Church on the Wall

The Story of Jack McKee

Written by Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

 

Mum loved to watch the flutists piping “Blood and Thunder” at the festival commemorating the Londonderry siege of 1688. She cheered the Lambeg drummers in the Apprentice Boys Parade honoring 13 Protestant youths who bolted shut the gates of Derry (Londonderry) against a Catholic king and his army.

“Surrender or die!” the king had commanded.

The apprentice boys’ retort of “No surrender!” still echoes in the hearts of Loyalist Protestants in Northern Ireland today.

During the following 105-day siege, thousands starved to death inside the ancient walls of Londonderry, before British ships broke through a blockade to save them.

 

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In August 1969, at the annual Londonderry celebrations, street fighting broke out between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists. Mum and her lady friends fled the chaotic streets of Derry, while radio and TV spread panic like an airborne disease. Northern Ireland’s Protestant communities in Belfast feared that the Londonderry rampage signaled a national insurrection led by revolutionaries. Family men on our street corners and in local pubs armed themselves with baseball bats and iron pipes to fend off what we feared was an impending Catholic uprising.

Mum caught the night train to Belfast, while my dad, my three brothers and I paced on needles and pins. Very late, Mum made it safely home to Shankill Road.

On this same day, our Catholic neighbors on the Falls Road were arming themselves to defend against an expected pogrom. In the past, Catholic communities had been terrorized by groups of militant Protestant Loyalists.

Paranoia stole through our working-class neighborhoods like an evil Irish fog. Falls Road (the Catholic community) and Shankill Road (the Protestant community) ran parallel to each other. Side streets connected these two main thoroughfares like rungs of a busy ladder.

The day after the Londonderry riots, every side street or alley connecting the Shankill and Falls Roads became a no-man’s land where neighbors hurled bricks at one another. Houses were stripped of refrigerators and furniture, and men and boys built protective barricades to separate Protestant and Catholic homes and streets.

Loyalist Protestants wished to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalist Catholics wanted to break away from the UK to join Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and form a “united” Ireland. In 1969, the violent season known as “The Troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland. Historians say The Troubles ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but ethnic bitterness still ferments among Protestants and Catholics today.

 

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During World War II, the German Luftwaffe had bombed Belfast, and Catholic and Protestant families worked together digging loved ones out of the rubble. Catholics and Protestants wore the same uniform and died on battlefields side by side all over Europe. After the war, soldiers were stitched back into our working-class fabric and segregated from the silk-handkerchief classes of Belfast.

My parents set down roots in a mixed community of Catholic and Protestants called Ballymurphy, and just like my Catholic chums, my belly growled for want of a meal sometimes.

Dad was a laborer in the Shankill, and after tending a boiler all day, he often spent the evening at a local pub. Mum went with him sometimes, but she didn’t share Dad’s penchant for hard drinking. I was a ginger-headed lad, too busy playing soccer or riding bikes to think about religion or politics. My Catholic mates and I “patrolled” Ballymurphy streets and dug bunkers in vacant lots as we pretended to be soldiers.

I never gave it a second thought when I ended up as the British officer — and my Catholic friends as the Germans. Even after a bloody world war, Irish Catholics preferred their children to play as Nazi storm troopers rather than side with those they perceived to be their arrogant, perennial landlords (the British).

By the time I was 8 years old, it was common to hear about neighboring Protestant families moving away from our community. Catholic hooligans sometimes shattered windows with bricks to intimidate Protestants, and it was becoming dangerous to raise a family in Ballymurphy.

 

“Hey! You! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” The sneering tone in the voice startled me.

I had wandered into a beautiful park on the Falls Road, where I sat listening to water burble into a giant sandstone fountain. A group of seven boys about my age suddenly hemmed me in.

I weighed my answer carefully. “I … I’m a Catholic,” I said quietly.

The water fountain’s gurgling seemed deafening as the lads’ eyes bored into me. The leader of the rowdies suddenly snickered.

“Then say the Hail Mary three times …”

Barely hesitating, I nervously recited, “Hail, Mary. Hail, Mary. Hail, Mary!”

Even the most unregenerate Catholic knew the essential prayer of the Rosary: “Hail Mary, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women …”

Not me. My goose was cooked.

All seven ruffians took a turn pounding on me until my tears shamed them into leaving me alone. I never forgot my beat-down at the fountain. In 1961, Dad moved our family away from the by-then predominately Catholic Ballymurphy.

 

From our new home at the “bottom” end of the Shankill Road, I ran the streets, as did my three brothers. Most of the time, God was the furthest thing from my mind as I spent my time with mates as wild as me — and loyal to Britain through and through. By the time I was 11 years old, a passion for gambling consumed nearly every moment I wasn’t in school. Horses, dice, football games and especially card games, like poker and pontoon, held me in a vice-like grip.

“Deal me in, mates.”

On favorite street corners all over the Shankill, men, boys and young women gathered to josh about or gossip and play card games. On tolerable days when the weather was mild, we sat on the bricks with little piles of our coins and bills beside us. We gambled for the pool of money in the center of our circle.

When I was 15, I quit school and went to work for a local brush manufacturing company. At 5 feet, 6 inches and 140 pounds, I swaggered with wiry ambition. My math skills and aptitude for administration helped me advance to “working dispatch,” or keeping broom and brush orders flowing.

But if you were looking for Jack McKee at night, you’d find me around Brown Square playing card games for money, late and hard. All my weekly earnings went straight into the “pool” at my street corner casino. An angry restlessness carried me toward corruption and likely violence someday — until God tossed a monkey wrench into my gears.

