Practicing what he preaches

Reverend Steve Stockman is the Minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. In 2013, along with Fr Martin Magill, he founded the 4 Corners Festival, which seeks to encourage people across Belfast to move from their own “corners” of the city to encounter new places and perspectives.

Read Vicky Cosstick’s personal recollection and preview of the Festival here.

Ahead of this year’s festival, which runs from 1st-11th February, we asked Rev Stockman about how it has developed over the past few years.

The 4 Corners Festival was originally founded through your relationship with Martin Magill. How have your personal experiences and perspectives informed its creation?

The genesis of my friendship with Fr Martin and the founding of 4 Corners Festival is a story in itself, so let me keep it brief. Martin and I had become friends and one afternoon over coffee we brought three strands of our conversation together.

Firstly, we were aware that we lived in a very divided city where people stuck to their geographical corners. Many, including ourselves did not know all of OUR city. We wondered if we could bring people across their boundaries to explore other geographical parts and in doing that could they then meet people from other communities that they were not engaging with. That might then help us humanise those we have only stereotypes and caricatures of because they are distant from us.

Secondly, we wanted to give a little imaginative artistic life to The Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity. We were keen to take the Churches out of the buildings and onto the street, maybe as much about what we were engaged in discussing as much as the actual place of the discussion.

Thirdly, and following on from that, we wanted Jesus to become a contributor to peacemaking rather than his followers been blamed for the division. We were keen to make an imaginative Christian contribution to reconciliation across the city and beyond.

By the end of the coffee, we made this rash decision to start a Festival. A few weeks later we gathered a few like minds and something incredible happened!

Why do you think the festival is important and what do you hope people will get from attending?

At the beginning of every year, at our first planning meeting, we ask if there is still a need for the Festival! I think it is important in that it is unique to have Church leaders across the dominations doing such a thing. I think it is important because it has crossed a few borders. One is that people do cross their borders into new geographical areas and indeed do meet people they wouldn’t otherwise had the chance to meet.

We also find the Churches engaging with artists, politicians and civic leaders outside the Churches to work together for change. The events I believe have helped people re-humanise “the other” in our conflict. The events have breathed hope into our communities. The events have, I hope, stimulated people to think differently. I hope also it has given Jesus a better press in some quarters than he often has!

The festival has a unique mixture in types of events, from music to book talks to church services. What’s the process for selecting different events? Is there anything you particularly look for or people you reach out to?

I describe the Festival as a fertile field where members of our committee come and sow their dreams. Some of us love music, some of us drama, some of us theology. We all throw our ideas into the hat of our committee meetings and then everyone shapes each event, honing them and making them better.

I think we all hope that our programme will have something for everyone in the city, of the Christian faith, of other faiths or of no faith at all! We do look at different audiences, different ages, the cerebral, the artistic to just going for a walk. We are careful to have events in every Corner. We look for names to draw people but mostly we are looking for voices who might prophetically inspire, challenge and breathe hope, grace and forgiveness into our city.

Are there any events that you are particularly looking forward to? Or that you particularly hope people attend?

I am hoping for people at every event. Personally exciting for me are the music events. I have been attempting to put together the Take Back The City songwriter event for some years. With world renowned rock journalist Stuart Bailie in the chair and singers like Iain Archer, Joby Fox and Ursula Burns singing, this is wonderful. The songs written about the place in the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement will shed some light on to where we have come from, where we are and where we are going.

I have been a big fan of Ricky Ross since Deacon Blue released their first single Dignity back in 1987. To have him in my Church and at the mercy of my questions will be a thrill!

Then Laurence McKeown’s play, Tony Macauley and Philip Orr’s book readings, Cole Moreton’s two events around organ donation. It is packed and very exciting!

How has the festival developed over the past 5 years?

Extraordinarily! We had only about 6 events our first year. This year we have almost two events per day for eleven days. We had no bank account for 4 years and now we have funding and a part time staff.

More importantly, I believe we have caught the attention of the city. People are now aware of the festival, artists are keen to be involved. The events are wider in range, better in quality and our numbers are doubling every year!

Any particular challenges, experiences or events that still stick out, even today?

Well we had the riot police walking down the side of the hall one evening when we took a former IRA bomber to East Belfast and there was a protest outside.

We have had some interesting things happen in the Q & A of events or after events when people have literally met people that they would never have met before.

When you go home after each festival, what makes you think “Ah, this is what I’m working for! I want to do it again next year!”?

I think we have always felt that we have done what we set out to do at each festival. We have seen people crossing their corner. We have watched people get to know “the other” across our traditional divisions. We have had artists and speakers contribute alternative imaginations into our peace discussions.

The Festival has also given us a platform to speak in the media or at political discussions and conferences. The Festival has made an impact in what it stands for as well as what it delivers.

Has your experience organizing and attending the festival changed anything about your perspective or worldview? Or anything happened that surprised you?

I think I am constantly surprised at how the Festival has caught the imagination of people outside of the Church.

For me personally the Festival has confirmed my belief that followers of Jesus should and indeed can be major contributors to peacemaking in Belfast.

The festival is unique in that it intentionally tries to get people to go to different places in Belfast that they may have not visited before. Can you talk a bit about how you think space has impacted the history of Belfast, relationships in Belfast today, and how you hope the festival will change or address that?

The first time I visited Fr Martin, he lived in Lenadoon in west Belfast. I realised as I drove up to his house that I this was My city but I had never been. That must mean that there were people in MY city that I had never been around. That almost “apartheid” division has surely enhanced our suspicion of one another. It is easy to dehumanise people that you have not met or talked to.

We hope to break down those “apartheid” lines.

You mentioned that other cities have reached out to you to form their own 4 Corners Festival. What does that showcase about the uniqueness or similarity of the Belfast experience to other communities around the world?

A town in Ohio had heard about the Festival and they had Fr Martin and I out to speak to some Church leaders about how they could do a similar thing. Every town or city has its Corners or Quarters. That phrase we hear a lot “the other side of the tracks” tells us that! We have looked at the particular and peculiar divisions in Belfast and attempted to break those down. Wherever you are in the world there are barriers between people through colour, race or religion. We encourage you to run your own 4 Corners Festival wherever you are!

What do you hope the festival will look like in ten years?

Ultimately I guess we would hope that there is no need for the Festival in 2028! As I already said we like to ask ourselves every year if there is a need for 4 Corners Festival. If there is still a need and we, or others after us, are still trying to use the Festival model to bring Belfast together then well and good. It doesn’t need to be bigger or better. I would hope that if it is still running it is still putting Jesus on the streets of the city to make his followers reconcilers rather than those to blame for the division.

The 4 Corners Festival will kick off on the evening of February 1 with the event “20 Years On: A Conflict Frozen in Time?” addressing loyalism’s contribution to the peace process.

Originally published at Northern Slant.

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford.