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March 15, 2013

Ireland: From Vandal to Visionary

Growing up in the poverty-stricken dockland area of Dublin, Joe Donnelly never expected to end up using the old Protestant Mission Hall he threw bottles at as a kid as an avenue to bring hope to his community.

  • Transformed Life

    As a young man, Donnelly proudly proclaimed that he was an atheist. He began opening his heart to Jesus when a friend offered him a New Testament.

  • A Bright Spot

    The Fair-Play Cafe and Garden Centre is open to people from all walks of life. Kids enjoy playing in the garden area.

  • Vision

    Donnelly wants the Fair-Play Cafe to be a place where God's love can break through into this run-down community.

  • Dockland

    The dockland area of Dublin, overlooking the River Liffey and facing the Irish Sea, is a deeply Catholic inner-city community.

A relic from a bygone era, an old mission hall on the south side of Dublin stands over the River Liffey facing the Irish Sea. This mission hall’s history can be traced back to a group of people that arrived into Ringsend (the name given to this section of the city) in the 1830s.

“This is the place where the Protestants were,” said Joe Donnelly, “and we were told to never go near them!” So Donnelly, born and raised in this deeply Catholic inner-city dockland community, would throw stones at churchgoers who arrived at the mission hall by bus.

Vandalizing the mission hall became a “sport” for Donnelly and his friends. With bottles of cider and beer in hand, they would head to the back portion of the mission hall property for drinking sessions that led to bottles smashing through the windows and a failed attempt at burning the mission hall down.

Donnelly said, “This was the worst place to hang out, and the last place that I thought my life would have any connection with.”

A slight smirk crept across his face as Donnelly continued to describe a part of his past as an atheist punk rocker and member of a band touting the self-proclaimed distinction of once having its fans boo another band called “U2” off the stage. “I set out to exclude God and any notion of God from my life,” Donnelly said, “and by the age of 22 I found myself staring into a canal in Amsterdam ready to commit suicide — the voice inside my head said that there was nothing to live for anymore.” Donnelly was able to walk away from the edge of the canal that day, but he still felt completely empty inside.

When Donnelly came back to Dublin, he ran into a Christian friend who began to tell Donnelly about Jesus. He talked about Jesus as a friend and how he had spoken to Jesus that morning. “I thought this guy was a fruit nutcase — I’d hate to end up like this idiot!” said Donnelly.

The authenticity and honesty this friend spoke with began to break through barriers Donnelly had put up, penetrating right to his heart. With the instructions “read it and try it for yourself,” this friend offered Donnelly a New Testament. Donnelly took the book with the sole intention of being able to quote Jesus during the conversations at parties where people discussed Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. “It was a purely selfish reason — I wanted to demolish the arguments Christians would put up,” Donnelly said.

He started with the book of Matthew.

“It was like a quiet explosion ignited in my heart and soul,” Donnelly said. Explaining further by using a line from the hymn Amazing Grace, Donnelly spoke about how the grace of God and the book of Matthew began to teach his self-described atheist, punk-rock heart to fear God. “I had a heart that didn’t give a toss for God,” said Donnelly, “but the process we call conviction of sin led me to seek out a Christian meeting.”

That meeting opened up the door for a Bible study where everyone talked about Jesus as a friend. These people told Donnelly that Jesus accepted them as they were and extended unconditional love to them. This amazed Donnelly. “I realized that if this man Jesus is still alive today, and he is the same person that he was back then, and he wants to come into my life, then I need him!” Donnelly said. Though he was embarrassed of the emotion he was experiencing, Donnelly knew that Jesus was changing his heart.

Ever after this amazing transformation, Donnelly, a secondary school dropout with no job or significant social connections, doubted that God could do anything significant with his life. But Donnelly did have a burning passion for Jesus Christ and stepped out in faith into Christian ministry almost right away.

That simple, raw faith in God has taken Joe Donnelly all across Dublin, and the world, to work with some of the lowest of the low. Heroin addicts, underdeveloped communities in countries far from his home, poverty-stricken people, and the downtrodden have all benefited from Donnelly’s child-like faith.

Fifteen years ago, the old mission hall that Donnelly tried to burn down was being considered for demolition when two gentlemen approached Donnelly and his wife with a proposal. They pleaded with Donnelly to take over the mission hall in order to preserve it from being torn down by the developers of an apartment building next door.

Acting without any money or help from other workers — but firmly holding on to his faith and a vision of God’s love breaking through into this run-down community — Donnelly and his wife agreed to take over the mission hall.

Prepared through years of ministry across the city of Dublin — and further educated through a Master’s degree in Applied Theology — Donnelly and his wife saw the possibility of bringing Christian hope into local communities through four areas: beauty, children, community, and justice. The grounds of the mission hall are being renovated to reflect each of these areas.

Exiting the side door of the mission hall’s café, Donnelly spoke passionately about a vision for a space that intentionally surrounds people with beauty. Hanging baskets of colorful flowers will line a covered walkway where the sweet pea aroma wafts into the air and gently mingles with the sounds of singing birds, punctuated by the staccato rhythms of a nearby water fountain. Further back on the property is the local garden for the Fair-Play Café and a space to grow the flowers sold to neighbors and café patrons.

Also on the grounds of the mission hall is a playgroup open to families of the surrounding neighborhood. Donnelly wanted to create an environment where children could thrive and enjoy laughing and playing together. The laughter is infectious, causing everyone in the garden area to smile and sense another element of beauty and hope as they walk the garden paths. Donnelly has realized that this environment is in high demand, and a waiting list has been created for parents hoping to put their kids in this program.

Offering a daily menu of fresh foods, coffees and teas, multiple computer stations with access to the Internet, and a cozy environment to just sit and reflect, Fair-Play Café has become a popular spot for the community to come together.  The chairs in the café are frequently filled with people telling stories of extreme hurt and great loss. It is not unusual for a heroin addict to find his way into the café, taking a seat next to a person struggling in the final stages of cancer. Donnelly and the café workers delight in listening and reaching out to these visitors, whatever the situation.

To promote justice in their local neighborhood, the city of Dublin, and all over the world, the cafe workers use the profits from the café and flower sales for community projects and give to meet the needs of other charities. This year the profits are being given to a program helping to rehabilitate child soldiers in Africa.

Donnelly spoke with great anticipation about God’s future Kingdom, yet quickly acknowledged the ways that he sees that Kingdom leaking into the everyday activities around the mission hall. “Every day, people come in to this space struggling profoundly in all areas of life,” he said. Just knowing a small part of Donnelly’s own story of struggle confirms that the Lord has placed the right person in this ministry to reach out to them.

“When I was lying out there 35 years ago, drunk as a skunk, collapsing, and throwing stones to smash the windows in this building, what were the thoughts that God was thinking about me?” Donnelly said. “Was he saying ‘When I get my hands on that guy I’m going to wring his neck and really show him who’s boss; I’m going to punish him; I’m going to inflict plagues and pestilence on him!’” Donnelly answered his questions with a paraphrase of Jeremiah 29:11. “I’m thankful that 35 years ago, the Lord knew what was in store for my life, and that God’s purposes and plans prevailed!” he said. “I couldn’t have imagined that God would take my life and use me; how amazing is that?” He continued with a statement, obviously believing this deep in his heart: “Hope will always break through even the most profound desperation; delight will overcome the darkness,” he said.

“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” – Matthew 6:10

-Written by Robert Johnson
-Photographed by Robert Johnson

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]

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