“Come to our Crusader’s meeting!” a man said, and my mates and I shivered as a cold wind swept away our excuses.

Laughing and jostling each other, several of us followed the man to the warm, friendly Elim Church on Melbourne Street, where, in the coming weeks, we checked out the girls, played cards on the sly and had fun disrupting their services. Our hosts may have despised our antics (like setting off fireworks inside the sanctuary), but no one kicked us out.

One frigid November night, as I sat for the mandatory preaching stint, God soaked into my empty soul, like water filling a sponge.

I suddenly “heard” the words the preacher spoke: about how God would not always have patience with a man. There would be a reckoning for my rebellious heart, and I knew that this unwelcome insight demanded my response.

“If you know that you need a Savior, raise your hand.”

I shuffled past my friends to the front of the church to put all my cards on the table, once and for all. I was all in.

“I’m going to be a Christian,” I vowed, and more than one of my friends, and some in my family, laughed.

My parents were not churchgoers, but neither were they unfriendly toward Christianity. Mum said she was happy for me. Dad hugged me and said, “I give you two weeks, Jackie …” (That was in 1967, and both Mum and Dad committed their lives to Jesus before they died.)

Sunday had always been my best gambling day in the Shankill, but I tucked my Bible under my arm and nodded to my cohorts as I passed them on the street corner. They stood up and stared for a few seconds, like I led a funeral march.

“Oy! Joshua! Where ya’ headed?”

“No, he’s Moses, with his big Bible!”

I could feel the back of my ears burning as their laughter faded away.

Later I learned about the two men my mates associated me with — God’s powerful commanders, Joshua and Moses — and I accepted their jibes as accolades. I often stopped by my old gambling corner to see mates, but I never cut a deck for money again.

I was still spiritually rough as a cob while attending Crusaders youth meetings and regular church. But God captured my heart with his word and guided me to “devotionals” that shaped me for a lifetime of spiritual brawls with the devil.

David Wilkerson loved the gang members that he confronted in the back alleys of New York. His life and the stories about young men and women Jesus rescued from drugs and corrupt street life stirred my own love for Shankill kids chained by addictions and bitterness.

Twelve Angels from Hell. The Cross and the Switchblade. Run, Baby, Run …

Did I have the courage to love people and serve God like David Wilkerson?

My test would soon come after I encountered savagery that surpassed anything I had read in The Cross and the Switchblade. On the streets of Shankill, the odyssey of God’s miracles seized my life and continue to grip me to this day.

 

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The day after Mum returned home safely from Londonderry, much of Belfast was ablaze with sectarian fires, violence and death. No one stood on street corners for games and gossip anymore, and tools became weapons in the hands of our tradesmen. Men with wooden baseball bats (built in a brush factory where many of us worked) guarded gaps in barricades, determined to keep the enemy from invading our neighborhoods.

Police officers, hopelessly outnumbered, stood between the enraged factions. Bandaged and limping cautiously through Catholic and Protestant districts, they tried in vain to control the mobs. Families along the Shankill and Falls Roads felt abandoned by authorities. If laws still existed at all in Northern Ireland at that point, they were in the hands of individuals.

Courage or cowardice marked a man for life on the Shankill.

The interface areas (Catholic/Protestant flashpoints) seethed with crowds, mainly of men — young and old — concerned with defending communities. I had been taught at my Elim Church to “overcome evil with good,” but at 17 years old, my emotions pursued an instinct to protect my family. My father and brothers grabbed weapons and manned barricades to defend the Shankill, and so did I.

Men with military backgrounds, and respected individuals in our community like my father, filled leadership roles. I stood with my dad and brothers, hoping that God would honor my decision — I believed that it was either them or us. To my shame, I launched into the street fighting, as caught up in defending my territory as any gang member loyal to his colors in the alleys of New York.

During the first bloody days of anarchy, our religious/political borders were clearly defined by the hodge-podge of barriers stacked on streets. Women and children were taken and guarded in church sanctuaries far from the fighting, until the initial mob violence ebbed.

Within a week of The Troubles, Catholics and Protestants began trading bats for carbines and assault rifles. Mobs dwindled, and snipers suddenly owned the deserted streets.

The government sent in British troops, and they marched down the Shankill Road amid our hopeful cheers and shouts. With fixed bayonets and helmets glinting, hundreds of soldiers tried to take control of Protestant and Catholic areas. Troops erected gun placements at flashpoints — but immediately seemed paralyzed between the warring sects: Stones and bricks from rooftops and balconies rained upon them indiscriminately!

Within a matter of months, men at pubs were laughing at the impotence of the British, who seemed unable to adapt to a guerrilla war. The Irish Republican Army had assumed a leading role among Irish Catholics and now held positions at significant crossroads along the Falls Road. Masked men with Armalite AR-18s (obtained from IRA supporters in the United States) strutted like peacocks or crouched in pillboxes, laughing in the face of the British.

Shankill men, like my father, realized that the British strategy for quelling the violence had failed and worried that the troops might pull out — leaving us as prey to merciless IRA Nationalists. At homes and pubs across the Shankill, men gathered to form up the Ulster Defense Association, an underground league dedicated to keeping our community safe. If the Brits didn’t have the stomach to deal with IRA thugs, then our UDA would — at least that’s what we believed.

I watched stockpiles of carbines and automatic weapons being ferried from house to house, and I knew that an all-out guerrilla war brewed strong and unrelenting. Men whom I looked up to called themselves freedom fighters, but British security forces would kill an armed UDA Loyalist as quickly as they would an IRA rebel.

