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Philip McKinley on the Kairos Moment in Ireland during COVID-19

In this episode, Philip McKinley, co-founder of Discovery Gospel Choir, an intercultural ensemble that reflects the new-found cultural and ethnic diversity in Ireland, shares with Maria Cornou how the pandemic created new opportunities for unity and blessing among the people of Ireland and beyond in unimagined ways.

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This interview occurred in the fall of 2020 as part of a course "Learning from Worshiping Communities Worldwide" offered by Calvin Theological Seminary and taught by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff Maria Cornou and John D. Witvliet.

See all episodes in Season 2

Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In this episode, Philip McKinley, cofounder of Discovery Gospel Choir, an intercultural ensemble that reflects the new-found cultural and ethnic diversity in Ireland, shares with María Cornou on how the pandemic created new opportunities for unity and blessing among the people of Ireland and beyond in unimagined ways.

María Cornou: 

Today it is my pleasure to interview Philip McKinley, joining us from Dublin, Ireland. Philip is an ordinand, which is a candidate to be ordained in the Church of Ireland, an Anglican church. Philip is a songwriter and the cofounder of the Discovery Gospel Choir, an intercultural ensemble that reflects the new-found cultural and ethnic diversity in Ireland. Philip has worked extensively in faith-based reconciliation and social initiatives for the Irish Council of Churches. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Philip McKinley: 

Thank you so much, Maria.

María Cornou: 

My first question for you is about your context, the context of your ministry framed by the larger context of the situation in Ireland. Could you share a little bit with us?

Philip McKinley: 

Yes. As an ordinand, all our studies have been paused for six months---physical studies; obviously we've continued them online. And then the church that would be my home church has continued online services. Everything has just moved online, and only really in the last two months has there been some return to physical worship, but that's even ... they're saying now tomorrow the government ... in my city is going to lock that down again. So the church is going to be closed again. So we're just in this time of peaks and troughs and waves of the virus.

María Cornou: 

Has the virus hit very hard in your city, in your context? Which have been the main challenges that especially congregations have had to face?

Philip McKinley: 

I think much of the same challenges as everyone else of confusion and isolation and job loss. I hear certain statistics that suggest Ireland has had it easier than other countries, but others that suggest that at certain times our infection rate is higher than other countries on a European basis because we're at the edge of Europe. Italy, obviously, was very high-profile, the first largest figures in Europe and then followed by Spain and then France and then the United Kingdom. It never crashed the healthcare system here, but obviously, about a half a million people became unemployed; that was 23 percent of the workforce. And there's just such huge changes in whole sectors. As a very small little aside, a wonderful, beautiful retreat center run by the Christian brothers called the Emmaus Retreat Center yesterday announced its closure ...(that would be a center for lots of different Christian activities and conferences and everything). So then there's no doubt churches themselves are going to be closing and huge implications. Probably the effects of that have not been felt properly yet, and there are shockwaves that are still going to come in waves again and again.

María Cornou: 

It's unbelievable how the world has changed and all the challenges we have to face, but at the same time, all of this new situation has created new opportunities to do ministry in a new way, to respond in very creative ways. And I know that you have been involved in some of these very creative responses.

Philip McKinley: 

Well, there was a big project that emerged from the United States. Kari Jobe wrote a song called "The Blessing" just before COVID broke out across the world. And it was picked up by, I understand, a group of churches, first in northern Brazil, northeastern Brazil, and then Pittsburgh. Churches in Pittsburgh came together and released this song, "The Blessing." And then at the end of April, when it was lockdown in South Africa, the whole of South Africa, churches across South Africa, created this South African "Blessing." And that caused a domino effect all over the world. There's about 46 or 47 international versions---the UK "Blessing," the Latin American "Blessing," the Cuba "Blessing," the Australia "Blessing." So I was involved with the Irish "Blessing," but we are the only one out of those 47 that used a different song. The reason we did this is because there are so many ancient Irish blessings. We felt it was really difficult ... well, it was much more cohesive and unifying to work with something that was in our shared ancient history. So we ... used " Be Thou My Vision," and then we developed a new arrangement with a wonderful composer, Jonathan Rea, who runs New Irish Arts and would have a very strong connection to the Gettys. And Jonathan did a wonderful composition on the famous words of St. Patrick's Breastplate, which was this prayer of protection: "Christ be with you, Christ behind you." And then we did the Aaronic blessing at the very, very end, because the whole of this movement, the "Blessing" of Elevation Worship, was based on Numbers 6 and the Aaronic blessing. So we did it both in some of the indigenous languages here in Ireland, and then we did it in some of the languages that are new to Ireland. The whole thing has been viewed over a million times. So it was ultimately a prayer ... over 300 churches took part in this, and it was a prayer of protection for Ireland and for our frontline workers, but it seemed to have caught the public imagination as well, which has been incredible.

