My father was a born-again Christian and among the many ways he witnessed his faith was to stand and preach at the Diamond in Enniskillen on a Saturday morning.

He, and a very few older men, conducted a fairly dignified short service which, to be honest, shoppers largely ignored and went about their business.

Who knows how many of them took on board any points from the Christian message. I assumed that my father saw it has part of his calling, to evangelise as it were, to “go out and preach the good news of Christ.” I say I assumed, because I suppose we never discussed it.

On a Saturday morning, I’d be polishing up my football boots for later that afternoon, and he would head out simply saying he was “away to the open air”…not the fresh air you understand, instead that was what he called the short outdoor service. Open air meetings are a longstanding tradition in Northern Ireland, and there are many people who witness their faith quietly and respectfully in this way.

Sadly, not all. I never imagined at that time that one day, such an act of worship would attract such controversy. But these are changed times, intolerant times indeed, and the nature of in-your-face “street preachers” of today seems a million miles away from what I remember.

At the weekend in Belfast the LGBT community was holding its main Pride parade of the year, and one preacher harangued them with a terrible rant in which, among other things, he claimed “homosexuals want to rape your children.” He was later given a platform on Nolan to try to squirm out of it by suggesting that he was taken out of context, and he blamed the media.

That really didn’t wash, did it? I mean, what part of accusing the gay community of being rapists did we misunderstand.

As a person of faith myself, I found it totally abhorrent and disgusting. He does Christianity no service whatsoever with this diatribe and it feels far from the message that many other Christians espouse.


Sadly, there is a brand of street preacher today which is aggressive and venomous in ramming their version of right and wrong down people’s throats. Like the Biblical Pharisees they focus strictly on the strictures of religion, not on the true spirit of a personal relationship their God from which many believers of various faiths find peace and comfort and are inspired to love others. They hammer us with their inflexible perception of rules and laws and they portray an arrogance that they are so superior that there is no room for anyone else’s view of faith.

They are judgmental in the extreme and the way they gulder at people in public seems to me to be designed to browbeat others, rather than show the example of Christ’s love.

Freedom of speech or freedom to worship isn’t an absolute right and, quite rightly, questions are now being asked about how to preserve those rights without causing offence and trampling on the rights of others.

As bad as all that is, on Saturday the preacher crossed a line. I admit it made me angry, and part of my anger was the fact that such bile only serves to allow people to denigrate Christianity. Yet many people of different denominations sincerely believe in God and live out that faith respectfully and shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush.

I was also saddened to hear that a Bible was torn up during Saturday’s event; can people on all sides not show tolerance of each other?

The street preacher’s words were outrageous. As it happens, we were reminded of what could be termed as another outrageous act involving faith last week with the passing of the singer, Sinéad O’Connor. We were all reminded, as if we needed reminding, that she famously tore up a picture of the Pope live on television to highlight the abuses of the Church. Brought up Catholic, she had a difficult relationship with organised religion and as woman of conscience she had tough times in living out her undoubted spirituality.

Sinéad’s voice was mesmerising, she had an unbelievable gift. The famous video “Nothing Compares” is as powerful today as it was when I first watched it. What a voice, what a talent.


The numerous tributes and articles which followed her very sad passing also brought it home to us what an amazing human being she was. Much has been written elsewhere, including touching pieces in this newspaper, so I don’t plan to rehearse them again.

Though I did particularly enjoy the recollection of her former partner Dermott Hayes about the night they were going to a charity dinner when Sinéad was guest of honour and their taxi ran into a homeless man called Seamus.

Sinead insisted on bringing him along. Hayes recalls, “Seamus, who was wedged between the two of us in the back seat, had seen better days. In the confinement of the back seat, and heat of the care, a pall of steam and body odour arose from his damp, threadbare clothes and he was very drunk.”

Nevertheless the trio arrived in the foyer of the plush hotel an hour late, greeted by dignitaries and insisted Seamus was sat at the top table with her; whereupon he devoured the rack of lamb and stuffed as much silver service cutlery as he could manage into his pockets.

Suffice to say that Sinéad’s intolerance of injustice and abuse and her caring support for vulnerable people marked her out as a truly spiritual person.

So, within a couple of days last week, I found myself being disgusted by one person’s act of offensive behaviour while lauding another person who had offended many Catholic people across the world. Am I, therefore, being a hypocrite? Should I have a word with myself?

I don’t think so; I believe in the principle of “righteous anger” or even “righteous indignation”, if that doesn’t sound too lofty.

The street preacher’s words were directed at demeaning and, I would argue, even endangering people that were different to him. Sinéad’s actions were directed at challenging the hurt and injustice being meted out to the helpless by an all-powerful body of men.

The latter involves things that we should be intolerant of. There is so much that is happening in the world that we should be angry about, but we remain silent and get on with our comfortable lives.

Despite her fame and fortune, Sinéad O’Connor never took the comfortable option and, as Brian D’arcy writes in another page in this issue, her indignant act of speaking up for others is an honourable line running through her life.

“Blessed are those who have regard for the weak,” says the Psalms.

Whatever your view on faith and religion, when it comes to viewing the actions of the street preacher and the singer I know whose side I’m on.