June 2007 - Vol. 9

European Kairos Conference hosted by Charis Community

Charis Community - Belfast

A witness of God's grace for unity and reconciliation

By Gary McFadden, Senior Coordinator

Belfast is known throughout the world for “the troubles”. For decades, Protestant-Catholic sectarian strife has plagued Northern Ireland, but during that time The Sword of the Spirit in the region has sustained Charis, a community with people from both sides of the political and religious divide who are working to extend the way of peace in their own lives and to pass it on to others, especially the young. Personal conversion, cross-community activities, and taking concern for people on “the other side” characterize Charis. 

night view of River Lagan in Belfast

Can you describe the origins of Charis?
I would say that Charis grew out of the worldwide action of God to establish Christian community in a society that is increasingly fragmented and divided.  Here in Northern Ireland, we  heard the Lord’s call to be an ecumenical witness as a community in a society riven by division between Christians and in the middle of a long period of religious and political violence.

For me that call came initially to a vibrant group called Gilnahirk Fellowship which grew initially out of a Presbyterian youth group and later became a large predominantly Protestant group called Community of the King. 

In 1988 the Community of the King grew even larger when it was joined by Belfast Christian Family which was an ecumenical group comprising a Catholic charismatic prayer group and a House Church group. One of the leaders of this group was Des Dick,  the current president of the European and MiddleEast Region of The Sword of the Spirit and also a coordinator of Charis Community.  In 1976 Des had visited The Servants of the Word in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA and was inspired by their ecumenical witness and vision for a common way of life. 

In the early 1990s the Community of the King went through a period of trial and testing, along with a few other communities associated with The Sword of the Spirit.  When the community leadership could not agree on a way forward, the community lost many members. In 1995 some 30 former members of the Community of the King, made a commitment together to be a covenant community within the broader Sword of the Spirit network of communities. After a period of prayer and discernment, the community took the name Charis, which is the Greek New Testament word for grace.

view of Belfast Lough

What enabled Charis to survive as a community in those days?
It is obvious to say that God called us together as an ecumenical Christian community and he wanted us not only to survive, but to grow again as well. I would say that two things he gave us were (and still are) vital. 

Firstly, we had strong natural relationships. We got on very well together, I think that the call to live our lives together was strong. Many of us also were already living close to one another in a neighbourhood, which definitely helped. 

Secondly was the support that we had from the Sword of the Spirit. We had a Servant of the Word house in Belfast all through this period. We derived great strength from this group of celibate men dedicated to the call and mission of The Sword of the Spirit. Indeed today, a large aspect of our community life revolves around the Servants of the Word house, for meetings throughout the year and particularly the celebration the seasons during Advent and especially through Holy Week and Easter.

We were excellently served in our formation process by two leaders from the Sword of the Spirit, John Keating and Bruce Yocum. It was a great moment for Des Dick our first Senior Coordinator when, following a visitation led by David McGill, Charis was accepted as a fully-formed community at The Sword of the Spirit Assembly in London in May 2004.

night view of Belfast City

So how do things look today?
I would say healthy. We have over 90 people connected to us in various ways.  Statistically we are about 80 per cent Catholic. We have over 30 people involved in our initiations process. Our young people are doing well, led by John and Debbie Byrne and with the Regional Youth Programme as a tremendous support and catalyst.  Indeed many of us older ones marvel at how young the age profile is at our community gatherings. 

Of course we have challenges – for example we are working hard at evangelistic outreach and praying for God’s guidance and grace to make us fruitful.

We do above all recognise that whatever we have now or may have in the future is due to the grace which the Lord in his goodness has chosen to pour out on us.

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