My parents had hit on a way to keep their expression of loyalty to Jesus as simple and unpretentious as possible by the time they got married and moved to Strabane. They took up with fellow-travellers who saw things the same way – the Plymouth Brethren.
This was (and is) a gloriously modest movement of Jesus-followers whose simple approach emanated, not from Plymouth, but from North Wicklow of all places. This simplicity principle seems to have worked since they have poured out an astonishing stream of linguists, public servants, writers, university academics, missionaries, poets and scientists.
The Wilsons didn’t join – nobody “joined”; there was no joining to do. They were never interested in some sort of denominational “signing up”. Their guideline was, “Any friend of Jesus is a friend of ours”.
I’m not sure that Joe and Annie were unnecessarily worried about Plymouth or Wicklow. They just wanted to meet and work for God with a few like-minded friends. The friends in Strabane didn’t look at all like poets or scientists – more like tradesmen, farmers and shopkeepers. They referred to themselves as “the Assembly” which sounds rather grand and was better captured by the everyday word we so often used, “the Meeting”.
And boy, did we meet. On Tuesday evenings we met to study the Bible (obviously), on Friday evening to pray, on Sunday morning for a super-simple version of Communion, Sunday afternoon for Sunday School (which was indeed like school) and, wait for it, Sunday evening again for someone to expand on a Bible passage with personal application. So what would we do on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays? Fear not, we had the occasional meeting for international visitors to deliver a report, because this small (you’d have to say miniscule) group supported missionary work all over the world.
It was not at all unusual, although it was exciting, to hear from a visiting missionary about the latest situation in Venezuela, Congo, Malaysia, Tibet or wherever. Just by sitting there for a couple of years, any child would get a crash course in human geography. This is as good as you’d get in a lot of secondary education.
You got history too. Simply by reading the Bible a child would encounter the civilisations of the ancient Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Roman empire and the first millennium of the Jewish people. Tranquil Strabane wasn’t a bad place to get this kind of cultural grounding. And kids without any additional schooling would get those same basics (and indeed they still do) if they are in a similar upbringing in Congo, India – or New York for that matter.
What the Meeting lacked in quantity it made up for in colour. You had the McMonigle family from a farm halfway to Derry where the ancient Mr McMonigle senior made short shrift of the argument of a couple of young Jehovah’s Witnesses who made it as far as his farm door, They claimed that Jesus had reappeared years ago. But, unlike Mr McMonigle, they were too young to be eye witnesses. “Do you people believe that the church of God went home to heaven in 1917?” asked the farming pensioner. “Yes we do – exactly.” “Well I joined the church of God in 1913 and I thinka woulda heerd aboot it.”
His home-spun theology was nothing like as thorough as Lottie McCreedy’s whom I remember fondly as my Sunday School teacher. She started me on memorising Bible passages – just a little at first, then longer ones – like a whole chapter. When I was about ten I was asked, in all seriousness, which book of the Bible I would now like to learn. And I said, also in all seriousness, “The letter to the Hebrews”. That used up the next year or so, but I got there in the end. It’s funny how, still to this day, the ancient wisdom in that book comes back to jog my memory and caution my steps.
Or take the case of Harry Wilson (no relation – Wilsons are as cheap as chips!). Harry was a figure of fun to some of the customers in the draper’s shop where he worked because he was “always going on about the Bible”. Harry hadn’t had a cross-cultural communications course in how to deal with regular human beings. He had no fancy education at all. They called him “The man of one Book”. But, lo and behold, he decides one day that God has guided him to become a missionary to Brazil.
The wise ones of the Meeting mulled that over for a while, a good while, and eventually let him go, wondering, just a little bit, whatever would happen to our Harry. Contrary to expectations, Harry landed in Brazil, learned Portuguese, and launched into years of giving successful Bible courses all over the place. Before long we were hearing of his grateful listeners from the most tropical-sounding locations like Rio Grande Do Sul and Porto Alegre