I asked myself, “How can a Christian be part of a covert terrorist group — even if it exists for the right reasons?”

I anguished over finding a legitimate means to honor my family, my country and God, and I decided the best way for me was to become a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defense Regiment, where Ulstermen loyal to the Crown determined to protect civilians — whether Protestants or Catholics. As far as UDR soldiers were concerned, terrorists of any ilk stood squarely in our sights.

 

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The night that dark-haired Kathleen fixed her eyes on me — in what I believe was a vision from God — she owned my heart. I had been praying alone, asking Jesus for a true-hearted girl, and suddenly her face brightened my soul, like the sun christening the Mountains of Mourne.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought we were a good match. A wise youth leader gave me a job helping keep the Elim church books and then asked Kathleen to assist me. Kathleen and I began dating while she was still in school, and we made wedding plans after she graduated.

Kathleen’s father was a strong Loyalist, too, skilled in repairing aircraft for the RAF. My beloved was 16 months younger than me, and during my restless teens, Kathleen had been growing into a fine Christian woman — very close to where my family lived!

While Kathleen and I dated, I followed in my father’s footsteps, hopping from one job to the next between my assigned military duties. I landed daytime employment at a warehouse on Northumberland Street, scheduling tile and carpet shipments, which was a stone’s throw from a British checkpoint separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

After The Troubles began, the British government erected a series of fences between the Shankill and Falls Roads, to deter random murders and bombings. Originally this fence was built to last about six months, but our “peace wall” became a permanent 20-foot-tall palisade made of brick and steel and several miles long. Gates are still locked tight at night.

In 1971, most major Shankill interfaces were manned by British or Ulster Defense Regiment soldiers with automatic weapons.

 

“Ya gotta see this, Jack! There’s a guy outside hauling a big ‘Jesus’ cross on his shoulder. No joke!”

I dropped my paperwork on the desk and trotted outdoors to glimpse a meaningful (and prophetic) sight that has resonated in my heart for more than 40 years. A hippie-looking man with long blond hair and a black leather jacket shouldered a wooden cross. On it, John 3:16 was inscribed, and I greeted Arthur Blessitt as he hauled the emblem of God’s love right down the middle of the street toward the British checkpoint leading to Falls Road.

I stared in awe as the soldiers dragged back their formidable barbed-wire barrier and allowed Blessitt to pass to the perilous Catholic side of Belfast. Minutes later he was confronted by hooded IRA members bearing automatic weapons, but after a tense discussion, he walked on, unmolested. It was the last I saw of Blessitt for several years. Blessitt returned to his home in Los Angeles and continued on a journey to carry the cross around the world.

Arthur Blessitt’s dangerous “cross walk” on the Shankill and Falls Roads breached a wall of bitterness that had been passed from generation to generation. The sudden appearance of the empty cross reminded people that Jesus had faced terror and defeated death. Because of Christ’s resurrection, every individual in Northern Ireland could know true and eternal peace, no matter what personal tragedy he or she encountered on earth.

And no one was more challenged by seeing the cross on our streets than me, 19-year-old Jack McKee.

 

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“Jack, sometimes I worry that we’ll never see our wedding day,” Kathleen confided one evening.

And I wondered about it, too.

About five months after I joined the Ulster Defense Regiment, a member of my unit (and neighborhood friend), Private Bobby McComb, was kidnapped.

After socializing with a young woman, Bobby had escorted her home, then walked through Protestant neighborhoods, hoping for a taxi. Paramilitary members abducted the young soldier, unarmed and out of uniform, from the Shankill streets. The terrorists burned the sign of a cross into Bobby’s back, and their hot iron left a merciless signature beside the cross: I-R-A. Bobby’s agony ended when a terrorist fired a bullet into his head.

Terrorists targeted UDR soldiers for abductions more often than civilians to instill a gnawing dread within our ranks — and in our families. Most of us in the UDR made a promise to ourselves that we would NEVER be taken alive by IRA terrorists. My own “pact” was flexible according to circumstances — and I kept it secret, between God and myself alone.

A month before I married Kathleen, I confronted this life and death decision when an IRA terrorist — bold as brass and unmasked — drew down on me with a pistol. I had been walking along Crumlin Road, off-duty and out of uniform, and I instinctively grabbed for my sidearm that wasn’t there. Bobby’s fate flashed through my mind, and I dashed away like a greyhound.

My assailant was only 30 feet away, and five bullets wailed past my ears, never so much as grazing my collar. If I had ever needed proof that Jesus set apart Jack McKee for his purposes, I believed I had my confirmation that October evening.

 

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Mum and Dad had adored Kathleen since her days skipping rope in Brown Square, and her parents respected me. I married my sweetheart in November of the same year that I joined the UDR.

In 1972 I was a proud soldier, a young Christian who had answered my calling to save lives. My wedding was a milestone of joy in my life, and Kathleen’s faithfulness and love became God’s anchor that held me from drifting into bitterness after seeing the atrocities committed by Protestant and Catholic terrorists.

Just three years before our wedding, our families stood together as smoke from burning homes brooded over the Shankill. Now Irish Republican Army agitators stoked the fires of hatred even brighter and more deadly. IRA terrorists were growing more and more proficient at planting bombs, and their objective was to bring the Northern Ireland economy to its knees.

 

As a part-time soldier, I drove an armored Land Rover for my unit every night, searching for terrorists. It was “clean” duty for me — preferable to mounting attacks of reprisal, like the UDA had begun doing by then. My father had read the handwriting on the wall and quit the UDA, before they began justifying bombings that killed Catholic civilians.