María Cornou: 

I watched the recording. It's beautiful, and it will be shared, the link, of course, for our students to watch it also. And it seems in the video that it represents a variety of congregations and cultures. Could you tell us more about the ecumenical perspective of this initiative?

Philip McKinley: 

I have worked across Christian denominations. You mentioned the Irish Council of Churches there. So this has been my heart's work for about twenty years. And I managed to connect with an incredible peace activist in West Belfast from a very famous street called Falls Road, and his name is father Martin McGill, an incredible Catholic priest. And last year he spoke at the funeral of a journalist that was murdered in Northern Ireland. And her name was Lyra McKee. She was a 29-year-old journalist. And all the politicians, Theresa May, then the British prime minister, and all the Northern Irish politicians and Irish politicians all gathered in the front row. The Northern Irish political institutions at the time had not been functioning. And he said famous words: "Why in God's name does it take the death of a young woman to bring you politicians together?" And it got this standing ovation, and these famous words went worldwide, and it broke a deadlock, and, lo and behold, the politicians got back dialoguing together. So we kind of use this phrase. Our heart's passion is for this unity, but something happened within COVID that allowed a unity in a way that we could never have imagined. So there was an engagement with a spectrum and breadth of churches that just had not happened before. There was a kairos moment of the Holy Spirit to capture something, to gather people together. And that was evident in a lot of the international blessings. It's incredible seeing the churches that work together. The UK "Blessing" was the one that kind of inspired us, and just to see ... they literally listed the churches, each church, in each individual frame. We were only able to list ours on the website because we had so many churches contribute, but it's an incredible list from incredible places and that was mindblowing. And whether we can achieve that again in a post-COVID world I don't know, but there was definitely this window, this God moment, that was so exciting to grasp,

María Cornou: 

Which means a lot in your particular context. I know that church unity is the goal everywhere, but you have a particular history. And I'd like to ask you if you can briefly share what is behind this effort of being united in these times.

Philip McKinley: 

There are many dimensions to our division, but on a very simple basis, there are many islands around the world, but there's only a handful of islands that are divided like Cyprus or like Timor. And Ireland is a politically divided island into a Protestant-majority North that's still part of the United Kingdom, and a republic South that is majority Catholic. ... I'm a Protestant minority in the Catholic-majority South, or the Republic. And vice versa, my colleague Father Martin is a Catholic minority in the Protestant-majority North. And that was also important for how we worked cross-border. So we live in a politically divided island with religion, a huge part of the complexity of our country and religious history. The incidents of violence and near civil war as a result of some of the complex mixing of religion with politics, with culture, with identity is just a huge part of our narrative and our struggle and our quest, and therefore, when we saw all these other countries gathering different churches together, it was inspiring, but there was another layer of challenge that we had to overcome, which is our historical challenges. So there was something of---I can only describe it as of the Holy Spirit that just blew something beyond our wildest imagination in terms of engaging in a way that churches have never engaged in. Like I say, being involved with this work for twenty years, I've never been able to be involved in something like this before. So COVID opened a window.

María Cornou: 

I love that you mentioned this because I said when I introduced you, that you are involved in reconciliation efforts, and your country has been through nearly three decades of armed conflict involving political division, but also religion differences. So if you compare this unique opportunity now [during] COVID with the efforts you were doing before that, in terms of reconciliation, what are the main differences you perceive?

