See Profiles or Blog Stories

Sunday, January 12, 2014

From Darkness Into Light

by Lisa Becker

“I stand before you a grandfather and a father. I stand before you a convicted terrorist.” James Greer bared his soul to his people, his friends, and his former enemies in 2011 as he spoke these poignant words during the dedication of the Peace Bridge to the people of Derry. How he came to make this confession is quite a story.
James Greer

As a young boy growing up in Derry James was surrounded by utter disregard for human life. In 1966, when James was only 11-years-old, he and some friends were playing on a wooden plank by the River Foyle. As they were returning to the bank, the plank toppled and 7-year-old Thomas plummeted into the rushing river. James raced for help, but the old man he stopped simply drove away not wanting to get involved. James ran back down to the bank searching desperately for some sign of his friend, finally spotting Thomas a short way down the bank, his mop of red hair bobbing up and down in the rushing water. James tried with all his might to save him, but just grazed his hand before the tide swept Thomas away for good. Upon his return home that evening his mother simply said, “Get out of those wet clothes.” They found Thomas drowned three days later, the same red hair floating in the water, like seaweed lingering on the surface of the ocean. James could not help but be impacted with the realization that his was the last face Thomas saw before he died; James the last person he had touched. At the tender age of 11, James had a burden that was his alone to bear. A burden he would carry forever.

James reminiscing in the green room. 
There would be more darkness to follow. James spent a single year in the Army in 1971, before choosing to return home instead of taking a post in Cypress, a decision which haunts him to this day. He paused in his story telling and, gazing thoughtfully out the window, whispered, “How different could things have been?” His return from service plunged him in the chaos that had become Derry. The devastation and trouble in the Bogside- the bombings, the tear gas, the killing each day- meant James was still at war. He could not escape the struggle and ultimately joined the UDA, the Ulster Defense Association. He was arrested in 1974, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison on bomb charges. Sitting in his cold, dark prison cell one day, a fellow inmate lamented his great disappointment at being unable to kill an 8-year old girl he had fired at in a shop. His only concern was that he had failed at taking her life. In that moment James realized the horror of what the Troubles had done to him and his people; he began to see the light that had evaded his life for so long.  Upon his release in 1979, James was a changed man. He spent the next years avoiding the violence surrounding him, eventually moving on in his career and with his life. Yet who James is today, is not defined by the dark events of his past.

Theatre of Witness
Unbeknownst to him at the time, a call he received in 2009 would be the light he did not know he was searching for. He was contacted to take part in a new program at the Playhouse called “Theatre of Witness” where combatants and victims, officers and family members, and all those wounded by the Troubles could come together in a public forum to tell their stories and promote understanding and healing. The program is designed to help people bear witness and put a face and a heart to the painful, true stories.

When James was first invited to the Playhouse situated just inside the city walls, he chose to park just outside the walls in the Fountain area. He walked in through the gate focused on his mission, but as he started down the street his steps began to slow as he filled with uneasiness. He turned around, thinking he could not and should not do this. He quickly paced back to his vehicle in the Fountain, where he had come from, where he was safe, where he felt he should be. When he reached his vehicle James was overwhelmed by the shame of what he had done yet completely afraid of what he was about to do. He wanted desperately to tell his story, to move on, and it was from that desperation that he found the strength to walk back to the Playhouse and begin his new journey.
James found his light on stage. 

For James, the story telling was therapeutic. He performed 14 times in that first year. 14 times he sat on stage and told his story inches away from an enthralled audience. 14 times the audience lived his deep emotional trauma, their empathy forever joining them in that moment. 14 times he shared space and time with five other narrators, all of whom were former enemies, and had now become not only friends but family. As we sat talking in the green room at the Playhouse, James conjured up the image from Gulliver’s Travels. He felt as Gulliver dragging the ships, carrying the burden on the human soul, carrying the weight of his secrets. The more James told his story, the more weight he was able to release. As the burden started falling off, the ships would sink behind him one by one. James said it best when he stated, “The medicine is in the story.” What they did was not worth the life of one person, let alone the thousands who lost their lives during the Troubles.

 “As much as you would like to change the past you can’t but you can live with it and change the future.”
The Playhouse

Today James is thankful for what he has done, yet he realizes what it has cost him. “My people would believe I had turned my back on them as a traitor. They would see it as the ultimate betrayal of my people and my beliefs. But I know that what I am doing now is better than killing people. Of course it is.” The light and peace that now emanates from James does not go unnoticed. He realizes the peace journey is a work in progress, one that will never truly be complete, but it he can now carry his wounds with more ease and help others who are suffering. Not only has James brought peace to himself, he is hoping to reach outside of the historical conflict between Catholic and Protestant, Nationalists and Unionists, to include the local ethnic minorities, who are severely marginalized in Derry today. He would like to someday create a hub, a common ground, where those minorities would be welcome. His plan for a peaceful gathering place in Derry would include the peripheral ring of society as well as all those who have been involved with the struggle for so long. After many years of turmoil James realizes that peace building must be for all.

No comments:

Post a Comment