My unit focused on protecting Belfast’s industrial areas, especially electrical utilities. Each patrol area had designated code names, like “Green One,” and we stood watch at various power plants to thwart bomb attacks. If an electrical grid went dark, terrorists and criminals wreaked havoc in that community.

Green One sprawled atop a mountain overlooking Belfast, and I pointed my rifle barrel downhill, slowly scanning the gate area with a night scope. Amid the green fluorescent glow from trees and fencing, a white light squiggled in my crosshairs.

“I’ve got somethin’, Sarge …” Quickly my warning climbed the command ladder and back down to men stationed at the bottom of the hill.

Within minutes, our soldiers apprehended three IRA terrorists who were placing a bomb. The British soldiers who relieved our unit in the wee hours of the morning would have been blown to pieces when they opened the gate.

Oh, Lord Jesus, thank you.

I had a small part in saving lives that morning.

 

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“Does that car look a bit heavy to you?” I asked my colleague in the seat beside me.

We were patrolling the streets in our Land Rover retrofitted with steel armor for protection against IEDs (improvised explosive devices). We peered through one-and-a-half-inch-thick bulletproof glass, installed to protect us from burning petrol bottles heaved from balconies.

The suspect car squatted drunkenly on a street lined with a dozen shops, and folks casually milled from one to the next. After I parked the Rover, we trotted in and out of the shops asking questions.

“I don’t know whose car it is, but come to think of it, I did see two men get out and leave in another car.”

“And you’re still HERE?” I said, herding everyone out the door.

In a matter of minutes, our unit had secured both sides of the street, and shoppers and shop owners stood a block away watching us.

The British bomb disposal unit arrived, and one soldier dressed from head to toe in a flexible armored suit approached the car. As if on cue, the 1,000-pound fertilizer bomb detonated. The bomb expert stood only 15 feet from the loaded trunk, and the explosion tossed him through the air like a ragdoll. I curled up under the Land Rover as shrapnel (car fragments, brick chips and wood slivers) filled the air.

Unbelievably, the British bomb expert wasn’t seriously injured, but every shop on the block was leveled.

Once again, God had protected us as we saved lives.

 

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Kathleen and I had been married three and a half years when she gave birth to our first child, a son we named Jonathan David, to honor my friend David Douglas. Davy came straight from Young Offenders Institutions to work with me as a helper during my day job. After night patrols with my UDR unit (and a few winks of sleep), I drove a truck for a furniture company to make ends meet. My new teenage assistant, Davy, was great on the other end of a couch or dining table during deliveries.

Davy’s mother had died of cancer when he was in lockup, and I became his big brother, giving him space on our floor at home to sack out whenever he needed. He often stayed with us after work, since he lived clear across Belfast.

“Tell me again, Jack.”

A Bible verse that his mother often quoted wrapped him in a shawl of consolation as he dealt with personal struggles in his life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son …”

I’d quote the verse, John 3:16, then explain, “God the Father loved you so much, Davy, that he sent his one and only son to die for you. And if you take him into your heart and serve him, you’ll go to be with Jesus when you die.”

For several months I worked with Davy, and every few days he would ask me, “Can you say the verse again, Jack?”

I’d lovingly quote it one more time, hoping that he might open the door of his heart, once and for all, and let Jesus fill his emptiness.

I wasn’t happy when Davy lost his job with us and ended up at another company in the Shankill. He found work with a warehouse manager who was also a leader in the UDA. Davy’s father had been a member of another Protestant terror group, known as the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), and I feared that Davy might be drawn into terrorist activities.

When I heard that Davy and the manager had suddenly abandoned their delivery truck on a street in the Shankill — likely kidnapped — my heart nearly burst with grief. Kathleen and I prayed over Davy’s picture every night for months, until the authorities finally dug up two bodies: Davy’s and his foolish manager’s.

Davy’s new boss had allegedly been skimming funds from the UDA, and members of the UVF had been tasked to punish him. Davy had been killed by the very organization in which his father had served. For Jack McKee, any hint of sympathy for Protestant paramilitary organizations like the UDA and the UVF died with Davy. An unseen evil had penetrated the souls of men and women in Northern Ireland, seducing them to kill their own young. I detested this evil and the terrorists who committed murder and called it “justice.”

No power on earth could rescue Northern Ireland from the scourge of hatred flowing in the very DNA of Catholics or Protestants. Only one person could create a new heart — the same God who had set his seal of survival on me when I faced death patrolling the streets of Belfast — Jesus.

Not the “Jaysus” my mates invoked when cursing at snipers on rooftops. But the one who saved me in ways too deep to express with words.

 

In 1977, I laid down my arms and returned to civilian life, with Christ as my sole commander. I had been in the Ulster Defense Regiment for five years when Kathleen and I sold our possessions and moved to England for ministerial training at Elim Bible College (now Regents Theological College).

After two years, I graduated, and the Elim church administration assigned me to pastor Elim Pentecostal Church in the farming community of Rathfriland, County Down. We loved the people, but I was a fiery inner-city boy from Belfast, lacking the gentle, unhurried disposition common to country folk. After two years, Ballysillan Elim Church needed a pastor, and I jumped at the chance to return to our old Shankill community.

The same neighborhoods I had patrolled as a soldier, I now visited as a pastor, and all the families up and down Shankill Road quickly became as precious to me as my own kin.

Our Ballysillan church membership grew, and we knocked out walls to expand the facilities. Our worship seemed to touch the very throne of God — but a strange restlessness kept me from setting down roots.

