Walls. Fences. Barriers. Unfortunately, many of us seem to build them in one form or another. Afraid of being hurt, we put up iron bars for protection. Afraid of being laughed at, we build a barricade that no one gets inside. Worst of all may be the walls of intolerance, built with bricks of ignorance, cemented with the mortar of fear. Understanding comes only when such walls are torn away. Love and peace come only when, brick by brick, the walls come down.
LDS youth in the Belfast Northern Ireland Stake know a lot about walls. In a country torn for centuries by unrest and terrorism, they are in the delicate position of being on neither side of the conflict—both religious and political—between Catholics and Protestants. But they deal with the barriers just the same. Listen to three young women from the Cavehill Ward:
Sharon Goodall recites a common story: “My schoolmates always want to know if I’m Catholic or Protestant. I tell them I’m neither; I’m Mormon. ‘Fine,’ they say. ‘Are you a Catholic Mormon or a Protestant Mormon?’” It almost sounds like a joke, until you have to live it. You try to get along with everybody, but there’s constant pressure to pick a side.”
Debra Boyd explains that a lot of people outside of Northern Ireland have no idea what it’s truly like to live here. “It’s rare that you would see something like a bombing. I’ve lived here all my life and I haven’t seen any at all. Life goes on pretty much as normal, although you have security checks on public buses, and sometimes there’s a tailback (traffic jam) when there’s an incident. But it’s more of an inconvenience than a threat to your life.”
Along with six other Mormons, Debra attends the Hazelwood Integrated College in Belfast, a school where the student body is about 50 percent Catholic and 50 percent Protestant. “I’m fairly new at the school, and at the start they’re all, ‘Oh, she’s one of them mad Mormons,’ and they tease you about being a moron, because it sounds the same,” Debra says. “But now, they’re asking questions, like why I don’t take tea or coffee. They’re kind of interested in it more.”
Debbie Sloan, who attends the same school, is popular with her classmates. “At an integrated school, the effort is to help us all get along anyway,” she explains. “They know I’m Mormon. My close friends know my dad is a bishop, that we spend lots of time at our church. I just talk about it the way it is, and they accept me for what I am.”
Claire and Sandra Hoey of Craigavon are members of the Portadown Ward. They talk about the walls that missionaries helped tumble for their family.
“The missionaries had been coming to our parents for a long time,” Sandra says. “But I never paid any attention. Then one night I was upstairs and I started listening. I got more interested in what they were saying. I decided it was time to see what it was all about.”
The discussions became more and more serious. The parents were baptized. An older brother was baptized. Then Sandra, then Claire.
After the baptisms, a friend “noticed that since I’ve joined the Church I’ve been happier,” Claire says. “She wanted to find out what it was that was making me happy.” Now the friend is taking the discussions in the Hoeys’ home. “I can remember asking the same questions, praying to resolve the same doubts,” Claire says. “It helps when I can tell her I’ve been through the same thing, and gained my own testimony.”
At the Lisburn Ward, Rachael Edwards, Karen Edwards, and David Schmidt say being fully involved in seminary helps break barriers, too.
“Before I started seminary and I’d explain to my friends what religion I was, they’d have a lot of questions and I couldn’t answer them well,” Rachael says. “Now, having done seminary, I feel more confidence whenever I talk to people about the Church.”
“There are 13 students in our seminary class,” Karen explains. “It’s the largest in Ireland. We have home study; then we meet with our teacher, Sister Susanna Thompson, on Tuesday nights. At school, everyone has what we call R.E. (religious education) classes. The R.E. schoolwork helps me with seminary, and seminary helps us have a different viewpoint, more depth than what we get at school. So they balance each other.”
“There’s a lot of videos and anti-Mormon literature that go around to the other churches,” Karen says. “It’s hard because what they hear has been severely twisted, and they really need to start from the basics.”
“A lot of my friends didn’t think we read the Bible,” Rachael says. “So I was really glad I could show them my seminary scriptures. They think it’s just their churches that have Bible study. They’re surprised to find we Mormons have our own study classes as well.”
“We change people’s views,” David says. “Like our teacher said, ‘So, you’re a Mormon. That means you’re not totally Christian?’ And I said, ‘Well, we are actually.’ We talked about it and got that all cleared up.”
David also tells of inviting friends and family to meetings. “Last year when my family was getting baptized, my mother invited our granny and our aunts all to church, and they came along and said they quite enjoyed it. They thought it interesting that we didn’t have just clergy up there but had everyday people bearing their testimonies. And my friends enjoy our church. They say it isn’t so much like a dungeon sort of place they’re used to, and that it isn’t boring.”
Rachael, Karen, and David tell story after story—the teacher who wanted a floor plan of a Mormon chapel to compare it with other churches; the exams where Mormons had to explain that they do get baptized in a font, which for other churches is a tiny basin holding water for sprinkling; and the reception the New Era gets from friends at school—”Hey, that’s cool! I wish our church had a magazine like that!”
But it’s Karen who sums up the overall experience. “There’s lots of opposition here,” she says. “But if we make them aware of the Church, maybe eventually they’ll understand the Church. And that can only do good.”
Talk to the young Latter-day Saints in Northern Ireland long enough, and you’ll find that what Karen says is what the youth are doing.
Sara Magee of Portadown will talk about standards. “Most of my friends, if someone offered me a cigarette or a drink, they’d say, ‘Nope, Sara, you’re not allowed.’” Karen Weir of Portadown will tell you how having the London Temple re-opened and the Preston Temple under construction has made a lot of people curious about the Church. Simon Noble of the Holywood Road Ward describes a stake play that was a missionary play, too. “It was all about the plan of salvation, and we invited non-LDS friends to come and learn about what we believe,” Simon says.
Debra Boyd, of the Cavehill Ward, will join the conversation again to talk about her bishop, Ronald Sloan, and how he has shown her that a bishop can be a great ally in living a worthy life. And Debra will tell of the joy she felt when her friend Leigh-Ann Kelly (and her family) were baptized. “We were crying our eyes out,” Debra says. “That scripture that talks about bringing one soul into heaven? You know that one? It’s really true.” That would be Doctrine and Covenants 18:15–16. [D&C 18:15–16]
Through the center of Belfast runs a thick scar, a no-man’s-land as ugly as a war zone. Its red bars, brick, barbed wire, and yellow barricades mark the dividing line between two parts of the city. For many, it is a symbol of a hopeless situation, its barriers a monument of mistrust and misunderstanding.
But young Latter-day Saints don’t dwell on such a reminder of despair. They look to a day when the Saviour will come, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, whose right it is to reign. In that day, if not before, all walls will tumble down. And when they do, they’ll be replaced by hope, love, peace, and understanding.