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Billy Mitchell

November 30, 2006

Billy Mitchell died this summer. Not many outside Northern Ireland will know him but he was aImages_4

tireless worker for peace, justice and reconciliation in working class loyalist communities. Having been brought up in a Christian home he rejected faith in favour of a more robust response to the rising tensions in 1960s Northern Ireland. He rapidly became a leader in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and was sentenced to 25 years of prison life in 1976.

During prison he encountered the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which marked a recovery of faith and, on his release in 1990, he dedicated his life to community development. He was a self-educated theologian, who wrote extensively on the process of change and development in working class Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. To the confusion of many ‘religious’ people, he maintained his links with the UVF and at his death was the architect of a startlingly innovative approach to peacebuilding, particularly among the UVF.

Many of us miss him a lot. He was something of a father figure to those of us who came later to this kind of work. He provided a touchstone of integrity and grit, combined with a gentleness of spirit and determination that kept the rest of us focussed. And he created space for new voices, like mine, who would never have been heard in the contexts of often violent, ideologically driven men who had committed crime in the defence of their communities as they saw it. Billy’s quiet endorsement opened the door for us.

Last Sunday, many of us gathered to pay tribute to Billy and to honour his memory. We did it through the singing of his favourite hymns, through reminiscences and through biblical reflection. I had the honour of bringing some biblical comment on his life and example.

I read in Radical Torah recently, that in the OT story of Isaac and his sons we are told that Isaac was blind in his old age, which enabled Jacob to fool his father and so steal the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.

In Jewish tradition the rabbi’s are moved to ask the question, why was Isaac blind? His blindness, they suggest, was the earlier trauma of his brush with death on the top of Mt Moriah when his father made all the preparations necessary to sacrifice him. They suggest that Isaac never really recovered from this event and it caused a creeping spiritual blindness to take over his whole life.

In the story as we have it we know that Isaac lives a further 22 years after Jacob’s deception. Why was he in such a hurry to pass on his legacy when he was nowhere near the end of his life? The rabbis suggest that as the full import of what had happened to him seeps into him, his is spiritually paralysed and rendered unable to live a full life, obsessed with his own death.

Perhaps if we knew Isaac better, we’d see that he never really left that makeshift altar on Moriah, nor ever really cast off the ropes which bound him to it and the tip of his father’s knife. Billy was no Isaac. Billy began a journey away from his personal Moriah when he left prison. And he was still on that journey, walking away from that place when God took him home in July.

And many of us learned how to walk in this way by following him. We learned where to put our feet and where to tread lightly or stomp right in by watching and listening to him.

The journey from Moriah was one he made unfalteringly, but it took his toll on him. And he left far too early for those who knew him, loved him and worked with him. Or maybe, it’s not a case of saying Billy left us. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Billy finished the journey before the rest of us.

Revelation chapter 14 verse 13 says,

“I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.”

Billy’s journey is over now and he is enjoying his rest with the Lord he loved and served. We who are left are charged with continuing the walk. There is still a lot to be done and we would do well to heed the lessons of his walk. Of how Billy knew instinctively how to walk with people in their journey rather than imposing on them. How he could stand alongside some of the people who are most reviled in our community yet they never felt judged by him.

Billy has entered his rest and like the verse from Revelation says, his deeds follow him. This happens in two ways I guess. His deeds follow him as the evidence of his love for and faithfulness to God.

His deeds will follow him in another way too. And that is in the continuing actions of those who are continuing the walk in his wake. His deeds follow him as we take up the mantle behind him and try to carry on his work.

We celebrated a life that was ultimately well lived, a journey well travelled. Billy finished the journey well. His example still stands though, and we are left to follow in his way, by placing our feet in the footprints he has left and thus to learn from how he walked. And, as Northern Ireland and our communities change there remain many steps we’ll have to learn on our own, but Billy’s legacy will stand us in good stead.

Billy’s writings can be accessed on the website of the agency he established, the Linc Resource Centre. There’s also a brief biography there.

From → Reflection

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