We had two wonderful daughters, Chara and Paula, and Jonathan was growing up to be a fine Christian man. Kathleen was as active in our growing ministry as I, yet I didn’t feel content in my role as a pastor/teacher. Every day I yearned to be out of my office and on the Shankill streets, reaching out to young men and women who were dying without knowing Jesus.

Young people idolized the violent, amoral Shankill paramilitaries that preyed upon them. These organizations had mutated into mafia-style drug and racketeering businesses. Contractors, flower shops and pubs paid for their “protection,” and drug money lined the brigadiers’ pockets. The IRA, too, now acted as a powerful syndicate, as brutal as any mafia organization in the world.

No man dared challenge the overlords of the Shankill and Falls Roads: on the Protestant side, the UDA, the UVF and others; on the Catholic side, the IRA and IPLO. Young people were actively recruited by Loyalist or Nationalist paramilitaries who doled out fast cars, weapons, drugs and street status based upon a “soldier’s” willingness to obey orders.

During my first seven years pastoring the Ballysillan church, my fiery indignation sometimes fizzled to despair. Jesus stood with strong, outstretched arms to care for families and youth, yet thousands upon thousands preferred to stay in their deadly cesspool rather than come to church.

Jesus said that he was seeking to save — and I concluded that Belfast would only see revival if Christians dared to enter the cesspool where the world lived. Sunday after Sunday, I preached it: Nowhere in the word of God is the world commanded to come to church. But the church is commanded to go into the world and preach the Gospel.

I began to respond to the same burning call of God that David Wilkerson experienced when he reached out to the gangs in New York. Like Arthur Blessitt, I hoisted a burden of love upon my shoulders — and stepped into the streets.

 

“He’s on the run, Kathy. He needs a place to stay …”

My wife smiled, nodding. She gathered up blankets and handed them to me so that I could make the fugitive’s bed on the living room floor. Now, when members of the UDA or other paramilitaries fell out of favor, they sometimes came to me for help. Often they were marked for a bullet, and I tapped resources to pay their way out of Northern Ireland for a new start.

I prayed that our unsaved Shankill neighbors were sensing that God had “moved out” of the church building and into the streets. Through our new evangelism teams, Jesus was on his way to find them. But the deeper that we patrolled in the devil’s territory, the more dangerous it became for all of us.

 

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In 1989, while I still pastored at the Ballysillan Elim Church, God helped me raise funds to buy an old cinema to open a Youth and Community Outreach Center. One of the paramilitary groups was bidding on it, too, and offered double the price. Then another cinema company slid in its bid at three times my offer. The sellers sold it to me because they liked our agenda to help at-risk youth.

In January 1992, after nearly 10 years as pastor of the Ballysillan church, I tendered my resignation. In my soul I felt God’s urging to give up the Ballysillan pulpit and reach out to the Shankill youth in a more focused and tangible way.

It had taken me three years to fund and refurbish the interior of our new facility, and my dream was finally becoming a reality. Government agencies had endorsed our 12-week interventionist program that we called Higher Force Challenge, in which we gave at-risk youth safe harbor away from the streets.

In just one month I would hand over keys to a new pastor, and I faced a long, hard road ahead, opening rapport with a street community shredded by violence and bitterness. Little did I know that God planned to catapult me into the public arena. And in an angry burst of confusion, I would question if my vision to build a youth center was God’s will at all.

 

I led Andrew Johnson to Christ when he was 11 years old. I baptized him at 14. I buried him at 17.

Like myself at about his age, Andrew’s commitment to Jesus hadn’t wavered. He was one of our Shankill kids who had a bright future — one of my blessed success stories.

The night that Andrew was shot, the police knew that a Ballysillan Protestant in the Shankill would die. Authorities had sent word to pubs and shops that IPLO (Irish People’s Liberation Organization, an offshoot of the IRA) would be stalking Shankill to retaliate for the shooting deaths of five Catholics on Ormeau Road. No one had been charged in the killings, but everyone assumed that the shooters were Protestants. At his home, Andrew had wept as he watched a television account of the horrific murders.

He had turned to his mother, grief-stricken, and said, “Why? Why do people kill in the name of Protestants? These people don’t represent us!”

The IPLO clamored for Protestant blood. Two masked terrorists, not much older than Andrew Johnson, burst into a video store where he and another worker stood behind the counter. Andrew quickly shoved his colleague to the floor as the killers opened fire. Andrew saved the young woman’s life, but he took two bullets to the chest before the assailants ran back to a getaway car.

I had just arrived home after ministering to a woman who was dying of cancer at a local hospital, when Kathleen met me in the driveway, crying.

“It’s Andrew. He’s been shot dead, Jack.”

A thousand thoughts collided in my head as I drove to the video store where Andrew had been working. Police were trying to direct traffic away from the crime scene — located a few hundred yards from our church doors.

Someone told me tearfully, “He should have been at the youth meeting! But he was covering for someone who needed the night off.”

Why Andrew, Lord?

Starting in my childhood, so many friends and neighbors had been murdered by paramilitaries — and my emotions gathered in a storm of rage. Inside my Renault, head on my steering wheel, I poured out every drop of pain for God to hear.

“Lord! You could have stopped this murder! Why didn’t you? This boy was on track.”

Through my tears I saw a man approaching me, and my friend and associate pastor spoke through my closed window. In a few moments, his kindness brought me back to myself.

I had to go see Andrew’s mother right away. The boy was her only son …

 

On the day of Andrew’s funeral service, Ballysillan Elim Church opened its heart and doors to the whole grieving Shankill community. Belfast police officers — Catholics and Protestants — helped us secure the blocks around the church. We had expected a crowd — but not 10,000 people!

