Ireland unifies through sports

“Run! Run faster!” says a young Northern Irish boy as he cheers on his classmates in a relay race. Around the quaint but colorfully painted walls of the elementary school’s gym, a group of primary school children, still dressed in their school uniforms, put aside all differences and come together for some friendly competition in an afternoon sport.

Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, is part of the Ulster province and has six out of nine counties be a part of the British territory. With the division of Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland in the early 1920s, the area of Northern Ireland has seen great division due to the two main parties of Ireland—the Unionist party (mainly Protestant) and the Nationalist party (mainly Catholic background). “The Troubles” in the 1960s to the 1990s was one of the atrocities that came out of this division amongst the two parties, where over 3,000 lives were lost because of the fight against differences. Since then, there are still remnants of the division amongst these two groups across Northern Ireland, especially in schools.

Today, schools are still segregated by neighborhoods, which tend to fall into either Protestant or Catholic predominant areas. Children grow up in these neighborhoods having an engraved mindset that they do not associate with the “other side.” However, some have taken the initiative to mend this broken bridge between these two groups and create peace and harmony for this next generation.

Chris Grant, director of Salt Factory Sports in Northern Ireland, has taken the initiative to bring his passion of sports into a ministry. Salt Factory Sports state that they are “using sports to create evangelism opportunities and discipling Christian athletes to be the Salt and Light in their chosen sport.” This organization has now reached many areas of the United Kingdom and even parts of Africa, targeting programs that help bring together and unite the area of sports from the primary to professional level. Grant notes how many American sports have been used specifically in Northern Ireland as they have no roots to the Protestant or Catholic origins.

“We (Salt Factory Sports) have been engaging primary children (aged 5-12) from both sides of the community by playing basketball, volleyball, dodgeball and ultimate frisbee as they are seen as new, exciting and American sports,” said Grant. “They have no roots or history in either side and so…we find that, when the children are playing together, they don’t care who comes from where. In fact, many don’t know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant or even what these labels mean!”

International Programs director Billy Stevenson is a native of Northern Ireland and can relate to this separation firsthand. He said that though there are sports that both sides participate in, there still remains stigma and separation on each side.

“Football (Soccer) is widely acceptable to both sides of the community, but they are often in strongly divided supporter camps,” said Stevenson. “This was most obvious when Glasgow Rangers were more active. Protestants followed Rangers and Catholics followed Glasgow Celtic. Too often there was excessive passion and violence in such matches.”

Senior Morgan Ankrom also saw the effects of religion on sports firsthand when the JBU Women’s Basketball Team led a mission trip to Northern Ireland.

“A parent of a student we were working with mentioned that she greatly appreciated us and Coach Eshnaur talking about God to her daughter, saying that sports and religion are not affiliated and she’s never had a coach talk about their faith before,” said Ankrom.

However, Grant knows the importance of introducing how sports can be a unifying factor despite the apparent diversity.

“Sport is a great way of bringing people together and, when they are young, keen to learn and happy to play new and exciting sports, background and history don’t come into it!” said Grant. “It is a great pleasure of mine seeing children from both sides coming together on a field or pitch and engaging, celebrating and working together with no thought of religious background.”

Ankrom notes that, through her time in Northern Ireland and working with the sports programs over there, she has learned that missions can go further than the traditional format.

“God gives us all certain gifts for a reason. It’s so important to remember to do great things for God with what he’s given us. With that being said, sports is such an amazing activity that brings people together,” said Ankrom. “It breaks down the walls.”

Grant notes that Salt Factory Sports and other similar sports organizations can help begin the process of breaching the barriers between groups, and it is ultimately the power of Christ that Grant hopes will shine through the program.

“I pray that, through this, many will give their lives to God and that the division and segregation will begin to heal through the power of Jesus and His love, not because of some silly sports programme!” said Grant.