In 2006 I talked to three survivors of what people in Northern Ireland refer to as the “Troubles,” that period of “sectarian” conflict and violence from the 1960’s through the 1990’s that cost some 3,500 lives. “Molly’s” husband was seriously wounded; “Fiona” was too close to an assassination attempt and still carries a bullet lodged near her heart that surgeons cannot remove; and “Barbara” had to deal with a father who joined the paramilitaries and left her mother with nine kids to raise on very little while he was on the run, in and out of jail, and the family’s reputation “smeared.” While stories like these are quite common in a small nation where nearly everyone was touched by these “Troubles,” these women found that their pain began to heal through a program of neighbor-to-neighbor, facilitated story-telling.
In a program titled Toward Understanding and Healing, a small group of Derry residents come together for a 3-day residential to tell their stories, listen, accept and support each other. This may seem simple but it’s not when you recognize the cultures of avoidance, silence and fear that have developed here. You just “didn’t want to know” and you “didn’t ask.” Developed by Maureen Hetherington, the Director of The Junction, Toward Understanding and Healing has demonstrated the value of skilled facilitators and the power of community-based listening, acceptance and support.
The program begins with a pre-conference. The residential groups are always mixed with representation from all sides of this deeply divided society but connected by some kind of connection to the “Troubles” either as victim/survivor or perpetrator of violence including paramilitaries, state security and military personnel. Their “Contract” has only one requirement, “No judgment.” An icebreaker gets them started. The twelve participants and a few facilitators are then divided into groups of three to four where the focus is on stories, initially without interruption.
After the residential, facilitators organize one follow-up session. After that, the program’s resources are refocused on a new group. As simple as this may seem, Barbara insists that “it always works. New friends are formed.” Most stay in contact, especially through the ease of email. While the “Troubles” drove groups apart, Barbara remains “cautiously optimistic” that this program can really help pull the community back together.
Fiona insists that there was “absolutely nothing available” in 1973 when she was shot and little else still today. Initially she found value in journaling. Now, she sees these storytelling sessions as basic but so valuable, helping her heal and lead “a normal life under abnormal conditions.” Neighbors helping neighbors, crossing that deep divide without judgment, healing old wounds and building new relationships on acceptance and open, honest communication.
When Maureen Hetherington first told her own story of loss, she quickly got some healing insights for herself which then led to a job as a community relations officer with links to a victim’s group. In time and with an infusion of European Union funds for peace and reconciliation work, Maureen established The Junction which sponsors Toward Understanding and Healing. The challenge now, however, is to sustain this kind of programs in a city with old wounds as new problems vie for scant local resources.
While the wounds in America may not be so raw or as recent as they are in Northern Ireland, there would clearly be a place for this kind of neighbor-to-neighbor initiative. At The Junction, staff members understand that they are not doing therapy; it’s something more basic. What a wonderful way to bring people together in deeply meaningful connections, the real glue of a healthy community. The courage to put the weapons, fear and learned hatreds to the side and begin with building an inclusive and peaceful future on basic human relationships.