BELFAST, Northern Ireland

Megan Buff’s father is a Presbyterian pastor, so when she says she grew up in the church, it’s a literal as well as a figurative statement.  

So, upon graduating from George Fox University, in Newberg, OR, a year early and trying to figure out what was next for her life, it was only natural to consider volunteering with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

She’s now working in Northern Ireland as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV).

“It came down to a choice between working in London and working here in Northern Ireland,” she said during an interview at a coffee shop alongside Belfast’s City Hall building.

“I would mention it in passing, that I was choosing between the two, and every time people would respond by saying ‘Oh, Ireland is so beautiful’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland — it’s lovely,’ Buff said. “So, after that happened about 20 times, all of them saying Ireland, I said, ‘Okay God, I guess I will listen!’” she said, with a bit of self-effacing humor. “So I went. Here I am!”

Buff has been living and working in Seymour Hill, an area just southwest of Belfast, since September.  The area is very strongly Protestant unionist, with links to paramilitary groups — a working-class sort of neighborhood.

“It’s a different context than I’ve ever worked in,” Buff said, adding that she spent most of her time in the United States working with youth in middle- to upper middle-class areas of Oregon and Washington state. 

In Belfast, Buff works at two places: Kilmakee Presbyterian Church and the Friendship House, a youth drop-in on Belfast’s well-known Sandy Row. At the church, she works with youth and senior citizens, including a youth drama team and a senior lunch club. She volunteers at the drop-in center on Sandy Row one afternoon a week.

A recent highlight came when the two groups came together, with the youth drama team from the church performing mimes for the kids at the drop-in center.

“It was definitely my favorite time that I’ve had working here, to see the kids from the church interact with the kids at Sandy Row,” Buff said.

Before the performance, the kids at the center had been restless, inattentive, and not really interested.

“As soon as we started performing the mimes, everyone fell silent. I have never heard that group of kids be silent — never,” Buff said.

The two mimes were so well received that, at the request of the kids, the drama team repeated each of them twice.

For Buff, drama is nothing new — she minored in theater in college. The week before she arrived in Belfast, a group of people from Kilmakee got together to pray for the upcoming year.

“One of the prayer requests was that someone would come forward to lead a youth drama team,” Buff said.

When she arrived the next week, the group was again gathered, along with the pastor, to chat with Buff to get a sense where her passions and gifts might best fit at the church.

“When I said I had a background in theater, the group that had prayed that the week before just looked at each other, amazed, and said, ‘Would you want to start a drama team?’” Buff said.

Buff’s work and time spent in Northern Ireland has made her cautiously optimistic about seeing peace in the region.

“Nearly everyone I talk to says that they want peace — they want the peace to keep going,” she said. “But there is also a danger that if enough people decide that they are so powerfully tied to their old identity that then they will do anything to stay with it. It really comes down to identity — youth need to be identified somehow — we see that everywhere. If they can be provided with an identity that is not Protestant or Catholic, but Northern Irish, then perhaps it will come together and actually be a unified society.”

Buff will be in Northern Ireland for another four months. As for vocational plans beyond her YAV year, she’s still not sure.

“Eventually I think I am looking at ordained ministry in some fashion — but I have no idea what that’s going to look like yet,” she said.

When her time as a YAV in Northern Ireland comes to a close, she plans on returning home to Spokane, WA, to spend time with her family and from there figure out what’s next.

To read Megan Buff’s blog chronicling her year in Northern Ireland, visit her blog.

Erin Dunigan is a free-lance writer and photographer in Newport Beach, CA.