Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

The Garden in Barren Lands: Mental Health in East Belfast

By Alison Gilmore*

For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

Zephaniah 3:17

Skainos Square copy.jpgSkainos Square in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, a mission of the Methodist congregation of East Belfast Mission. PHOTO: COURTESY ALISON GILMORE

Though I grew up in Northern Ireland, I didn’t really know what “The Troubles” were like for those living in that situation every day. I only experienced the tip of the iceberg. I grew up about a two-hour drive west of Belfast, in a rural farming community called Tempo, County Fermanagh. Tempo is a small, sleepy village surrounded by rolling hills, narrow roads, and farmlands. The local church hall was the main hub for activities, barn dances, and other events that brought any kind of social life.

Since 2011, I have been a missionary working as a mental health counselor at the East Belfast Mission (EBM). East Belfast Mission, launched from an existing Methodist congregation, provides spiritual, mental, and educational means to the neighboring population in the community. Known as the Skainos Project (Greek—from John 1:14—meaning “Tent,” or “God came and dwelt among us”), the community at EBM serves an area of men and women, young and old, mainly nonworking class, who have lived with violence, threats, anger, and hopelessness for years. This shared space for all hopes to bring community transformation and renewal.

Ally with kids copy.jpgAlison (Ally) Gilmore with her three children. PHOTO: BRITT GILMORE

There are still some physical barriers between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Even today there are still some 88 walls, gates, and fences closing off communities. Taking my daughter Emily to gymnastics on Monday evenings, if we don’t cross over by
6:30 pm, the gates are locked and then we have a massive detour to get home. That still shocks me and prompts many questions from Emily as we drive down visibly different streets with murals, Gaelic street signs, and a “feel” of difference that is not easily described. I know I am in Catholic areas and it unnerves me.

My husband Britt, an American, is very comfortable exploring new parts of the city and moves with ease between neighborhoods around East Belfast Mission. I do not. I remember feeling quite anxious getting stuck in a narrow Republican street with tri-color flags and IRA slogans. I sensed a certain twitch and tension in my body and asked Britt to drive away quickly. He wondered why I reacted so strongly. Then I recalled a horrific event in which two plain-clothed soldiers got caught in an unsafe street and were pulled from their car and later murdered. That television image came back to me more than 30 years later.

Counseling Services

The EBM counseling service was set up 10 years ago. We work with six volunteers and offer around 50-hours a week of free mental health support to the community. We strive to create a safe, warm, and respectful place for people to explore their difficulties and journey with them to help them make new and better decisions.

Because of the trauma that Northern Ireland has endured in the past, there are many people with severe depression, along with other mental health challenges that have arisen through a time of such conflict. I try to offer hope and perspective to people in very difficult places. The counseling service at EBM has been and continues to be in high demand.

MDUB5586 copy.jpgAlison Gilmore serves as a counselor at East Belfast Mission. “Violence leaves lasting footprints. Shadows haunt a person, coming through in addiction, depression, and inappropriate behaviors,” she says of her work there. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS

My clients knew guns, bombs, and death beatings in ways that truly shock, repulse, and leave me with disturbing images sometimes. Violence leaves lasting footprints. Shadows haunt a person, coming through in addiction, depression, and inappropriate behaviors.

The emotional effects of Northern Ireland’s Troubles are very much present today. Suicide is increasingly high. It has been estimated that 3,600 people were killed in Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict between 1969 and 1997. A less well-known statistic is that almost as many people took their own lives in the 15 years that followed. Issues of guilt are common among my clients. They cannot comprehend why they acted or did what they did during that time. Guilt and shame can be paralyzing. This leads to depression and relationships that are marked by hostility, cruelty, and other negative patterns.

Reconciliation is not always possible or recommended (in areas of abuse). We cannot undo the past, but we can decide to live wholeheartedly today. I also balance two pictures the client shares with me: the one they came from and the one they hope to be. As we deal with the wounds of pain and despair, I also gently share the new picture of light and goodness and a better way. We walk there together.

I remember a client who, over the course of four years, told me about reconciliation with her dad. After years of distance and frustration they came together for dinner. Nervously she greeted him and the conversations just flowed. He never said sorry. Remarkably, she didn’t need to hear it. Having the man open the door and begin again was enough. It was as good as it would get—and that was enough.

I was so unbelievably proud of the woman she was becoming. It was enough to have what she had. That is healing—not perfect but so much brighter than what she had before.

To know that the presence of God is close by within the walls of counseling is serene. How incredibly beautiful, to know that God, the sovereign one, who gathers nations, rejoices over us—that is the Garden of Eden for me as we live in barren lands.

*Alison Gilmore (Advance #3021321), a missionary from Northern Ireland, serves as a mental health counselor with East Belfast Mission. Alison’s husband, the Rev. Britt Gilmore, a former missionary, serves as a Methodist pastor in Northern Ireland. They are the parents of three young children.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.