Faith schools can help bridge gaps in divided communities
Reintegration of divided communities is a matter of generations, not a quick fix, a marathon not a sprint. When it comes to peace-building some of the best long-distance runners have trained in Northern Ireland. I’ve learnt a lot from them. Not least how dealing with history and geography is a big part of the problem in conflicts. The little town of Ballycastle can testify to that.
I discovered that bridges in Northern Ireland – I’m thinking of the bridge that separated “Derry” from “Londonderry” – can just as easily divide people as join them. All round the world, bridges can turn into closely guarded frontiers. Ballycastle bridge was another – smaller – example, though there was nothing small about the suffering inflicted on the two communities by the bombs, killings and civil disorder accompanying marches.
On one side of the bridge lay the Cross and Passion, a Catholic school; on the other Ballycastle High, a mainly Protestant school.
Led by two outstanding religious education teachers the two schools tentatively began to get together in the late 1960s on a very informal basis. In the 1990s, through “Curriculum 2000” it became a much more formal and structured process.
Through the shared education programme funding, the collaboration has expanded beyond post-16-year-old students to include younger pupils studying for their GCSE exams. They now have a joint school choir and rugby team.
My faith foundation got involved in both schools through its Faith to Faith programme, which is now working in 18 countries.
It is a classroom-to- classroom modular course, internet-mediated, building respect and understanding between different faiths. We have become increasingly aware of how helpful it can be in post-conflict situations.
The story of how the two schools came together across the Ballycastle bridge is being told today in a video put together by the students of the two schools. It shows what two religious education teachers with support and vision can do to heal the wounds of a divided community.
Above all it shows the way in which faith schools can draw on the best in their traditions in preparing young people for the religiously and culturally pluralist world of today.
Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, is founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.