Reverend David Latimer recalls some of the highs and lows of his 32 years in Derry ahead of his retirement next week
It was a sunny April afternoon in 1988 when the Latimers left the large country Presbyterian manse in Co. Down, where we had lived for four years, and set off for the North West.
I was very aware that virtually everything we do in life has a margin of risk in it. Nothing, not even a job with the church, is ever 100% certain. That aside, somewhere deep inside, I believed exchanging the peaceful landscape of rural Down for a besieged church in a troubled city was somehow the right thing to do.
Not everybody agreed with my decision to accept the role as minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church. Most concluded that this particular church, by virtue of its location, was on borrowed time. Indeed, the former Presbytery of Derry, in an effort to strengthen First Derry, had created a new link with the congregation of Monreagh in County Donegal.
Soon after being installed as minister of both Monreagh & First Derry, my car was attacked with bricks and stones as it sat parked outside our heavily fortified church in Upper Magazine Street. It was so badly damaged it was written off by loss adjusters. For many years thereafter, I intentionally parked my car a safe distance from the church. Strangely enough, that avalanche of missiles, launched from the other side of the city’s historic walls, didn’t make me question the decision to relocate to First Derry. If anything, it confirmed for me we were, in fact, in the right place.
For ten years, ministry in the city and across the border in County Donegal was more or less confined to ‘keeping the show on the road’ by preaching in the pulpit on Sundays and visiting in the parish throughout the week.
Cross-community relations did not appear on the agenda. As priests and ministers, we played safe by serving as chaplains to our respective religious communities. One exception to this occurred in the mid-1990s.
A connection with Catholic priests in the nearby Long Tower Church took place. Gradually, this led to both private meetings and public ecumenical appearances which were largely unheard of at that time. Opportunities to meet and mix, laugh and learn about each other enabled us to realise we didn’t always need to see eye to eye or to always agree.
What mattered more was that we were willing to be together and unafraid of being seen together. Derry offered quite unique opportunities for clergy willing to show, by their example of reaching out, how walls that so often divide people can be weakened and bridges that connect people can be built.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 heralded the beginning of a sea change for the people of Derry and beyond. Former enemies were unbelievably sharing power at Stormont. At First Derry, the response was to start dismantling a raft of exterior security measures that had been put in place to protect the church during thirty years of conflict. Numbers attending worship surprisingly increased, resulting in the church gallery, which had been closed many years earlier, being reopened.
As the 21st minister of the city’s oldest Presbyterian congregation, I couldn’t have been happier. An old church was, once again, showing signs of strength and vitality. Across the border, Monreagh was growing. New families were joining the church. Everyone was in top form.
However, hopes of continuing to ride on the crest of the wave were suddenly and severely dented by the discovery of dry rot at First Derry. It was so severe the church was deemed unsafe and, therefore, completely unusable as a sacred space.
From 2002-2011, First Derry ceased to function as a church. It seemed as if the curtain was about to fall but good friends in positions of influence were on hand to offer advice, guidance and support.
No one wished to see the demise of a Protestant church dating back to 1690 - least of all Martin McGuinness whose personal involvement and persistent intervention averted imminent closure.
Astonishingly, First Derry was awarded £1.8 million. Clearly, the Presbyterian church on the walls was highly favoured by being included in the city’s Built Heritage Programme. The unexpected promise of substantial finance undoubtedly helped me to hold a congregation, unable to meet in its own space, together for almost a decade. People could so easily have drifted.
Instead, they remained faithful to the mother church within the walls and, in the end, witnessed the re-opening of a superbly refurbished church in May 2011. The return of a displaced congregation to its spiritual home ranks as one of the great highlights of my ministry in Derry. First Derry had opened its doors to everyone. As minister of a church on the periphery of the Bogside, I was keen to keep on pushing some new buttons.
I believed the time was right to attempt something new and nothing could have been more ambitious than having in one of our pews a man with whom I had established an unshakable friendship: Martin McGuinness. It would have been unthinkable prior to 2007, when we first reached out to one another, that a former IRA commander would one day worship in First Derry Presbyterian Church.
On rare occasions, when, as now, I pause to reflect on my life and work in Derry and Donegal, I’m compelled to conclude that somebody bigger than all of us brings into our lives only what is for his glory and our good. Travelling with Martin McGuinness for ten years, despite robust and sustained opposition, fills me with more joy and satisfaction than anything else in my public ministry.
The two of us were undeniably destined to meet - first for a while on this side of the grave and, at some stage in the future, on the other side where we will be together again.
Something else that still gives me goose bumps is when the direct descendent of the late Dr Martin Luther King sat in my home and worshipped in my church. During the 2013 UK City of Culture celebrations, Martin Luther King III officially ‘switched on’ our Peace Flame in Foyle Street, the only one in Ireland, and personally received Peace Pledges from pupils attending schools and colleges across the city. Reflecting on four wonderful days in MLK III’s company is tantamount to living the dream!
In sharp contrast, my deployment to Afghanistan, during the second half of 2008, was equivalent to being in a horror movie. Letters and cards sent out from home, written by both Catholics and Protestants, kept me sane during that particularly difficult period.
A notable milestone across the border at Monreagh was the decision, after nearly thirty years of deliberations, to build a new church hall. I was delighted to be directly involved in the delivery of this facility which will long serve as a hub for the national school, the Monreagh church family and wider community. The hall was officially opened by Joe McHugh TD, Minister for Education & Skills, in November 2019.
An indication of my affection for Derry and its people is our decision to continue living in the city. There is no other place I would want to be. Firm friendships, transcending potentially divisive political and religious differences, persuade me this is the best place to be.
In Derry/Londonderry, more than anywhere else on this island, we will, I believe, either find a way or make one to shape a shared future. Providing we persevere in the pursuit of peace, ripples of hope can yet flow out from our city to bring about improvement elsewhere for the good of all.
Following my retirement and a reasonable period of relaxation and rest, my initial focus will be the iconic Peace Tree, designed by renowned local artist Maurice Harron, which was recently unveiled at Ebrington Square. Along with a dedicated local Steering Group, I look forward to injecting life into this inspirational piece of public art via a new digital component and bespoke education module. Another project for my retirement will be to improve a booklet I wrote a number of years ago on the subject of bereavement. Being released from the relentless responsibility of running two churches will, very importantly, create space to spend more time with family and that will be a priority.