Sometimes, when we are challenged, upset, or ill, we feel our breath catching in our throats. In that moment, if we are poised enough, we slow ourselves down and we inhale and exhale: we simply breathe.
Breathe” is the theme of the 4 Corners Festival for 2021. We believe that, at this time of pandemic and lockdown, it is important for us to recognise that we have been running on empty and that we are panting and out of breath.
The 4 Corners Festival is our invitation to Belfast and the wider world to pause and take the deep breath that we all need.
The Hebrew word “Ruach” means “breath”, or “spirit” – the source of life. This year’s festival seeks to tap into that spirit and breathe hope into Belfast, encouraging creativity and resilience in our responses to the pandemic.
Now in its ninth year, 4 Corners is a cross-community, inter-Church Christian arts festival, co-founded by Catholic priest Fr Martin Magill and Presbyterian minister Rev Steve Stockman.
Traditionally, the festival has held events in every corner of the city – north, south, east and west – in an effort to encourage people to leave their own segregated corners and experience new people and new places.
With that sort of movement limited because of the pandemic, this year’s festival features a mix of online-only and blended in-person/online events, regulations permitting. But it remains true to 4 Corners’ original vision of inspiring people to cross traditional boundaries.
The last time the festival planning committee met in person was in late February. Our purpose was to discern a theme for 2021. Back then, none of us could have anticipated how our city would be changed by the pandemic.
Committee member Jim Deeds led us in a guided meditation on the story in Luke’s gospel about the two men journeying on the road to Emmaus. It was just after Jesus’ crucifixion. All the hopes they had invested in Jesus had been crushed.
Distraught and confused, they struggled to explain their hopelessness to the mysterious stranger who joined them on the way.
When they reached Emmaus, they invited the stranger for a meal. Only then did they recognise him as Jesus. Their realisation that Jesus had been with them – as Emmanuel, “God with us”, if you like – filled them with a new spirit of hope for an unknown future.
Back then, the possible repercussions of Brexit and of our continued inability to constructively address the legacy of the Troubles loomed large in our imaginations.
We pondered the idea of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God, breathing out hope in a city facing uncertain times.
By our next committee meeting – this time on Zoom – Belfast was in lockdown. Covid-19 is most deadly when it reaches the lungs; and those with underlying respiratory diseases are among those most vulnerable to it.
The need to breathe – long and deep – seemed more urgent than ever. Not long after that, we were deeply affected by the dying words of George Floyd in Minneapolis: “I can’t breathe.”
As the pandemic rolls on, its disproportionately negative effects on those who are already marginalised and vulnerable become even more urgent.
Domestic abuse and mental health issues have increased. People have lost their jobs. The elderly and those in care homes are at particular risk. Many young people feel they have been asked to put their futures on hold. And Brexit and the legacy of the Troubles remain with us, complicating the mix.
In that light, we recall that Jesus’ priority is for the marginalised and the vulnerable: He did not say, “I have come to bring good news”; he said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor.”
So, our aim is that this year’s events would speak some good news into our situation, creating space for us to simply “Breathe”.
We welcome Professor John Paul Lederach, an internationally renowned conflict transformation expert from the University of Notre Dame, USA, who will speak on how we “breathe out hope” in Belfast and the wider world.
Poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama and Jamaica-born poet and singer-songwriter Raquel McKee will respond to Lederach.
Duke Special will join us for an evening of music and conversation. There will be resilience workshops for young people and practitioners; events exploring domestic abuse and racism/inclusion and a socially-distanced “Game of 4 Corners” for children, delivered in partnership with PeacePlayers-Northern Ireland.
We will ponder how the pandemic has given us a greater appreciation for the fresh air of Belfast’s green spaces and for the power of ancient contemplative practices like meditative prayer.
For the first time, the festival will feature a virtual prayer space, with festival committee members leading guided morning and night prayers online.
This year more than ever, we hope that for those who join us, practical actions will flow from the spaces created through music, poetry, art, reflection and prayer.
Dr Gladys Ganiel is a member of the 4 Corners committee. She is Reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles and Unity Pilgrim: The Life of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR. The festival runs from January 31 to February 7, 2021. For more information see 4cornersfestival.com