From the hill where I stood looking down at the small city of Cohb, Ireland (pronounced Cove) I could just make out the harbor and the sea, which was a light green, spattered with a few small boats. It was Irish weather, a fine mist gave the colorful town an opaque appearance, almost mystical and it was easy to squint my eyes and imagine a sailing ship tied up at the dock, or even the Titanic.
Cobh attracts a mish-mash of tourists with its unique history. The Lusitania, an ocean liner with 1900 people aboard, was torpedoed and sank off the coast here in 1915, with over 1100 drowned. And the Titanic made her last stop in this port before meeting its tragic fate. Cobh was also the port for 2.5 million emigrants fleeing the country during the Potato Famine of the 1840’s and 50’s.
We separated from the tour guide at the Emigration Museum, where photos and faces of the past stared at me. It was called the Great Potato Famine. But many will disagree. Some Irish call it “the Starvation,” as goods, including beef and grains, were exported in abundance from the Irish soil to the English table. To this day, the word genocide drifts through the debate over the past. Well, we didn’t really want to murder them all, defenders say. But it was beneficial to let 1,000,000 or so die.
So some of the starving Irish began walking to these parts, like Cohb, where ships sailed to America, a land of promise, if you could survive the four to six week trip. Many didn’t. Those who did sent enough money home to bring one more over. By the 1860’s, the Irish made up to one third of some cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia. But others died on the road to Cohb, their skeletal remains found on the road with grass in their teeth. Children and the elderly were the most fragile and the first to go. Disease took down as many that starved. The poverty was indescribable.
I was extremely moved as I read their stories. Something in me felt bowed down with a great sadness as I looked far down the sloping roofs towards the water. The brightly colored homes leaning up against each other as the street dropped to the waters edge looked like something out of Mary Poppins. But there was an undercurrent of sorrow and suffering mixed with great courage that stirred me.
A statue of a young girl with her arm around her two little brothers, one of them pointing out to sea, sits on the dock. She is Annie Moore, age 14 and the first immigrant to be processed at the new Ellis Island in 1892. Her face is brave, but also soft. That’s the Irish. It was palpable, not only in Cohb, but everywhere we went. Yet the Irish people struck me as being buoyant and cheerful, engaging towards strangers, and secure in their identity. And they love to talk.
I was with a team from my church of about 14 people. We stayed in Cork, and were blessed with the amazing hospitality of Pastor Keith and Kerri Sullivan, who are missionaries there. It sounds funny, in a land that has been whipped and torn by religion for generations, that we would send missionaries. But most people there have never heard the gospel and who Jesus really is. You can see the perplexed expression when you just say, “Jesus really loves you.” That was obviously overlooked.
Some of our group were doing some street drama when a man, perhaps in his late sixties caught my attention. He had an Irish tweed flat cap on, and a plain overcoat, and he was staring intently at the actors.
I moved next to him and asked what he thought of the play, and in a way the Irish have that was becoming predictable, he turned my questions back to me. Who was “your God,” he wanted to know? They were good questions and I was thrown off a bit by his jousting and quick mind. He stayed respectful, even kind, but I could tell he was getting ready to drive his point home, that my God, whom he felt was pretty shallow, was not the one he was looking for. I was losing him. Then I pulled out a flyer.
On the front, in large print, it said ”The Power of Forgiveness”. It caught his eye. I slowly turned it over and showed him the back.
“That’s my son, “ I said, pointing to a small photo of Spence when he was in Africa. “He was murdered in 2002.”
I watched his face transform. The anger drained away and a softness and sadness filled his eyes.
“I don’t know everything, sir. But I do know who God is. And you are looking for him and He is here. He loves you so much.”
He stared at the flyer. “You forgave?” he asked in almost a whisper.
“I did. God helped me.” Then he opened the door.
“I was abused by a priest when I was a boy. There were many of us, “he explained. He did not give details. He didn’t have to. But he told me that he had forgiven also, in person.
“Then I knelt with him and prayed.”
The priest died and was buried with only a black cross over his grave. It was then the man told me that he had bought flowers to plant there, only two weeks ago. He hadn’t told anyone this. I took his hand.
“That, “ I said, “is true forgiveness. God loves that.”
He smiled at me and reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a smooth black stone.
“Can you do something just for me?” he asked, the charm returning.
“Sure, “ I said, although I was holding my breath a bit because the Catholics have some pretty bizarre practices.
“When you get back to America, can you put this stone on your son’s grave? “
I must’ve paused and looked a little hesitant.
“It’s Irish. It’s a way I can give honor to your son.”
“OK. I’ll do it.” He pressed the warm stone into my hand and we parted ways. I smiled as I walked away. Deep calls unto deep. Somehow, I felt the door to this man’s heart cracked open just enough to allow God to touch that place, the hidden place, that is searching for healing, for His love. I felt good.
This morning I drove down to Spencer’s grave and took the smooth black stone out of my pocket. It had some reddish brown strands running through it and I thought about how much Spence would love the stone and the whole story behind it. A few leaves had fallen onto the grave and I placed the stone beneath the scripture engraved under his name. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”
I still get sadder when the summer turns to fall. I miss my son. Actually I am a little mad at him for entering into the joy of the Lord before me. But I remembered the face of the man in the square, the honor of sharing his pain, and thought of the young girl of Cobh with her two little brothers waiting for a ship, waiting to go someplace better. Suffering and courage are inseparable it seems. I want to be brave, to bring the light of hope through Jesus Christ that can pierce the terrible darkness. And for my brothers and sisters, I want to help you to not be afraid of the unknown journey ahead. Thank you, Ireland, for making me feel so at home. I am humbled by your grace.
An Irish prayer as I close:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
when the shadows fall—
You do not walk alone.