Loudspeakers set up in the street broadcast Andrew’s eulogy to the throngs gathered there. As his mentor and pastor, I validated his innocence and denounced all terrorist groups. I implored the members of Protestant paramilitaries to stand down, saying, “Don’t even think about taking anyone’s life on Andrew’s behalf!”

I paused — feeling murmurs slice through the crowd like a blade: “Right, Jack. Sure …”

 

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After Andrew’s funeral, I questioned if I had interpreted God’s will for me to dive into spiritual “hand-to-hand combat” on the Shankill streets rightly.

Within three weeks, the three young men involved in Andrew’s murder were shot and killed in retaliation. Belfast had entered a new era, writhing in greed and ruthlessness that I had never seen. Young men and women wanted a share of wealth and power held by Loyalist or Nationalist commanders, and fewer were joining paramilitaries to defend their Catholic or Protestant communities anymore. They craved the “bling.”

Chicago-style crime syndicates ruled the Shankill and Falls territories now — and after Andrew’s very public funeral, I stood in their crosshairs.

 

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

I emerged from my grief and shouldered the cross again, more dependent upon God’s Spirit to guide me than ever before. The media’s saturating coverage of Andrew Johnson’s death and funeral launched me into a blinding, uncomfortable spotlight. But it also served God’s purposes. I became a “voice for the voiceless.”

We called our ministry New Life Fellowship, and our worshipers and workers included former paramilitary members, street evangelists and local families. We met in the top-floor room of the old cinema, and our unconventional venue grabbed the attention of young people.

God also supplied Kathleen and my children a beautiful new home, and we moved there, just a year before the Ulster Defense Association sentenced me to death.

 

When the Semtex bomb detonated at the counter of Frizzell’s fish shop, our old cinema shuddered, like it was broadsided by a sudden wind gust. Sixty youth and children’s ministry workers from several churches sat together upstairs for training at our New Life Fellowship, just 100 yards away from the blast.

Rushing downstairs, we stepped outside into a crisp, bright autumn afternoon, staring at the smoky havoc down Shankill Road. I hurried toward screams, where people staggered over dust-covered rubble. John Frizzell and his daughter were Baptist born-again believers. They died in the blast, along with seven others, including my 14-year-old daughter’s friend Leanne.

The fishmonger’s shop was completely torn out of a solid row of businesses, and it lay in helter-skelter mounds of brick, splintered lumber and jagged steel. Ambulances carried away the bodies they could find, as well as people wounded by the odd-shaped masonry, plumbing and roofing “shrapnel” flung in the blast radius.

All night, police, firemen and ambulance drivers dropped body parts into plastic bags as they worked to find remains.

We continued to pray for survivors throughout the night. One of them was the terrorist — a 19 year old who had assisted the one who prematurely set off the time bomb. Their target had been leaders of the UDA who met on Saturdays in the upper story above the fish shop — but none of that terrorist group was in the building at the time. The UDA went into high gear using the emotional fallout from the bombing as a recruitment tool on the streets.

 

❧❧❧

 

Soon after the Shankill bombing, I stood before a bouquet of microphones and television cameras, my ire held in check by God’s Holy Spirit alone. I despised the IRA terrorists for the atrocity, but I believed that Protestant paramilitaries were the magnets that invited such an attack.

Neither terrorist faction could vanquish the other — but through fear and violence they intimidated and controlled the people like vassals. I took careful, deliberate aim at ALL the paramilitaries. As the cameras zoomed in closer, I condemned the IRA terrorists who killed nine absolutely innocent people in our Shankill community, adding, “Some wounded folks are fighting for their lives in hospitals right now!

“But,” I said, touched deeply by the brutal truth, “Protestant terrorists must take some of the responsibility. I am NOT justifying what has happened, but if nine members of (Loyalist) Ulster Freedom Fighters had died in the bomb blast, instead of nine innocent civilians, the Shankill community would have accepted it more easily!”

I clarified my statement, so that no one might misinterpret my meaning in the Shankill. I articulated that our community would certainly have been angry if nine members of the UFF had been killed, but these murders of innocent men, women and children were beyond reprehensible!

The UDA and the UFF took great offense at the words I believe God motivated me to speak to all of Northern Ireland that day. But I had stirred up the most powerful nest of wasps in the Shankill.

Sixteen prominent UDA leaders met to decide if what I had spoken warranted a death sentence, and these 16 terrorists voted to have me shot dead. They had interpreted my words to mean that I wished that Loyalist Protestant leaders would have been blown to bits — instead of the innocent people who had died. Someone with connection to the UDA immediately warned me to leave Belfast.

I prayed for wisdom, knowing that when the UDA targeted someone in the Shankill, the newspapers soon carried his obituary. I worried about my Kathleen and the kids — Jonathan was 17, Chara was 14 and Paula was 11 — but I had no leading from the Holy Spirit to pack up and run. I made a cardinal choice — one that struck the deepest chords of faith in my consciousness.

I put my trust in Jesus, who holds all power of life and death, and kept the worries of my death sentence between God and me.

Jack McKee is not a brave man. Looking back, these events seem surreal and miraculous beyond my ken. The week of my sentence, I sauntered the length of Shankill Road once, then crossed the street and walked back down the other side.

Two young men (climbing the ladder of UDA power) volunteered to carry out my execution on the same night that I scheduled an evangelism meeting at our New Life Fellowship. The meeting usually lasted from 7:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Ten minutes after I left my home, my two assassins arrived at my house. Seeing that my Renault was gone, they hid at a vacant house across the street waiting for me to return.

