We spent last week in Limerick, where I started my formal Christian ministry in September 1986. We spent 8 years there as a family and my youngest daughter Rachel was born there and she was keen to revisit to see her birthplace, the hospital where she came into the world, our old house and it gave me a chance to reconnect with some of the folks, who are still in Limerick Baptist Church – worthy warriors who survived my 8 years of ministry among them.
The roads are now fantastic. Between Lisburn and the outskirts of Limerick we only had 1 traffic light. When the Celtic Tiger roared, it roared loud and the signs of growth and progress are hugely evident. The city itself has changed incredibly since we lived there. In those dark days of the late 80s, the city was known as the city of the 3 ‘P’s’– priests, poverty and pox!! In our 3rd month there, one of the main shop buildings in O’Connell street fell down one night in a strong wind and landed in the middle of the road. It was a decaying place and the Catholic church held sway and firmly gripped the hearts, minds and thinking of the populace.
Now there are shiny hotels, shopping centres, coffee shops and restaurants. The church’s grip is weakened; the sex abuse scandals hastening its decline.
When we arrived there in 1986, Limerick Baptist Church consisted of about a dozen or so hardy souls and met in a large red brick building in O’Connell Avenue. It was a building nearly 100 years old and was sucking the church’s resources in terms of maintenance and upkeep. We spent 6 years leading the church through change and into a brand new building in the suburbs where the people were. When the building was opened 20 years ago this month in 1993, it was only the 2nd Baptist church built on a green field site in the Republic of Ireland for a century.
It was strange being part of the congregation last Sunday morning, worshipping with what is now a thriving, multicultural congregation. I looked at the bricks and remembered how we had even chosen the colour of them, laying out various samples on our living room floor. The site was large, too large for a church 20 years ago and we debated long and hard whether we needed such a large site. But years ago, the church sold off a large bit of it for a large sum of money to a property developer, during the boom years – not only securing the church’s financial future, but also bringing new houses, people and families to the church’s doorstep. I remembered the difficult days, knocking endless doors and seeking to share Christ, praying for God to move in this dark place – and meeting much resistance. And now seeing His work flourishing under the good leadership of Pastor Paul Ritchie did my heart good.