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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

A Young Presbyterian At The Center Of Peace And Politics In Northern Ireland

Paresh Dave |
May 3, 2013 | 3:36 p.m. PDT

Executive Director

In March, lawmakers in Northern Ireland faltered in their bid to outlaw private clinics from offering abortions. But the debate is far from over. Abortions remain nearly impossible to get through the public healthcare system, and the country’s next generation of Christian leaders has some staunch protectors of life. Among them is Alexander Redpath, a 23-year-old Presbyterian in his final days at Queen's University in Belfast. He’s a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, a mostly Protestant political organization that campaigns on maintaining ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Over burritos at a Belfast restaurant recently, he spoke about how he found his faith, what Christian churches must do to keep youth engaged and the mixing of culture, religion and politics.

Paresh: How did you get started with the pro-life movement at Queens?

Alexander: When I got to Queens in 2008, the issue was very live in the student union movement and I got involved in campaigning to get the student union to drop its pro-choice policy. We enjoyed a great deal of success, and the union is still neutral on the issue, which is a source of great pride for us.

Did you have a Protestant upbringing?

I was certainly brought up in a Unionist family that had a strong sense of political identity. But neither of my parents belonged to a church.  I became a Christian when I was 16 and I have two sisters who decided to become Christians, too. But we are unique in that it would be unusual to not have a church upbringing.

How did you become a Christian?

Like most teenagers, I went through a very tough time when I was 16 or 17. I thought the Presbyterian community was very supportive during that time. I heard their message and believed it. You're thinking about life. The pressure -- academically and socially -- was too much. It got very depressing and that expressed itself in a lot of ways, from self-harm to very poor life choices. My faith pulled me out of it.

Becoming a Christian is a faith experience. It's very much a matter of accepting Jesus Christ as your savior and lord. That happened to me when I just turned 17. I view the first 17 years of my life as wasted because I didn't know Jesus.

What did your family think of all of this?

My father gave me a lift into the church every Sunday morning. They certainly weren't opposed to it. During the past six years, my parents have gotten more involved in church. My mother's come in. I only have my father to work on now.

How have you given back to the community?

Every week during semester, we go out on a Thursday night and hand out tea and coffee to those coming out of clubs. We were just there to have a chat with people who wanted to. You would be amazed at the amount  of people who just wanted to have a chat with somebody who wouldn't judge them and who they would never see again. It's not warm here, but you would have people standing there for an hour or two hours talking to you in their going out gear.

Queen's University. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
Queen's University. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
These people, did they all show up at church the next week?

Some of them said it; some of them did it. But to be honest, we were there to talk to people who couldn't come into mass. If you're willing to chat for two hours in the cold, you have a fairly serious problem and don't think you can talk to anyone about it. Stress, family problem, suicidal thoughts, family breakups, issues with acceptance.

In that sort of situation, you're not there to push a message. You're there to listen to people. That model was taken on by other groups on campus -- from different denominations, different backgrounds. Every night, you could be certain someone would be out there though.

What's your future looking like?

I'm trying to be a solicitor here in Northern Ireland. I qualify in September. That's what my father did, so I was encouraged to go down that route.

Belfast City Hall. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
Belfast City Hall. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
So no politics?

The funny thing about Northern Ireland, it's such a small country that there's no real political class. You can go do that anytime. It's something I would consider. I'm a local party committee member, but right now, I don't see much more that.

What's your thoughts on the current state of the Catholic Church?

They have a Herculean task ahead of them. It's a terrible situation. The Protestant churches are largely motoring on. My own church is doing quite well, holding numbers. (345,000 registered Presbyterians in 2011, down only 3,000 from 2001, according to Northern Ireland Census).

There's some who say the definition of church should change -- that things like Sunday service are no longer part of it.

We certainly have our cultural members. It's a great joke of my pastor during Christmas service to say, "To those of you who I won't see until Easter, I hope you get on well." I believe regular participation in service is an important part of Christian life. But the Presbyterian church is certainly of the opinion that our conventional Sunday morning and Sunday evening services isn't meeting the needs of people anymore. So there's greater push for mid-week services and at other times to take into account the 24-hour nature of life here now.

As the economy improves and the young generation settles in, do you think more of the generation will get involved with the church?

The ball is in the church's court. We can’t continue to be irrelevant in a changing society. If we close our doors to the world, we will decline. We have a mission, we're getting on with it. But our success will be judged by how we behave, how we follow god's call. I can't make any predictions, but certainly I'll be doing everything I can.

While abortion might be safe, gay marriage could soon be legalized here in Northern Ireland.

The problem with social issues like gay marriage is to prevent it, you need a majority forever. To achieve it, you need a majority for long enough to get a bill through the Assembly, and there will come a point where the traditional marriage supporters in the Assembly don't have the votes to stop it.

On abortion in Northern Ireland, there's a majority who don't care and vocal majorities on either side who do care. And I'm confident we would win on referendum or in the Assembly to uphold a ban against abortions.

Do you think the Catholic Church's strong views hurts the broader Christian community on these social issues?

There are a broad range of expressions in each church. I would say the strong religious community in Northern Ireland is the reason we do not have abortion. For that reason, the traditional support in the Catholic Church and the others have made this possible.

I fear very much that the fallout of the sex abuse scandal will turn off folks who would traditionally call themselves cultural Catholics who are absolutely astounded. If the scandal seriously damages the church and seriously challenges the Catholic identity of a lot of people in this country, it's going to be much more difficult to maintain our current legislation.

Belfast peace walls and murals. (Paige Brettingen/Neon Tomy)
Belfast peace walls and murals. (Paige Brettingen/Neon Tomy)
What role do the churches and your generation in particular playing in reducing sectarianism?

Young people here are now more sectarian than they were in 1980. We have a problem in that many people see no benefit to them from the peace process. You've seen that recently with the violence associated with the Union flag coming down at City Hall.

There are large disenfranchised communities who don't feel involved in any way in the politics of this country. They don't feel the traditional political parties represent them, so they are turning to violence. As a Unionist, I need to engage with the communities and convince them only political means can lead to their objectives.

Stormont, Northern Irish government capital building. (Paige Brettingen/Neon Tommy)
Stormont, Northern Irish government capital building. (Paige Brettingen/Neon Tommy)
What can you do to get more people to the polls?

I think the Union flag decision has a done a lot of good in that regard. Voter drives in these disadvantaged areas are proving to be very successful. The challenge for us is not to just register these people.

Our challenge with the Unionist community is to convince them that we are the best people to stand up for their cultural identity. The reason we had violence on the streets wasn't the decision itself. It was just the straw that broke the camel's back in that these people don't believe this is their country anymore. They feel their sense of Britishness is being undermined. Without being branded bigots, without being branded sectarian, they should be able to express their Britishness however they want to. This culture is increasingly being used a political weapon in this country, and Unionists are not at present up to the challenge.

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