Close Encounters With Prejudice
Yearly visits by students from New Jersey and Northern Ireland give insights into bigotry
THE dark green Land Rover peeled around the corner, and jolted to a halt in front of the barricaded police station. The building, located in Belfast's Short Strand, a Roman Catholic ghetto, had been the target of bombing attacks by the outlawed Irish Republican Army for four consecutive evenings.A soldier in a helmet and green fatigues, bounded from the Land Rover and aimed his automatic rifle at Leslie Ahrendts, a senior from Rutgers University, who was across the street with three of her American companions. She froze, while another soldier leaped from the vehicle, kneeled, and also pointed his rifle at the group. "They kept their sights on us for about a minute or so. Then they disappeared into the station, and it was all over, like a bad dream," Leslie recalls. "For longer than I care to remember, I was staring right down the barrel of a gun.... And the soldier was only my age, probably as scared as me." Leslie Ahrendts was among 17 black, white, and Hispanic students from New Jersey who were in Northern Ireland for three weeks in July to glean some insight into religious prejudice and racial bigotry. This is the fifth year a group from New Jersey or Belfast has alternately crossed the Atlantic for a short stay to promote mutual understanding. The exchanges are sponsored by a loose-knit group of churches and individuals on both sides of the Atlantic, says the Rev. Bob Smith of Christ United Methodist Church in Lakewood, N.J. This particular group spent a week in Belfast working on cleanup projects, a week living with a family in the city, and a week traveling in Northern Ireland and London. For Leslie Ahrendts, the tour - and the incident at the police station - opened her eyes. "I started, I mean just started to understand how the people in this community begin to feel fear, then it turns to anger," she says. For a long weekend, the Americans met in Balintoy, an idyllic seaside resort town on the northeast tip of Ireland, to share impressions and insights about prejudice with students from Belfast who came over last year. "Northern Ireland is a real paradox. A strange mixture of terror and beauty," says Patrick Rucker, 17, from Howell, N.J., who was with Leslie when the soldiers confronted them. "It just seems to me that prejudice in Northern Ireland is more blatant than back home. But it's all the same thing: The effects are just as negative," says Vicky Bowden, a recent graduate of Moorestown Friends School, who describes herself as "mixed," since her mother is white and her father is black. "In some ways, because racism is subtler in the United States, it is hard to know, at least for a while, who you can really trust," she adds. "Prejudice definitely keeps people separate in America," says N adine Cataline, 15, from Lakewood, N.J. "But in Northern Ireland, I see religion keeping people apart. Here, they're so tied to their religion and their churches. In some ways, being in Belfast has turned me away from religion." The teenage daughter of a Protestant minister here adds that she'd been inside a Roman Catholic church in France, just "to see what it's like." But "if we went to a Catholic church here, we'd be characterized as IRA sympathizers," she says. Gazing out over the serene water of the North Channel, Roy Kane, an 18-year-old Protestant from Belfast, tells the group that the next month he would sign up for the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR), the British troops who "occupy" or "protect depending upon your perspective - Northern Ireland. He is an only son, and his family does not want him to enlist. But he feels compelled, he explains, even though he knows he will be putting himself and his parents in peril "since the IRA views the Army and their family as targets." He speaks with a sense of romanticism and duty, saying, "It takes a lot of guts to put a uniform on here, because you could get killed any sleeping or waking minute." Whenever a UDR soldier starts his car, he leaves the door open for the first 100 yards or so. That way, if hi s car has been wired with a bomb, he will be blown out of the car instead of blown up. Back in Belfast, Graham Lather, a former Loyalist (aligned with the British) paramilitary member of the Ulster Defense Association, tells the students: "I was in prison with a lot of guys who had killed and were willing to die for something. But they didn't really know what that 'something' was. I realized that if I gave them a blank piece of paper, I don't think they could write 100 words about what they believe in. It would just be a sheet full of slogans." The troubles in Northern Ireland are deeply tied into peoples' identities, he adds. The Republicans, who want Northern Ireland united with the Republic of Ireland to the south, see themselves as underdogs. Loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to remain British, feel they are protectors. Both groups, he says, "are fighting to save their country, or to free their country, and, either way - as someone once said everyone loves a revolutionary. Later, Rev. Jim Rea, pastor of the Methodist Church on Newtonards Road the heartland of Protestant loyalism," as he calls it - meets with Rev. Eamonn O'Brien, parish priest for St. Matthews Church, a stone's throw from the embattled Short Strand police station. Walking along the 20-foot-high brick "peace wall" that separates the two communities, Fr. O'Brien says, "Protestants and Catholics do not have a real conflict over theology. The troubles are about who owns this territory." Nodding in agreement, Reverend Rea says he works more closely with the Roman Catholic Church than with the Protestant churches in his community. But both members of the clergy feel they have to work quietly. If they were to publicize how well they get along, both personally and professionally, both say it would backfire. "Pioneers of reconciliation have historically perished on media hype here in Northern Ireland," Reverend Rea says. "They end up explaining themselves, then explaining what people think they said, and soon they're spending all their time explaining - rather than doing things, so their grass-roots effectiveness diminishes, then dis appears." O'Brien agrees: "For us, the work has to be slow ... and quiet."