Back to the future

Monday, August 30, 2010

The smell of the burgers filled the whole room.  Those who were in the room seemed to regret not taking up the offer of a free burger, writes Steve Caldwell. It was 8pm and the magnificent Donegal sunset crept under the blanket of darkness that was about to cover as far as the eye could see.  A German family sat on the brown table, reading and chatting.  Another girl from Galway was engrossed in a crossword puzzle on a soft seat.  Mark and I were waiting impatiently on our oven-cooked burgers.

Party night“If you wait any longer on those burgers, it’ll be a midnight feast..”  remarked the hostel owner Andy, laughing to himself.  “By any chance do you live near the Ardoyne?  I just read in the paper up in the house of some really bad rioting between the protestants and the catholics up there…”  he continued.

That sentence shrieked through Mark and I.  The reality that on the 13th July, somewhere north of Malinbeg, a friendly Donegal hostel owner had announced to the Germans, the Galway girl, and Mark and I, of more trouble in our city…

We looked at each other.  What else could we do?  We had no doubt that’s what our city was once again becoming renowned for.  We had no doubt that bottles and petrol bombs and police lines were the cliched picture being beamed to the world.

We did doubt however, if the world knew the other side to that part of our city, the side I would encounter again, 6 weeks later…

It was 6.10pm on a typical Friday summer’s evening in north Belfast.  Cars whizzed past the Woodvale park area, through the traffic lights, no doubt full of weary hard-working people, perhaps awaiting a Friday night takeaway tea, that they most certainly deserved after the toils of a busy week.   I park my car on the busy road, just short of a long line of double yellows, get out of my car and stand looking down a very familiar street.  The hairs on my neck stand to attention once-more, as they have done numerous times as I stood on this street.

Maybe it’s because my Dad who I love grew up in Ballysillian, only a few streets away.  Maybe it’s because I had jumped out of a silver Mondeo 7 years ago, spiky haired and full of teenage enthusiasm, ready to take part in Woodvale’s summer PCI team, and  would do the same  in subsequent summers after that.  Maybe.  This time though, my mind travelled back to that cosy common room in Malinbeg 6 weeks earlier, how I wish I could bring that German couple, the Galway girl and the friendly hostel owner Andy, to this part of the world, and show them something different.

I walk slowly down the road towards the church, savouring what was a simple little moment.  A Mum and her daughter are stopped outside the church, “is that on tomorrow night aye?”  the daughter questions in a typical north Belfast accent.  I love that accent.  Like a song that reminds you of a billion special memories, that special little accent reminds me of summers past in this area; football tournaments in the park, sharing my story in a crowded park one evening, watching a 14 year old boy cry as the team of volunteers pulled away after a week of activities, they all flashed back.

I walked into the church building and met the team of volunteers who were eating dinner before their busy night of activites.  I pulled up a chair and chatted to those around me.  To my right was a collection of maybe 50 brown bags, full of crisps, drinks, sweets, lollies and other little gifts, “oh the kids from here were giving those out to passers by today,”  remarked one of the volunteers quite casually.

I started to ask team members what had been their highlight from their week so far.  “It would definitely be when the kids were cleaning up the streets the others day,”  “or maybe when the tv cameras interviewed two of the teenagers on Wednesday, and they said they were sharing hope with their community,”  “it would have to be the crowd who were singing and dancing at our Holiday Bible Club,” “last night when they were so attentive during the talk.”  I began to pick up the gist of the week.

After dinner many teenagers and young people began to gather downstairs in their teen cafe.  Smiley-faced and full of life, they poured in, one by one, each one with their little story of their highlight of the week.  Once more stories of cleaning the street, giving out free gifts to their community, praying together, listening to speakers, singing songs, making funny videos, wacky moments, new friendships, photographs, flooded my way.

As I chatted with teenagers I had known from summers ago, I was struck by the warmth, creativity and genuineness of each individual story.  Each so well spoken, so friendly and welcoming of new people.  So fun and engaging, they settled in to their cafe to listen to some acoustic music, a speaker and a late night Christian hip-hop set.

In the middle of the hip-hop set, I looked around the room.  A sea of bright eyed, enthusiastic, hopeful teenagers danced, laughed and thanked God for another memorable week.

Somewhere after 9pm, I grabbed my keys and my shoulder bag, said a quick goodbye and headed up the street to my car again.  Just like I had done a few hours earlier, I paused at the driver’s door of my car and paused for a second.  The sound of teenagers praising God with hip hop music filled the chilly Woodvale night sky.

Being a dreamer, with a crazy imagination, I imagined myself as Marty from Back to the Future.  How I would love to travel back to the 13th July in my time machine, and bring my friends from the  hostel, to this moment.  And let the sound of hope drown out the smashing bottles, water-canons and angry rioters, they no doubt imagined that night in that hostel.

As I turned the ignition in my Peugeot 206, I felt it wasn’t appropriate to turn on radio 1 tonight.  As I pulled up to the church, and stopped at the red-traffic light, I pressed my driver’s side electric windows to hear teenagers singing, “I say Jesus, you say Christ..”  with a funky hip hop beat in the background.

As the noise of the Woodvale rappers slipped out of my range, I thanked God for perhaps one of the most hopeful places I had set foot this summer.


  • Jackie | Monday, 30th August 2010 at 21:12


    So beatifully written and Gods love so perfectly captured – thank you for making me cry x

  • Alyssa | Thursday, 2nd September 2010 at 17:46


    Completely amazing story, brought tears to my eyes :D just hope others could see it Your way and not through the violence :(

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