21st Feb 2020 in Business
David Armstrong is Team Leader (the equivalent of Lead Pastor/Minister) at Redeemer Central.
From the outside, the church at 101 Donegall Street looks modest and unassuming, but inside lies not only a seriously beautiful building but a congregation with unconventional origins and a very modern approach to worship and to community-building.
David is one of the founding members of Redeemer, which began life eleven years ago in a living room, as he explains: “It was February 2009 when the first core group of people gathered; it started as a group of people who gathered to discuss the question of what it might look like to begin a new expression of the church in Belfast.”
After gathering in members’ homes for nearly a year, the church arrived in the Cathedral Quarter for the first time, meeting in the Oh Yeah Music Centre on Wednesday nights for Bible teachings and further discussions around expressing their faith and examining their values.
The group continued to grow and eventually moved to Sunday morning gatherings at the Oh Yeah. David laughs fondly at the memory of coming in to “sticky floors” following Saturday night gigs and revelry and says, “We loved that space.”
As the new community continued to grow apace, they soon outgrew the Oh Yeah and became somewhat “nomadic” David says.
“We gathered anywhere and everywhere, moving from the Crescent Arts Centre to the Queen’s University Students’ Union and different music venues around the city.
“We were at Crawfordsburn baptising people in the sea and the minister of Donegall Congregational Church, the Reverend Tom Boyle came along that day. He came up to me and some of the other team members and said ‘I heard you might be looking for a building to gather in – I’ve got one for you.’”
The building in question was the church at 101 Donegall Street. Rev Boyle’s congregation was ageing, and numbers were dwindling, but while the church was coming to an end, they were keen that the building continued to be used to serve the community. Finding a new, growing congregation keen to put down roots in Belfast was the ultimate stroke of serendipity.
“We were super excited about it,” David continues, “I live in Belfast but had never been in the building or, to be honest, paid attention that it was there but I know that area quite well. I was intrigued to see it – the facade is flush with the street and you can easily miss it. So we discovered this beautiful space that since 2012 we have called home.”
In learning about the history of the Donegall Street Church, David and his Redeemer co-founders discovered a philanthropic ethos at the heart of the previous community’s Christian values which resonated strongly with their own views of what church could mean in 21st century Belfast.
The Rev. William O’Hanlon published Walks Among The Poor, a series of letters to a “Belfast journal” decrying the conditions experienced by Belfast’s poor, and calling for improvements in sanitation, education and washing facilities.
“It seems that, at Redeemer Central, we gather in a space where the previous church – who were there for 150 years – saw real value in playing their part in helping the poor, so we are exploring how we play our part in that.
“Since we moved in, we’ve been figuring out to be good neighbours and make Donegall Street and the Cathedral Quarter a part of our home and parish and somewhere we can contribute.”
One of the ways in which they have opened the building up to the wider community is with their monthly community cinema. “One of our members Daniel Saunders came across this organisation called Open Cinema which is an award-winning community network of cinemas. He found out you could join and set up a cinema for people who are in the margins of society and maybe don’t have access to cinema.”
Open Cinema centres upon the idea of cinemas and film clubs as a means of creating and supporting communities for vulnerable or marginalised people. With many of Redeemer’s members being creatives, it made sense for them to open their doors in this way. It began with a cinema for the homeless, and currently the church facilitates a monthly Family Matinee. It’s free to attend, open to all, and is popular with Belfast’s asylum seeker and refugee population.
“We’re trying to find a way to not only show a movie but provide a genuine place of community. We’d love to see it grow and become a community event where families can maybe volunteer, or even make films, maybe we can even signpost to other services.
“We’re keeping an open mind and seeing where it goes organically but it would be interesting to see whether there would be room to reboot the cinema for the homeless, or offer screenings for the international student community once the new Ulster University building is up and running.”
Creative expression is very much at the heart of Redeemer, in both its community outreach efforts and its worship.
Inspired by the Duncairn Centre on Belfast’s Antrim Road, David says there is a vision at Redeemer “to make the building more accessible to communities”, whether that’s through events, or facilitating services such as counselling, training, education or English classes.
