November 2008 - Vol. 24

Youth Initiatives reaches many young people in Northern Ireland

The Other Side of the Tracks

learning to live as a disciple outside my Christian comfort zone

by Sophie Fountain

Each year dozens of university-aged people from Sword of the Spirit communities give up a year of school or career to serve in many different locations, both in one's own country and abroad, filling needed “gaps” in our youth work. Each “Standing in the Gap” year is unique. A Gap year in Costa Rica looks different from a Gap year in Mexico; New Zealand is different than serving in the United States; the Philippines differs from London. 

It is really difficult to describe what a Gap year is like,” says Sophie Fountain. “It is so full and so different and has so many elements.” Sophie spent last year in Belfast, Northern Ireland, serving with the outreach there called Youth Initiatives (YI). Sophie is from the University Christian Outreach chapter in East Lansing, Michigan, USA. She’s an American Catholic girl who spent a year living in the Loyalist/Protestant/British side of Belfast while serving kids on the Nationalist/Catholic/Irish side (these names are used interchangeably).

Living on the Other Side of the Tracks
When we gappers arrived, the Youth Initiatives staff tried to tell us everything we would need to know about living and working in Belfast. It was hard to take it all in but I learned as I lived: how to pronounce Irish names (‘Caoimhe,’ for example, is ‘Keva’) or how to speak softly even when excitedly talking on the phone (as Irish do, and Americans like me do not). I learned that I couldn’t listen to ‘traditional Irish music’ while living in a Loyalist neighborhood because what we think of as Irish is really from the Catholic side of the tracks. Wearing a Celtic cross could get one in trouble in my neighborhood, as could talking about sports like rugby or hurling (those are Nationalist, not Loyalist sports). Calling oneself Catholic or Protestant can sometimes be more of a cultural or political qualifier than a statement of faith or religious convictions."

Sophie and friends from NUTS

NUTS (Never Underestimate Teen Spirit!)
I mainly worked with the NUTS (Never Underestimate Teen Spirit!) program for 11-to-14 year olds. We had three centers for working with these kids and were reaching between 300 and 400 kids a year. YI has also begun an outreach to cultural Chinese living in Belfast and started a couple of other new centers. It is very busy!

People in Belfast don’t leave their neighborhoods much. When we had a retreat for all the NUTS kids, for example, the Lagmore kids would be very suspicious of the Twinbrook kids, even though both those neighborhoods are Catholic and only about five minutes from each other.

youth from NUTS program on outing

Living out Love
YI is a huge witness of ‘living out love.’ It really is a family environment. The staff and the kids get to know each other very well; the kids will ask staff members how things are personally going as well as staff asking them. Kids hang out at the YI building at all different times or they stop in just to say hi. Their closest friends are often in Youth Initiatives. YI is really their second home.

Many of the kids start attending YI events at age 11 or 12 and keep with the program through their late teens. Often, older siblings or friends tell them about YI and bring them along.

Sophie on right with friend from YI

Taking Risks and Stepping Up
I was impressed at how good the YI staff is at including the kids of all different ages in service. Older kids often help with younger kids’ programs. Staff is really good at taking the risks of letting one of the teens run an event (and they are OK with the resulting lack of polish). YI staff works to identify leadership and other gifts in the kids and trains the kids to use them. The kids ‘step up’ and take very seriously the responsibility given them.

Every child who can serve in some way is asked to. The resulting ‘ownership’ they have in Youth Initiatives is incredible. Numbers of former YI members now in their 20s have come back and are volunteering as program leaders. Some have decided on a youth workers course of study at college because of their confidence and love for kids gained in YI.

Letting the Lord have his Way with Me
So, how was all this for me personally and how has my Gap year affected me? I was warned before I went by many people that I would be ‘stretched’ in ways I didn’t imagine. I was warned that I would be lonely at times. A woman who works with youth outreach here in the United States advised me to ‘lean into’ loneliness when it came. What she meant was let the Lord have his way with me and accomplish his work in me.

Here in the States, I never needed to depend on the Lord like I did there. Here I have family and lots of close Christian friends to help me get through any challenge. I learned during my Gap year that God is enough for me. 

Outside the Bubble of my Christian Comfort Zone
In Belfast, I found myself outside the bubble of my Christian comfort zone. I am now convinced that I must be open and eager to go where I am not comfortable. I learned what it means to be a light in the darkness: it means that we relate to people who are different from us (politically, economically, racially, socially, educationally, denominationally) and love them with the love of Christ.

I am back in East Lansing, involved in my University Christian Outreach chapter. I am living in a household with great Christian women. In addition, I volunteer with a group of middle school girls and continue ‘processing’ the many things that the Lord did with me during my year in Belfast. God is good.

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