Our meeting at the church ended at 10 p.m., like usual, and as I was about to leave, at about 10:10 p.m., my evangelism leader stopped me. “Pastor, before you go, would you mind if we prayed for you? I don’t know why, but I sense danger tonight.”

My spine tingled as I felt the Holy Spirit at work. No one knew about the threat that hovered over me, except me, the UDA and God.

My wonderful friends gathered around me and took turns praying for me. I arrived at my home at 10:40 p.m. — warily glancing inside all the cars along the street and peering at shadows around the houses. I drove past our house once slowly, then turned around and drove back to my driveway, satisfied.

Seconds after locking the front door with me safely inside, a knock startled Kathleen and me. It was our neighbor.

“Don’t know if this means a thing, but from 7:30 until 10:30 two men puffing on cigs stood inside that vacant house and seemed to be casing your place. I saw them drive off at 10:30 sharp.”

My heart beat a little faster as I realized how our praying to God had delayed my arrival home by 10 minutes — and saved my life.

One of my assassins had committed his first murder at 15 years old. His best friend (another former UDA member who had given his life to Christ) later related how the two killers had waited three hours for me to return, but then left.

Infighting among UDA members broke out soon after this failed attempt to kill me, and the commanders refocused their violence upon one another. Our New Life Fellowship gained a strong foothold in the community, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the terrorists sentenced me to death once again.

 

A couple in our congregation who owned a flower shop refused to pay protection money to a paramilitary group. Thugs battered their windows and beautiful flower displays with baseball bats to send a message.

My indignation grew into a public condemnation of the racketeering rampant in the Shankill. After my television interview excoriating the organized crime in the Shankill, an Ulster Volunteer Force member came to my New Life Fellowship office to inform me that I was on their hit list.

I calmly told this brigadier, “I don’t want to die, but I don’t fear death. I am ready to go and know where I am going. As for you — you will stand before God and give an account for your actions.”

The man began to defend himself, but in the 15 minutes he sat across from my desk, I explained that he did not serve the same God that I did. He stomped off in an absolute rage.

I’ll never know exactly why nothing came of the UVF’s initial decision to kill me. But in the following years, paramilitaries were so involved in defending their own turf (now riddled with drug dealers, enforcers, gambling and thieves), I must have been the least of their worries.

In 2001, after 11 Shankill paramilitary men were killed in a Loyalist feud, we organized a walk for peace, and 500 people joined in our march the length of Shankill Road. Wives of the paramilitary husbands dared not join in, but showed their solidarity by standing along the sidewalks.

 

It was just after our march for peace that I felt God drop a distasteful idea into my heart.

Build a cross like Arthur Blessitt, and walk the Shankill and Falls Roads — for 40 days.

“Okay, Lord. I’m willing to carry a cross, but why 40 days? How about three days …”

I finally gave in, committing to 40 days for two hours a day. In my heart of hearts, I believed that within the first three days, if I walked the Falls Road, I needed to have my last will and testament in order. No respectable IRA brigadier would sanction a Protestant marching the Falls Road.

Miraculously, I made it through the first three days bearing the cross without incident. In fact, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, stopped by to say, “As long as you are walking with that cross, you’ll be okay, Jack. If you have any problems, come see us.”

God’s sovereign grace is a powerful force in our world.

People on the Falls Road were trotting out of pubs to ask me what John 3:16 meant (it was painted in bright white letters on the cross). Some thought it was my given name. I had a wonderful opportunity to tell them about Jesus, who loved them and died for them so that they could have peace now and live forever with him.

My son, Jonathan, and my associate pastor were walking along the sidewalk with me one day, handing out cards explaining what John 3:16 meant, when three IRA paramilitaries accosted us. The commander stuck his finger in my chest and told me what they were going to do to my son and pastor friend if they continued to walk with me — and I began to lose my cool.

Suddenly a short, thin man came out of nowhere and took control of the situation. The three men responded respectfully when he ordered them to leave us alone. God used this senior commander in the IRA to keep us from being beaten or worse. The following days, I marched alone.

On the 39th day, I felt that God was challenging me to stop at the Irish Republican Army offices on Falls Road and give them a gift. I hated the idea, but obeyed the Holy Spirit’s nudging. I left my cross outside and approached the door to the IRA headquarters, my nerves on edge.

The thin man, who had rescued my son and associate pastor on the Falls Road, invited me inside. Terrorists from the same group that kidnapped and tortured Private Bobby McComb accepted my gift — given in the spirit of forgiveness and Christ’s love — which was a mirror with the verse John 3:16 in Gaelic etched in the glass.

The mirror still hangs on the wall of the IRA offices. My God-sanctioned walk on the Falls Road broke ground for a new ministry to be birthed among Catholics in the years ahead.

 

❧❧❧

 

When men from our New Life Fellowship launched Liberty Taxis Company, Loyalist paramilitaries decided that Jack McKee and his drivers must pay dearly for cutting in on their lucrative territory.

We created Liberty Taxis in 2005 to provide employment for men in Belfast and serve the public with honest, dependable, safe service. Some of the taxi drivers, who worked for the taxi companies owned by paramilitaries, jumped ship and came to work for us.

Liberty taxis seldom waited for fares, while the paramilitary-owned taxis often sat idle.

One day a UDA commander dropped by my house, and I invited him inside. He tossed a copy of a widely read newspaper article at me and challenged me about quotes in the piece attributed to me. I had compared the paramilitaries in Belfast to organized crime.

