The Blanket

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Be who you are and say what you feel,
because those who mind don't matter,
and those who matter don't mind.
- Dr. Seuss



Maintaining Beliefs Without Bigotry

Billy Mitchell

Aunt Kathleen wasn’t really my aunt. She was the granny of one of the group I knocked about with as a wean. But "Aunt Kathleen" is all I ever remember her being called. Kathleen was one of those seemingly ageless beings who appeared to have been around for ever and who we thought would continue to be around for ever.

She held court in an old leather armchair by a stone hearth which hosted a cottage range upon which pots of all shapes and sizes were constantly on the boil. Kathleen always had a welcome for us weans and her fresh baked oven bannocks and a glass of buttermilk often sustained us on our way home from a summer days wanderings.
Like the Orangemen, who swear "not to countenance by their presence or otherwise" any form of Catholic worship, Kathleen never did and never would darken the door of a Protestant church. She was a devout Catholic who sincerely believed that it would be wrong for her to attend a Protestant religious service. I don’t recall that she thought it a mortal sin or anything like that but, for her and her family, it was not the right thing to do. She was sincere and uncompromising in her beliefs. That was what made her what she was.

That is not to say that Kathleen "didn’t want a Prod about the place". Far from it.

More Protestants than Catholics crossed her open threshold and supped at her table, and were made more than welcome when they did. Samuel James was one of them. A descendant of kin whom he claimed had been "out in '98" with Harry Mc Cracken, he was, like Kathleen herself, of indeterminable age and to us weans he had always been there and would always be there. A Presbyterian, and an Orangeman to boot, he was a constant visitor to Kathleen and Peter's abode.

Of course Samuel James would no more darken the door of a chapel than Kathleen or Peter would darken the door of a Presbyterian Meeting House. That was his belief and, like his Catholic friends and neighbours, he lived by it. Samuel James was no bigot either. His reservations about attending Catholic worship did not mean that he "didn’t want a fenian about the place". It simply meant that he had his beliefs and they had theirs and that both were content to worship their God according to their own set of beliefs.

Browsing through my late mother's papers and mementoes I came across a number of photographs of another Catholic family with whom we had a deep and abiding friendship. Neither of our families ever attended each other's churches. That wasn’t the done thing in those days. At weddings and funerals it was the custom to attend everything but the church service. "Waiting at the church gate" on such occasions was as much a ritual as what went on inside the church itself. This had nothing to do with bigotry or about not wanting the "other sort" about the place. It was just the way that we were and a sign of the times we lived in.

This respectful non-attendance was regarded as wholly acceptable behaviour and did not cause offence. It did not impinge upon our friendships, nor did it diminish our respect for each other as human beings. It respected the personal beliefs of the other person while maintaining the right and the dignity for each to be different. When we stereotype whole communities or whole sections of communities because of their religious beliefs we often create divisions that the victims of our prejudice never experienced themselves.

Amongst my late mothers things, still in its box after some forty seven years but showing all the signs of well-fingered usage, I came across a wee King James Bible with the inscription "To Mrs Mitchell, from Marion". It was given to my mother by her Catholic friend on the occasion of her child's baptism. It was a simple token of love and appreciation from a devout Catholic mother to an equally devout Protestant mother on behalf of a child. Neither felt that not wanting to join each other in worship was the same as not wanting each other about the place.

That gift is, at the same time, a simple gesture of friendship and a gentle rebuke to those who would place a malevolent interpretation upon two mothers who acted religiously out of a pure conscience without ever losing their friendship. Compromising ones beliefs in order to be accepted as a ‘liberal’ or to be perceived as being non-sectarian is every bit as bad as being illiberal or sectarian. People who are afraid to be what their heart tells them to be are being less than true to themselves. If we cannot be true to ourselves how can we be true to others? If we have no respect for our own personal beliefs how can we have respect for the beliefs of others?

Kathleen and Samuel James, Marion’s mother and my mother, were able to be true to each other because they were true to themselves. That must be the starting point for genuine dialogue and the search for common ground and mutual respect. Those of us who engage in dialogue, whether face to face or online, must constantly remind ourselves that maintaining ones personal beliefs without compromise, but also without prejudice, is an act of grace – and that is something we could all do with a double dose of from time to time.



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