passed away and all things have become new.”
The man began to cry. All the weight and guilt of his life fell on him and he told me of the horror of his many killings and asked if I would pray with him. After he prayed and committed his life to Christ, he said, “I’m leaving the killing right now. Tomorrow I will join the church down the street.”
As we drove into the parking lot at the hotel a man stepped out of the darkness and several other men stepped into view with guns trained on me. There were more men who stood facing the street and neighboring buildings. It was late at night with a full moon and stars giving some light to the darkness. The short man gave me his name, telling me he was a leader of the U.V.F. (Ulster Volunteer Force), a Protestant guerilla group.
“Reverend Blessitt,” he said. “One of my men was changed by your sermon. He wanted out and we agreed to let him go. He was a good man, hard and accurate. We lost a good one. You must be something else. I’ve seen you around town and had my gun sight on you. Sometimes I’ve wanted to kill you and sometimes I’ve wanted to join you. I just wanted to tell you that I have to admit, you’ve got guts. But if you ever speak of who I am or call the troops, you’re dead. I’m troubled I can hardly sleep. Can you help me?”
We talked and talked. At one point the man began to cry and turned away so his fellow gunmen couldn’t see him. He came so close to giving his life to Christ. He knew most of the scripture verses I quoted, but as we talked I got a clearer picture of his heartaches and troubles.
He told me this was the first time he had ever broken down and let anyone see or feel his inward heart. “My men think I’m hard as iron, but inside I feel hurt and pain.”
After talking some more, he said, “Preacher, you are safe here in Belfast. No one on either side will hurt you. Everyone respects you as a man of God, but we all hate you for reminding us of what we really are and what is right and good”
He and his men disappeared into the darkness of the night. I stood crying. I loved him. He was so close to Jesus. He said he had almost become a minister at one time.
Isaiah 61 began filling my mind. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because He hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of the prison to them that are bound: to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”
A friend from America, Fenton Morehead, was with me as we carried the cross through the Catholic side of the battlefield. We saw two armored cars coming toward along the street. As they stopped, soldiers leaped out, deploying themselves along the sidewalk, ready for action. Several grabbed us. One ordered, “Lay down that cross, you are going with us.”
Young men in their camouflaged uniforms, clutching their rifles and trembling, halfway pushed us into the armored car. Children from a nearby school began screaming and throwing rocks. Fenton and I were in a British armored car on the way to military headquarters.
One man was heard saying as he radioed, “We have those two Baptist priests.”
So they know who we are. It was decision time now. What was going to happen? The officer who met our armored car escorted us into the military building. There was a discussion for a few minutes, and then he turned and said, “Reverend Blessitt, there has been a mistake, you are free to go.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said.
The officer repeated his words. The man who had brought us spoke up. “Sir, but we followed orders.”
The officer in charge stopped him and they spoke again for a few moments. A group of soldiers gathered around looking at us. They seemed very surprised. Finally, the first officer who had spoken repeated that we were free to go.
“But, why were we arrested?” I asked.
“We are now all aware of who you are.”
“But, I don’t know the way back to my cross.”
He turned and gave an order and the same two armored cars that had brought us here, drove us back. The troops talked to us and we shared with them about Jesus. Before we got out we had prayer and passed Jesus stickers around, which they stuck on their gun butts.
As we leaped out of the vehicle we were immediately surrounded by the children. They had gathered around the cross to protect it. We had been taken away, but now returned. We were heroes to the children and preached about Christ to them.
As Fenton and I walked along the street with the cross, a man stepped up and, in a clear, firm voice said, “We have been watching you. Don’t cross that intersection or you’ll die. You’ll never come back alive.”
He was trembling in anger.
“Jesus loves you,” I said, offering him a Bible.
“You’ve been warned. Just don’t cross over.”
He turned and walked away quickly. Fenton and I looked at each other. We had agreed to make a large circle around the troubled area, and there was no turning back. We had agreed to take care of each others family if either one of us died. We knelt and prayed together. We had undertaken a mission and it lay before us. We had to go on.
Another time a man stepped up to Fenton and me and said, “Don’t go back into the troubled area or you’ll need this.”
He handed us three nails each. Fenton threw his away almost immediately, but I kept mine as a souvenir.
We set up the cross in the middle of the peace line. Fenton and I were going to fast and pray for 24 hours. On one side was the Protestant area, and on the other was the Catholic side. In between were the British troops in pillboxes. There was barbed wire and barricades. At fifteen minutes to midnight we heard sounds of singing, and then saw three elderly ladies and an old, tall man zigzagging through the barbed wire and barricades. They were coming toward us. They were from a group called ‘Christians in Action,’ and were singing the wonderful song written by Audrey Meyer, “His Name is Wonderful.” The words echoed through the night. Fenton and I, on that war-torn night, threw off the blankets we were wrapped in, and with no introduction, joined that little group. We formed a circle lifting our hands toward heaven, and joined in singing, “He is the mighty King, master of everything, His name is wonderful, Jesus my Lord.”
We were all crying. Our voices were off-key, but the beauty was beyond words. It seemed as though angels were singing with us.
Small groups of people gathered on the Protestant side and the Catholic side, and some of the British troops stepped out of their pillboxes, jeopardizing themselves to sniper fire. The war didn’t end, but at least for a moment there was peace! I could see the cross on a Catholic church in the distance, a cross on a Protestant church, and our cross in the middle. Three crosses in the midst of war. Something is wrong! In the midst of churches and crosses, we’ve lost the real Jesus in this land.