“Look,” I said, “you and I both know the truth: The taxi companies in Belfast belong to or pay protection money to paramilitaries. If you want to take issue with the newspaper, that’s up to you. But everyone knows how things are here.”

It was midnight when the commander left my home. I didn’t expect a personal reprisal, even though our phone lines to the church had been cut and several taxis driven by our men had been firebombed.

At 3:30 a.m. the following day, my family awoke to the sounds of shattering glass and an explosion that shook our bedroom walls. Masked men used what we believe were baseball bats to break out the dual-paned windows in the front of our house. They tried to toss bottles of petrol/paint bombs inside, but the thugs were only able to shatter the first layer of window glass, so none of the bottles made it into the rooms. One petrol bomb ignited the gasoline and interior of my car and scorched it like an overdone marshmallow.

Later that morning I went public on all local news channels and newspapers to make it clear that I would not be going anywhere, nor would I be giving up anything I was doing. Liberty Taxis would continue.

That was before the police informed me that leaders of the paramilitaries had sanctioned attacks on our taxi drivers. It was time for me to back down and place the situation in God’s hands.

Two people associated with our Liberty Taxis Company committed their lives to Christ, and in time, two of the men who attacked our home sought me out to apologize.

When one of the young terrorists asked for my forgiveness, I replied, “On the night that you attacked our home, we forgave you, lad. Be assured that we don’t hold it against you.”

Due to the potential attacks, we chose to close Liberty Taxis, but we were able to proclaim the Gospel of love and forgiveness “in season and out.”

For more than 30 years, we McKees and fellow ministers have lived, worked, played, grieved, helped, argued and reasoned with our neighbors — on both sides of the Peace Wall. It has been a painfully slow, sometimes perilous process, but Jesus has formed a foundation of credibility upon which he rescues the lost every day.

 

❧❧❧

 

To profit in Belfast in any activities controlled by the ruthless paramilitary commanders, you must pay them their cut or expect merciless retribution. Paramilitary members hauled one of our young people behind our youth center and shot him in the elbows, ankles and knees — his crime was keeping money from personal drug deals.

A mentally handicapped young man once stumbled onto a scene where Protestant paramilitary members might have been implicated. Not far from our church doors this “child in a man’s body” was tortured and killed by leading members in a Protestant Loyalist group.

 

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

To combat the evil that seduces our Shankill youth and families, God helped us raise money to purchase real estate on Northumberland Street — a 22,000-square-foot warehouse straddling the Peace Wall. Our New Life Centre has become our Gospel plaza, with doors opening to the Protestant Shankill Road and to the Catholic Falls Road.

Today our community outreach programs create opportunities and employment for women and youth. From our venue we run a powerful, internationally recognized youth interventionist program known as Higher Force Challenge.

Our range of facilities has grown to include a coffee house, a 600-seat auditorium, indoor soccer stadium, daycare facility, childcare for special-needs children and afterschool programs.

The remodeled warehouse is located on the same block where I first watched a “hippie” carrying a wooden cross down Northumberland Street in 1971 — Arthur Blessitt. I was 19 years old, Arthur was 31.

Our New Life Centre is a base of operations from which we now launch home groups and evangelistic meetings on Protestant and Catholic sides of the Peace Wall. Some of our congregation comes from the Falls Road, and we co-located with a drinking club in a building owned by the Workers Party, the political wing of the Official Irish Republican Army.

I had visited the manager of this Official IRA Social Club to discuss the possibility of renting space next to his pub, when he responded, “Jack, you know who we are. We are socialists, anti-government, anti-religion and certainly anti-church. But we like what you’re doing …”

The room he rented us accommodates 120 people — many who come are Catholics. This side of the Peace Wall, we don’t refer to our meetings as “church” (it sounds too Protestant), but we invite everyone to fellowship and hear the simple Gospel through testimonies delivered by men and women freed from the chains of guilt and ethnic hatred.

Official IRA drinking-club patrons drift into our meetings, sipping pints of beer. We welcome them, and they often leave our worship service for refills and come back, while the Holy Spirit speaks to their hearts.

 

❧❧❧

 

My heart was broken over an 18-year-old youth who attended New Life and participated in our 12-week intervention program. He owed a local paramilitary commander money for drug deals and couldn’t pay. He was ordered to appear at a certain location for punishment. Driven by fears of torture, the young man took his own life.

In 1971, not far from our present New Life Centre, the IRA threatened to nail Arthur Blessitt to the cross he carried; 40 years later, Arthur answered my invitation to come to Northern Ireland again. Arthur was 71, and I was 59 when we carried crosses together on the Shankill and Falls Roads — to shine a light on a new epidemic sweeping Belfast: suicide.

Despair can be as deadly as any bullet. Nearly 300 people take their lives in Northern Ireland each year, and death by suicide has seen a 100 percent increase in just 15 years, according to BBC News Northern Ireland.

Hundreds of people walked with Arthur and me as we demonstrated that the message of God’s love in Northern Ireland will never be silenced — not by paramilitaries or Satan himself.

 

Rain or shine, inside our “Church on the Wall,” Protestants and Catholics gather to play games, to root for soccer teams, to exercise and study, eat or sip teas and coffees. Each week young people rock to Jesus-centered bands and hobnob in youth groups. On this neutral ground, youth and adults experience God’s love among seasoned believers who know their purpose for living — and share their lives. Our dream of becoming a safe “street corner” for all faiths, ethnic groups and political persuasions is coming true.

Together we pray for the day when Jesus deluges Northern Ireland with “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.”

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