Cities of Sanctuary (and bridging the divide in Lurgan)Posted: May 24, 2013
I attended a Community Relations Showcase Evening in Lurgan last night, which was one of many events being held this week as part of Northern Ireland’s Community Relations Week. Lurgan is a former market town with an invisible (to outsiders like myself) line drawn down the middle of it – Catholic at one end and Protestant at the other with absolute segregation and very little overlap. As a result of its split population, the town suffered much during the Troubles. Last night was a platform to present the diverse array of work that local community organisations are doing there in an attempt to build relationships and bridge the divide. We heard presentations from teenagers who spoke articulately of the youth groups they attend and the peacebuilding they’re involved in, we were entertained by a local cross-community choir, and we listened to Paddy and Jock – one Republican ex-IRA and the other Loyalist ex-army and UDR – who talked with humour and humility of their difficult personal journeys from hatred to cross-community work and friendship based on honesty, debate and respect for their differences.
The key-note speaker was Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal, leader and CEO of the Corrymeela Community on the north coast of Northern Ireland. He gave a six word summary of Corrymeela’s work – embracing difference, healing division, enabling reconciliation – and shared some thoughts on own his personal vision for the future. He also showed us a video (see below) about the City of Sanctuary movement that he initiated in his former hometown of Sheffield. Having just been to Israel, my ears pricked up when he started by mentioning the children of Israel, who were told through Moses to create six cities of refuge where people could escape the rules of proportionality – ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ – which reigned elsewhere in the desert (it seems ironic that Hebron was one of these cities, given the on-going tensions there today). This gave Bhogal the idea of creating cities of sanctuary in today’s world, which seek to extend welcome and hospitality to the people within the city and those coming to it, particularly refugees and asylum seekers. Since Sheffield was awarded City of Sanctuary status in 2007, the initiative has grown in popularity, and many other cities have followed suit. We were told that both Derry/Londonderry and Belfast are now on their way to becoming Cities of Sanctuary, and it was suggested last night that Lurgan might like to become a Town of Sanctuary, too.
Well, the idea of a city of sanctuary has captured my imagination. Naturally Bhogal didn’t say much in his presentation about the physicality of such a city, focusing instead on the important community work that needs to be facilitated within it. But the architect in me has been wondering what kind of a city, what built environment, would best lend itself to sanctuary. It certainly isn’t, to my mind, one full of walls and roads that act as barriers between people. Indeed Bhogal did have something to say about walls – he said he dreamt of a city where the only walls that exist are those that provide shelter or sanctuary. How would that city look? A lot different to the ones we’re living in today. Imagine that as a litmus test for every wall and road and building that was to be built. Does it provide sanctuary or shelter? No? Then it shan’t be built. No more ‘peace’ walls, no more fences and walls enclosing the city’s green spaces, no more housing estates that consist of layer upon layer of walls and territorial separation. And don’t even get me started on Israel and its Separation Wall!
Of course in Israel, sanctuary and shelter take on a different meaning. Every new building, for example, must have a secure room, a bomb shelter, for protection in the event of rocket attack from surrounding territories. And the Separation Wall itself would be described by some as a form of shelter, or at least protection, from potential suicide bombers. Which raises the question of what the sanctuary or shelter is from. Because when it’s from your neighbours, things get a little complicated. I, for one, struggle to see houses that have panic rooms, or cities that are wall-riddled like Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, or entire countries that are fearfully defensive like Israel, as being true sanctuaries, in Bhogal’s intended sense of the word.
This month in Northern Ireland, the First Minister and Deputy First Minster have announced their commitment to take down all of Northern Ireland’s peace walls by 2023 (more here), so maybe now the time is ripe to be making a move from cities that are defined by defensive walls to those that physically embody sanctuary, hospitality and welcome, with all the openness and equality that those demand.