Philip McKinley: 

It's hard to tell because the other challenge now is knowing what of the pre-COVID world is coming back, and what is post-COVID world. There were opportunities, and ... some miraculous things were able to happen through COVID because of course it was a kind of bigger cause and a totally different dynamic to identity politics. ... This goes way beyond tribalism. And sometimes you need a common cause or something that's beyond yourself to rally behind. It forces you to the core of who you are. Another kind of profound question is whether it drew people closer to their faith. Evidence suggests that definitely COVID caused people to move beyond surface-level identities and practices and thoughts to asking the deeper levels of deepest questions of life and faith. On one level, people are wondering, will this result in a renewal movement or a new beginning for church and for the Christian churches or not, because will they all not last the financial implications of this and all be closed. So I think there are optimists and there are pessimists, and the optimists at the moment can dream dreams that---you would have described them as in need of medical assistance if they'd articulated their dreams, but actually these dreams are within grasp, within reach at the moment. But on the other hand, you can't lose sight of the pessimist either. So it's very hard to know.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

María Cornou: 

You mentioned the use of the Aaronic blessing in the song you recorded. Can you identify any other Bible verses or passages from the scripture that have been relevant or more broadly used in these particular times of crisis in the Irish context?

Philip McKinley: 

In the Irish context, it's hard for me to name one. "Be Not Afraid" ... You know, there's no doubt people are just confronted in a new way with a whole set of value questions---their family, their faith, their beliefs, prayer---and it's hard to hook it on one single thing. Our experience was that the Aaronic blessing actually was this very powerful tool. And actually the concept of blessing, which is a beautifully biblical concept, and of course, humans bless God, God blesses humanity. ... Blessing operates in lots of different dimensions of blessing. And one of the things that we found powerful with blessing was that it's uniquely something that the church can bestow upon society. It's not something that is an exclusive preserve of the government or the economy. So it was something that was a kind of USP, a unique selling point, of church offering to the public square. Also, you can offer a blessing, and it's up to the recipient whether they wish to receive or not, but it's not a kind of aggressive or offensive ... we suggested in that blessing, the Irish blessing that each local church, because every local church prays every week for their local community and therefore blesses the local community, that they identify a local service that was on the front line dealing with COVID, whether that was a nursing home or a hospital or a refugee center or a prison or wherever it was. And then to communicate, if they made this dedication, to communicate to that facility that ... this blessing was being offered for them. And we just found there was a wide open space with that idea of a blessing, that it was a right time. In other contexts people could reject that blessing and be very hostile to that. But we just found that was something that worked within the public square.

María Cornou: 

There is some openness to receive these words in times of fear, anxiety, uncertainty. Your other main project is the Discovery Gospel Choir. I know that choirs face a big challenge to rehearse these days, but beyond the particular crisis that COVID brought, you have started that choir as part of an initiative of inclusion. And I'd love to hear from you a little bit about demographic change in Ireland and your personal involvement in bringing people ... from different ethnicities and cultures together.

Philip McKinley: 

I went to Uganda in 2001, and you had the Lord's Resistance Army, which was a Christian fundamentalist military group, and I met many refugees that were affected by that. And literally as soon as I came back, I started studying theology in Trinity College in Dublin, and I got involved on my first day in a homework club for unaccompanied minors who are here without their parents as refugees. And the first student I was assigned in this St. Vincent DePaul homework club was a Ugandan refugee that was fleeing the Lord's Resistance Army. So as a young student, the global became the local, and twice a week, I was meeting this young student for homework grinds. And out of that homework club came the kernel of the group that formed the Discovery Gospel Choir. So I'm a cofounder. Essentially two of the Irish university volunteers with two of the unaccompanied minors were the core group that founded the Discovery Gospel Choir, and it's grown and grown and grown and has lots of different dimensions. It has a community training group at the moment, it has a weddings group, and it has the main choir, and it has about seventeen different nationalities. So Ireland has always as an island has a seafaring migratory---we've had Vikings and Normans and Firbolgs and Celts and all the various different seafaring nations. But in the last twenty years particularly we did an economic boom called the Celtic Tiger that brought about the first non-European, large-scale migration of African, Asian, and South American peoples to Ireland. So in a way that the United Kingdom and the Netherlands and France and other European countries have been asking these questions much more deeply for much longer, it's come to Ireland much newer, and therefore we've always said, can we learn from the mistakes of others? And can we get this right in Ireland? It's hard to know. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that we're doing some things well, and enough that says we're not doing it well. But the Discovery Gospel Choir is an intercultural choir for a new Ireland.

