Tierna: I grew up, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere! Quite rural, middle of the country. My parents are in a mixed marriage, so my mum is Catholic and my dad is Protestant. I was brought up in a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church, which is something people don’t really know about. It’s quite a small church. We went to church every week and grew up in Sunday school. We did occasionally attend my mum’s church as well, her Mass. I also grew up in a very mixed primary school.

M: What’s it like for you growing up, in terms of faith and politics?

T: I think Northern Ireland is quite a crazy place. My background has allowed me to see both sides of Northern Ireland. My parents, especially my dad, has always reinforced that. If there’s some sort of political problem, he makes sure I can see both sides, which I really like. It really annoys me how divided our political system is. My background have also allowed me to do many things that most Protestants wouldn’t get to do, for example, I started playing Gaelic football. Though more Protestants are starting to play it, it’s not really that common. Sometimes even celebrating St Patrick’s Day is not really the thing to do. 

I’ve always loved my church. I love Sunday school and I’ve learnt so much there, especially about the Bible. However, when I do attend my mum’s Mass, I really enjoy it. I love how different it is, how beautiful it can be. The chapel is always more decorative than my own church. I just love that the same God can be worshipped in all kinds of different and amazing ways. Not very many people take heart in that; it’s more the politics related to the religion. 

I’m very open with my friends, so if I had a Protestant friend or a Catholic friend I would definitely question them on their views. I do sometimes come across as quite confusing to people! Even my name is quite an Irish-Catholic name, so a lot of people are shocked when I tell them I’m from a Protestant background. What really made me smile one year was when one of my friends asked to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with me, which she’d never done before. So I think that means I’m having a bit of a good impact on my friends!

M: What do you think increases divisions between churches?

T: I think divisions in Northern Ireland are definitely created by a lack of knowledge. A lot of people say to me: “Oh I didn’t know this” about this church, or: “Oh I didn’t know that” about that church, and I’m like: “Well you should know!” Even a simple thing like the Irish tricolour flag. The orange part is supposed to represent the Protestant community, but not many Protestants know that. 

Also, divisions I think are really deepened by this total focus in Northern Ireland on our differences. Even in our politics I find that each party focuses on how they’re different rather than what similarities they want. I think if people could just look at the similarities and be open, there’s no need for this judgement all the time. There’s many times where people say: “Oh, she’s a Protestant, I’m not associating with her”, or vice versa. I think it’s kind of stupid, to be honest. If I look to my parents, they didn’t judge each other, they just saw each other for who they were and now they’ve got four kids and are 20 years married.

M: Tell us a bit about your own faith journey before you got involved in Youth Initiative. (YI)

T: For me, I didn’t realise you could have this relationship with God, I just thought he was a guy with loads of stories and a book. I knew all the stories because of Sunday school. I didn’t know this feeling of faith becoming alive. I never would have thought so many years later that these Bible stories I knew off by heart would have such a big impact on my life!

M: What’s the main way that YI has impacted you?

T: It was just this big guidance and great help, and that helped me figure out my faith and God, and Jesus and who he is. I remember the first time I properly prayed, there was so much emotion it was incredible. I could feel God and I never questioned it; I just knew it was him. YI’s helped me to continue this quest, and what really stands out is that it’s really brought God alive; that he isn’t just that old guy in the sky; he is this guy that is in me. That was kind of cool and has impacted my life a lot.

What I really enjoy about YI is being with young people. Church is kind of hard because there’s an older minister, an older congregation and it’s harder to get into it more, I suppose. I think what’s been really great is that no matter where I’ve been, I still started to feel God’s presence a lot more. I feel like YI has helped me to feel God’s presence, not just at YI, but at my own church and at my mum’s Mass. It just doesn’t matter where you are, you can feel him anywhere, or hear him from anyone. It could be a leader or staff member here, or my minister, or my mum’s priest. The Bible says, wherever two or three are gathered, there I am with them (Matthew 18:20). It doesn’t say where that has to be or how you do it, it’s just that he’s with you. I think YI has helped me to recognise that.