The email I received has instructed me to be in the Chaplaincy common room at 4pm, in order to catch a lift to Antrim, where the weekend’s events will transpire; however, being an anxious person and not wanting to be left behind I arrive at 2.30pm to be safe. As the hours pass I begin to glance around the room at the people sitting there, wondering if they too are here for Conversations that Matter. It becomes evident that they are not, as one by one they slip away until, with 15 minutes to go until zero-hour, I am left alone in the room. Being a rational human being, I go in to full-on panic – what if they’ve all been killed in a tragic bus crash? Or been taken hostage by an evil captor? Or, worse still, left without me? At five minutes to launch I am in utter internal meltdown. At three minutes to launch, everyone arrives safely, as I assure myself that I never doubted such an eventuality.
As we file onto the bus, my anxiety is further relieved by the fact that I know several of my fellow participants, and I am quickly given names to put to the remaining unfamiliar faces. Thus, by the time we have pulled out of Trinity, I am full of excited anticipation for the weekend ahead.
We arrive at Corrymeela around 8pm. After a quick round of introductions, we are filled to the brim with delicious stew and I take the time to learn a bit more about the history of the site from the volunteers who work here: Corrymeela was founded in 1965 to be a place of reconciliation in a region torn apart by sectarian conflict. In the 52 years since it came into being, Corrymeela has brought together tens of thousands of people – 11,000 a year I am told – in a safe space where they can openly discuss their views on a variety of topics. I am obviously impressed by this premise, and feel honoured to be able to continue that tradition by openly sharing my views on whatever topics are on the agenda this weekend.
After dinner, we spend some time getting to know each other better with the most PG game of “Never Have I Ever” that I’ve ever played, with not even one distasteful story of adolescent urination being discussed, after which we engage in the more serious task of creating a group agreement. This involves deciding which qualities we would like to see the group exhibit during the conversations that matter – honesty and active listening are high on the list – and those that we wish to avoid, such as over-sharing. By this point, despite having had an uncomfortable nap on the bus, I am creamed; I diligently retire to bed, ready to crack on come morning.
Saturday begins with a warm-up entitled the Lego game – a fun title that conjures up images of childhood mirth for many, but not for a young boy whose spatial reasoning is so bad that he wasn’t allowed to cook unattended until his 21st birthday. I’m 20.
Luckily the rest of the day plays to my strengths as we return to the nub of the weekend’s issue – the conversations that matter. The first important conversation involves picking out what from the last year has angered us most and what has inspired us most, and whilst it is incredibly therapeutic to rattle off the list of grievances I have with the ball-clamp of a year that was 2016, it is far more rewarding, and indeed challenging, to pick out positives from a hellish year. However, I settle on seeing it as a year which included the rise in political involvement of our generation, especially in light of our previously being viewed as apathetic by many older observers. We are then asked to review our discussion from earlier and – via post-it note – jot down the topics we would most like to see discussed during this and the following conversations. There are some expected answers, such as the need to humanise those people involved in conflicts, but also some more interesting notions, such as the idea that we need to discuss the issue of power, and how we as individuals can make a difference.
At this point we are informed that it is time for a break and that we will reconvene at 5pm, and are given the choice between a walk to the beach or watching Ireland play Italy in the Six Nations. As the full-time whistle goes, I take a glance out the window and realise that I have made a terrible error in watching Ireland relentlessly hammer Italy (the upset I’d hoped for never quite materialising, despite my most vocal wishes). I run down to the beach, along with the others, to spend a bracing five minutes staring wistfully into the ocean. Someone has time to take my new Facebook profile picture before we briskly walk back to the site – “never run twice in one day” is a motto I firmly adhere to.
After dinner, we are gathered together again around a lovely warm fire for the day’s final session. We have all been asked to prepare stories of leadership that inspired us, and the variety and personal nature of many of the stories is heart-warming; political activists who took members of the group under their wings and showed them the power of standing up for what you believe in, leaders of the “Families for Justice” Hillsborough campaign who fought injustice for years and were finally vindicated in court last year, and political leaders who were not afraid to defy the British government’s wishes to go to war in Iraq in 2003 because, despite popular opinion at the time, they believed it was immoral.
With our hearts and bodies thoroughly warmed, it is time for the part of the weekend that I have secretly been most looking forward to – the trip to Ballycastle’s finest public house. Those who know me know that I’m not a big drinker, and so I expect the evening to pass uneventfully.
My alarm goes off at 7.15am, and I awaken with the taste of Chinese takeaway, Sambuca and regret in my mouth. I check the day’s timetable – breakfast isn’t until 9am, so why have I roused myself so early? And then I remember – in between stuffing myself full of sweet and sour I had promised to watch the sun rise with some of my fellow (and similarly intoxicated) attendees.
I pull my jeans over my pyjamas and crawl downstairs to find that I am not alone – Laura has managed to drag herself out of bed, but alas nobody else has. Excited to see the sunrise, we stumble outside to realise that we aren’t sure on which side of the building we can best see this majesty of nature. After a slow and painful stroll around the site, we realise that there is no best side to watch the sunrise, because the sky is awash with grey cloud.
Despondently, we return to the main conversation hub and promptly fall asleep in our chairs, to be awoken only by the commencement of the morning’s first session. Today’s theme is personal identity, and we are asked firstly to decide what it is that makes us us – our essence. This is a wonderfully awakening moment for me, like a ray of sunshine (although only a metaphorical one), as I come to realise that my essence has changed since I emigrated: whereas back home, my religious identity is what most defined me, having grown up as Jewish in an area of London where that was very much the minority, my nationality has now become my most prominent feature. I would never have considered myself to be patriotic in any sense growing up, but since I am now an Englishman abroad I find myself taking far more pride in the nation of my birth – institutions I used to take for granted, such as the NHS, are now a source of great pride for me.
I have been fulfilled, and not a moment too soon, as all that is left is some summarising comments from Jools, who is on typically inspirational form as he tells us that it is okay if we don’t change the world in these sessions, and in the coming residential outings, as long as we make meaningful change to ourselves.
Well, I feel as though the discussions over the past few days have allowed me to say: mission accomplished, and here’s to next time – watch this space!
If you would like to get involved with Conversations That Matter, or any other programmes run by Rev. Hamilton, feel free to contact him at [email protected].