I was born and brought up in Northern Ireland. Throughout ‘The Troubles’ the question of how to achieve the all too elusive goal of peace was debated daily over breakfast tables, on living room sofas, in prayer meetings, in school classrooms, university lecture theatres, church gatherings, and chewed over endlessly by journalists and politicians.
We had prayer-athons for peace, peace marches, peace rallies, cross community peace initiatives and ‘The Peace People’ – who I didn’t have a foggy about what they actually did but I saw regularly wearing wonderful rainbow coloured home-knit woolly jumpers and passionately calling for peace.
Peace was something that seemed elusive and tantalising like an unreachable Lindt chocolate angel dangling at the top of a precarious Christmas tree. Lean too heavy in an attempt to grasp it and the whole thing could come crashing down.
On the 8th of November 1987 a crowd gathered in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland for a Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph. A bomb planted by the IRA meant to kill soldiers and policemen at the service, went off ten minutes early. Eleven people, all but one civilians, died. Sixty-three people were injured. Marie Wilson, a twenty-year-old nurse who had been standing near the monument with her father Gordon was buried under the bricks, and later died in hospital. Her father Gordon was interviewed and as my family watched I was totally shocked by what he said.
‘We were both thrown forward, rubble and stones and whatever in and around and over us and under us. I was aware of a pain in my right shoulder. I shouted to Marie was she all right and she said yes, she found my hand and said, “Is that your hand, dad?” Now remember we were under six foot of rubble. I said “Are you all right?” and she said yes, but she was shouting in between. Three or four times I asked her, and she always said yes, she was all right. When I asked her the fifth time, “Are you all right, Marie?” she said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the last words she spoke to me.
I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.
He said that he forgave her killers and added: “I shall pray for those people tonight and every night.”
As a 13-year-old with tears streaming down my face I couldn’t get my head around it. How could he react like that? Wasn’t he angry? Wasn’t he hurting? How could be call for reconciliation when most people would be calling for reprisals? What was it about this man that freed him from bitterness, hate and the lust for revenge?
And then the penny dropped. Gordon Wilson journeyed life with the one who the prophets had foretold and the angels announced would be ‘The Prince of Peace.’ The baby boy born in a country occupied by a foreign military power and groaning under the weight of oppression.
Gordon Wilson modelled his life on the ultimate peace maker, who spoke words of unconditional love, forgiveness and grace to the very people who were putting him to death, saying ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’
Gordon Wilson followed the servant leader who washed the feet of those who he knew were about to betray and abandon him in his hour of need. The one who said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ to a people searching for it in all the wrong places, just as we do today.
As I grew up I was continually gobsmacked by Gordon Wilson’s ability to model the grace, forgiveness and unconditional love which he had received from Jesus.
Out of unspeakable pain, Wilson dedicated his life to pursuing peace. As a peace campaigner, he sought to understand the reasons for the Remembrance Day bombing. He held many meetings with members of Sinn Fein and even met once with representatives of the Provisional IRA. He held talks with loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to persuade them to abandon violence, was involved with initiatives to improve community relations in Enniskillen and was eventually appointed to the Senate in the Republic of Ireland.
Historian Jonathan Bardon says of Gordon Wilson’s words of forgiveness, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”
He died in 1995 aged 68. What an inspiring life. A living Advent calendar who opened his broken heart to those who had broken it. Who allowed Jesus to transform his pain, so he wouldn’t transmit it to others. Who became a wounded healer, just like the ‘Prince of Peace’ he walked alongside throughout his life.
Wow do we all need peace in our world, in our nation, in our communities, in our homes, and in our hearts today.
Big challenge to me and to all of us is how can I/we be a peace maker today?