With some of the beautiful old building’s facilities in need of upgrading, the church is keen to forge connections with any organisations and businesses who might be able to help secure funding, as well as those who would be interested in partnering and collaborating on community projects.
Although the building is still a “work in progress” it’s a stunning venue and has successfully hosted some fantastic events and gigs (and continues to do so). They had a series of quarterly gigs called the 101 Sessions, which saw Martha Wainwright perform. They partnered with No Alibis book store to bring Ian Rankin to Redeemer for a reading. And of course, it has been one of Culture Night Belfast’s most atmospheric venues for the past few years, with many much-loved local names playing gigs on stage, including Joshua Burnside, Hannah McPhillimy and Emerald Armada.
Photographer Stephen Wilson, a member of Redeemer, collaborated with St Patrick’s on Donegall Street to create an exhibition called Same Difference whereby each church hosted an exhibition of photographs of the other.
“It explored the two different expressions of ‘church’ and presented the idea that there’s more in common than you might think; the idea of being good neighbours and having a shared vision for the street and breaking down barriers.”
As well as leading a dedicated seven-strong leadership team who support this vision for the church and its neighbourhood, David also serves as Director of the Redeemer charity and sits on the Staffing board.
“I also look after a lot of the pastoral care in church life. A lot of the time that means I’m in Established having a coffee and catching up with people! I also focus on trying to make friends in the CQ and be a good neighbour, connect with businesses in the area, networking and so on.”
The key elements of his work centre around organising, curating, and facilitating the services and preaching and teaching on Sundays. As he explains, music is very much at the heart of how he leads worship in Redeemer.
“We have about 20 musicians in the church in different bands that play on Sundays and lead our worship. We’ve written our own songs and we’re trying to do that more and more; to give some original expression to our worship on Sundays. It’s a lively, upbeat, reflective, modern worship style. We try to encourage creativity in the church and we’re blessed with some really good musicians.”
David’s background is in music ministry and his original role within Redeemer was as Worship Pastor, which involved leading the musical worship in church services.
“Through different leadership transitions, I have found myself in this lead role. I still lead the worship team; play the guitar, sing songs, although it’s not my full job now.
“Music has always been an interest of mine. I spent a year interning in a church on the North Coast, so I invested a year in worship ministry there.”
David was heavily involved in music within his family church growing up in Newtownards but also developed a passion for design, studying multimedia design at Queen’s University and initially entering the world of work as a self-employed graphic designer.
“I went through a period of time of illness and a difficult time where I questioned my faith and the importance of church and through friends, I connected with Redeemer and found people asking the same questions, who had room for doubts and questioning faith and examining it to see where it can be relevant to our lives in the 21st century. I transitioned from working as a graphic designer to working part-time for the church and eventually went full time in 2014.”
Although Redeemer is at the heart of his life, David does find time away from church life to enjoy time off with his wife watching movies, travelling and walking their new puppy Fergie, a boisterous and much-loved addition to their household!
As important as this downtime is, he is glad that he and his church feel so at home within the Cathedral Quarter. As the hub of Belfast’s creative community, he believes there is no better place for them to settle and they are keen to deepen their roots here.
“We have members of our church involved in the area, running businesses, so we’re always in conversation with them about how we can play our part in the area and what’s needed. My colleague Matt has also been building relationships with charities who work with asylum seekers and refugees to make them aware of Open Cinema and any other help we can offer.
“We love the Cathedral Quarter and consider it our parish and it’s important for us to play our part. There are wonderful things going on in the Cathedral Quarter, there are other wonderful churches as well as charities and businesses doing great work and we consider ourselves privileged to be part of it. We love the energy and vibe of Belfast and if we can continue to play a part in that, it’ll be a real joy to us.”
If you would like to volunteer for Open Cinema, find out more about Redeemer Central, or start a conversation about partnerships and collaborations, get in touch here. Find out how you can use the church as an event venue here.