María Cornou: 

And I think it's a lovely initiative to use not only the arts, but the message of the gospel to unite people that come from very different backgrounds, cultural settings together, and join them in one project that makes a common identity.

Philip McKinley: 

And I would say the biggest thing through COVID for us was not COVID; it was actually the murder of George Floyd and the renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement. And that has ... caused us to us some deep questions. We actually had a session two days ago on nonviolent communication tools, on how we can speak some kind of language, tools and resources to help us talk about issues of racism. We had another session with a culture coach that I had met at the Calvin [Symposium on Worship] last January. Nikki Lerner did an amazing session with us about four or five weeks ago on culture coaching. I'll give you one example. One of the members of the choir was born in Nigeria but has spoken very publicly about her experiences of racism growing up in Dublin. She has founded a company called MIO Prints, which is a clothing company and Pharrell Williams and Jay- Z have just brought out a song called "Entrepreneur," which is looking at black entrepreneurship around the world. In essence, it's a kind of response to Black Lives Matter. And Florence from Discovery is in Pharrell Williams new video "Entrepreneur" as an Irish entrepreneur because he went all around the world to go to all these global ... So that becomes a conversation talking point, and that becomes a whole series of things. We don't have to do all of that on Zoom. And we haven't physically met and we're feeling drained and morale is kind of getting sapped as a result of not being able to physically meet, but on the other hand, like I said, it's a season that we've had to ask profound and very deep questions of ourselves as well.

María Cornou: 

For me, it's fascinating to see how we really live in this global world, that something that's very tragic that happened here had that impact across the Atlantic Ocean and impacted also your community and sparked conversations on race and racial justice in a very different context.

Philip McKinley: 

There were protests here at the American embassy during the height of lockdown. And then the police made arrests because people were breaking laws. I mean, it's had a profound impact worldwide.

María Cornou: 

I'd like to ask you a last question to close this time together. We can stay here talking for hours! My question is about the learning that you have experienced throughout this crisis. What wisdom do you think has been especially important? And what would you like to share? If you have to share one or two concepts with our community, our learning community, what would you highlight as a key learning?

Philip McKinley: 

I keep being drawn back to the inner self and thinking of scripture and wilderness. "Wilderness" in Hebrew is the word "midbar," which comes from the root word "dabar," which is "to speak." So when we cut out the noise and the clutter and the chaos, and we come to still our hearts, or we come to somewhere that may appear to be barren or empty or rudderless or without any direction, it actually paradoxically or ironically can be the place where God speaks to us the most clearly. So we've been confronted with our families and our homes, and to forge our identity away from our work or away from our studies and to press in on our inner selves. For some ... there's very marked increase in domestic violence here, very marked increase in mental health issues. So it's been a pressure-cooker environment in some ways and therefore people have struggled immensely with it. And obviously the whole challenges of unemployment is a particularly pertinent example of that. But it's because everybody, the most important person, or the the wealthiest person, the presidents, everyone has been forced to dig deep and to look deeper than themselves. And I just think of that wilderness, the time Jesus, the forty days and forty nights. ... Mark's gospel says the first thing he encountered was the wild beasts. And is it the wild beasts of the wilderness, or the wild beasts of the inner self? And then after the wild beasts comes temptation. So it has been like a wilderness experience. And that asks all the questions of faithfulness and our relationship with God. And I think any honest person will say that all of that has been tested and maybe reshaped and reformed through COVID. We've all gone through this intense period. And of course, forty days of wilderness for Elijah or Moses and the Israelites, the forty years, forty is the number of weeks in a pregnancy. So it's a rebirth experience as well. And therefore what started is different from what ends. So may we all be made new and renewed through this wilderness experience that is COVID.

María Cornou: 

Yes, this is our prayer too, that this could bring a new time for our communities, for our churches, and for the entire world. Thank you very much, Philip, for being with us today and for sharing about your life and your ministry. And we really want in this spirit of blessing to also bless you, and through you your community, your church, and your country.

Philip McKinley: 

Bless you. Thank you so much, Maria.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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