Around this time every year since 2013, the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast, a faith-based arts festival, has taken place. It seeks to encourage people out of their own corners of our sadly divided city – geographically, psychologically, politically and theologically – to discover new places, encounter new ideas and make new friends.
It was conceived over coffee by two of my friends, Presbyterian minister Rev Steve Stockman who ministers in the south of our city close to Queen's University, and Catholic priest Fr Martin Magill who currently works in the west on the Falls Road.
Normal patterns of life, work and even worship have been disrupted. Some feel they have had the breath knocked out of them
This year’s festival, which runs from January 31st to February 7th, has been radically shaped by what is a pandemic of biblical proportions.
Early on in this year’s preparations, the first lockdown was implemented and we realised that not only would we have to have contingencies in place to run this as an online festival, but that much of the planning would have to be done remotely, which was not conducive to our customary long, laughter-filled meetings.
It challenged us as never before to be creative in delivering a portfolio of events, including music, drama, poetry, discussions and prayer, that may not take people physically out of their own corners, or indeed homes, but which will still provide a place of encounter with fresh thinking and different faces, drawn not just from the four corners of Belfast, or even of Ireland, but way beyond.
We also settled very early on the theme of this year’s festival: “Breathe”.
In Hebrew, the word “ruach” means “breath” or “spirit”, the very essence of life. Our 2021 festival seeks to tap into that spirit and breathe hope into our city, fostering creativity and resilience in the face of current challenges. Yet in the context of coronavirus we have all become very conscious that our breath is not only the source and sign of life, but a potential threat.
Not only does the virus itself affect our breathing, but some of the measures taken to slow down transmission have had a disproportionately negative effect on those who are already vulnerable, including those confined for prolonged periods, wrestling with their own mental wellbeing, exacerbated by grief or worry, or in increasingly abusive relationships.
We seek to make the festival a safe space for people and ideas – a place where painful experiences can be aired in a supportive environment
Normal patterns of life, work and even worship have been disrupted. Some feel they have had the breath knocked out of them.
But the virus is not the only global story of this past year. The dying words of George Floyd in the United States – "I can't breathe" – echoed around the world, breathing new life into the Black Lives Matter campaign, prompting protests and raising questions beyond the borders of the US about the historic impact of slavery, systemic racism and multiculturalism.
We seek to make the festival a safe space for people and ideas – a place where painful experiences can be aired in a supportive environment. In the light of the issues above, we believe that this is more important than ever.
Throughout the festival, we will also be exploring the importance of embodied breath as a significant component of good mental health and resilience, looking at how this intersects with ancient spiritual practices and prayer.
We have drawn together what we believe is an enticing mix of events and speakers, from its opening with keynote speaker Prof John Paul Lederach, the acclaimed US expert on conflict resolution, to inputs from Play It By Ear, a Christian drama company, resilience workshops, discussions on racial diversity and domestic abuse.
We have even worked out a way where we can encourage people to go on our ever-popular "Wonderful Wander", in this case through some of the parks and streets of south Belfast, either suitably socially distanced, or without actually leaving their homes, accompanied by the disembodied voices of myself and Jim Deeds regaling you with trivia and poetry.
So, despite the challenges of pulling together the festival this year, its online format means that whether you are from north Belfast, south Dublin, east Tyrone or west Cork, or even farther afield, you can join us for a bit of breathing space at 4cornersfestival.com