March 2011 - Vol. 48.
by Erik Sellstrom
My housemate and I hosted the annual Christmas party for the University Christian Outreach (UCO) chapter at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which until September of 2010 was known as Together Encounter Christ. As we began to prepare for the party, putting up decorations and mixing mulled wine, I reflected on the past year, since the last Christmas party a year ago. This time last year I had just gotten acquainted with the people in UCO-Belfast.Erik Sellstrom, from Tennessee, USA, studied Irish History at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from September 2009 until January, 2011 and is now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Erik reflects on his experience with University Christian Outreach and Charis community in Belfast this past year.
In the midterm of 2009, after being in Northern Ireland for about two and a half months, I had become good friends with a third-year history and sociology student who I worked with in the Queen’s University Belfast Catholic Chaplaincy’s Café. My ”Westie” (as the natives of West Belfast are commonly known) friend had for a while been encouraging me to go to various meetings and social events of a seemingly dodgy (Americans read “weird” or “strange”) charismatic Christian group that I had never heard of, but I always said, ”Another time, perhaps.” To be perfectly honest I had never intended to follow through with this. Then about a week before the end of the term, I went to a Christmas carol service promoted by the various chaplaincies of Queen’s, and I met a friend of this “Westie.” He was a slightly awkward and incredibly friendly Scotsman who was spending the year in Belfast working as a gapper for Youth Initiatives, a Sword of the Spirit outreach to young people in Northern Ireland.
A few days after the carol service, this Scottish gapper invited me to a Christmas house party. The idea of going to a house party at the end of the term sounded like fun. I thought I needed some time to maybe drink too much and just let loose before Christmas. So, I went to the off-license (beer vault), picked up a 24-can case of Magner’s (Irish alcoholic cider) and headed to the party. When I showed up at the address my new friend had given me, in a neighborhood near Queen’s University, I started to wonder what kind of party this would be. The house was in an incredibly posh (Americans read “ritzy”) neighborhood. I was starting to get nervous. Given the neighborhood, I wondered if this would be a formal party for well-off, successful business types or over-privileged, spoiled rich kids. For a moment I contemplated simply turning around and walking back to my university accommodation. However, something inside me urged me on, so I reached for the doorbell and pressed the button, quietly hoping that my fears were unfounded.
A few seconds later, a young man in a suit answered the door and said in a slightly annoyed American accent, ”Yes, can I help you?” At first I thought that this must be a rich American here on business or a well-to-do student studying at Queen’s University. Fear and nervousness began to take hold now. I began to think of things to say to get myself out of this awkward situation as fast as possible. Then I heard my new friend’s voice from inside and saw him from behind this bewildered, questioning American.
I ducked under the young American’s arm and made a bee-line for my Scottish friend. To the American, this probably seemed like a stranger was unwelcomingly gaining access to his home. At first glance, this party was definitely not what I had expected: calm atmosphere, mulled wine, nice cheese and fancy crackers, and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Plus, everyone was either in a suit or otherwise nicely dressed.
After about an hour I had met most of the people there. Throughout the evening, I had varied conversations with the guys that lived in the house. They behaved in a way that made me wonder, who are these people and what gives them this evident peace and obvious joy? By the end of the night I had added several new words to my vocabulary – brotherhood, covenant community, ecumenical, charismatic renewal, to name a few. As I walked home I began to digest all that I had learned, heard, seen, and felt.
After the university term began again in January, I made it a point to ask my ”Westie” friend from the chaplaincy when the next meeting of this group that I had met at the Christmas party called TEC (Together Encounter Christ) would be. The next Tuesday I went along to their fortnightly meeting. There was a lot of singing, praying and something that my southern Baptist upbringing clearly identified as speaking in tongues. It genuinely “freaked” me out. However, I went again to the next meeting, then the next, and then the next. Relationships began to form and my faith in the Lord began to deepen and grow. I could sense that this community was really genuine and contact with it prodded me to seek God more earnestly. As a personal relationship with the Lord deepened through my involvement with the community, I knew that I could not simply walk away from it. I began to realize that I, too, wanted to be a disciple on mission in Christian community.
By the spring of 2010 I had become an active member and by autumn of 2010 a part of the planning team for TEC (now called UCO). I now had a set of relationships with people that I can proudly call my brothers and my sisters in the Lord. By the autumn of 2010 I had decided to make every effort to move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for when returned to the U.S. in January of 2011, so that I could continue to have a life in and with the larger Sword of the Spirit network of communities. I recognized that the Lord wanted to direct my life and show me where I could best serve him. I was trying to be open and responsive to his leading.
During this past year and a half in Belfast, I have consistently seen the Lord work in my life in many ways – through volunteering at the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queens University, being a part of the UCO chapter, being involved with Charis Community in Belfast, and with the wider Sword of the Spirit network of communities throughout Europe and elsewhere. The Lord is good, abounding in steadfast love, and generous with his mercy and grace. I have regularly experienced the Lord bringing me great joy and love through challenging me to answer his call to serve him. This is abundantly obvious in how I came to know TEC, Charis and the Sword of the Spirit. My hope and prayer is that the Lord will continue to call me to serve him as a disciple on mission in the Sword of the Spirit.
I am presently nervous, yet in an excited way, to move forward with the call the Lord has placed in my heart. However, I do know the Lord more personally, and I have faith that he will bring abundant life, joy, hope, and love where ever I end up. The future will be challenging and difficult, I’m sure. However, the Lord is calling me to take these steps, so I know that it will be full of God’s goodness and love. I can shout and sing with the psalmist, “The Lord is mighty in all his ways and good in all his deeds. Praise the Lord, O my soul!”
…One thing I still wonder, though: what ever happened to that case
of 24 Magners?
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