Mark Russell: An Easter message – take courage from those who dared to hope

A show of public solidarity one week after the Westminster terror attack.
A show of public solidarity one week after the Westminster terror attack.
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WHEN he was a little younger, my godson Joshua was desperate to visit the Houses of Parliament, and a good friend of mine, Barry Gardiner MP, took us for a fantastic tour of the Palace of Westminster.

We saw the Commons, the Lords, the Terrace, walked through Central Lobby, and finally with a glint of excitement in his eye, Barry said he was taking us to the most significant part of the building.

We went downstairs, along dusty corridors, into the bowels of the great building, and ended up in a broom cupboard. Both Joshua and I wondered how on earth this was a place of significance. With his characteristic enthusiasm, Barry pointed to a small brass plaque on the back of the door erected by the late Tony Benn MP.

The plaque commemorates the night the Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison hid herself illegally in that cupboard on the night of the 1911 census, therefore enabling her address to be recorded as the House of Commons, thus making her claim to the same rights as men.

Emily lost her life two years later from injuries sustained when she ran in front of the King’s horse at the Derby. Five years later Parliament granted women over 30 the right to vote and finally all women were given the right to vote in 1928.

Barry was right, it is the most important place in the Palace of Westminster. Like Emily Davison, time and time again we see how courageous and heroic people fight for the change they want to see in the world.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the height of the Troubles, I remember the anger and helplessness we felt as bombs ripped through our towns, as gunmen wiped out innocent people.

Yet something inside me and many others like me grew a spirit that believed we could make a difference, that our voice could bring change. I remember going on march after march to demand peace. In the mid-1990s the violence did stop and in 1998 we had the Good Friday Agreement. Today despite its imperfections, Northern Ireland lives in a more peaceful state, could we ever have believed the leader of the DUP would attend the funeral of a former IRA Commander? Yet last month Arlene Foster not only attended the funeral of Martin McGuinness, but she was given two ovations during the service.

Across the United States, we see that same spirit in those opposing Donald Trump’s odious travel ban. In London, we saw the same spirit in those standing together after the terrorist attack in Westminster. The spirit that unites Emily Wilding Davison, with 
my teenage self in Belfast, the people 
of the US, and the people in Westminster last month, is the audacious spirit of hope.

Optimists believe all will work out fine and pessimists believe the future is irredeemable. Both optimists and pessimists believe they need do nothing and just stay at home. Whereas a hope-filled person believes that no matter how dark the day is, no matter how difficult the situation, we within us have the power to effect change. A hope-filled person looks back and sees how the future is different today because people dared to fight for change, and from that story draws the inspiration to be hopeful today.

The hopeful person dares to believe they can play their part in changing the future course of history. Emily Wilding Davison changed history, my generation changed history in Northern Ireland, and the hundreds of thousands of people who surrounded the G8 summit in Birmingham in 1998 changed history as sovereign debt was cancelled from developing countries across the globe. Millions of people today are alive because people stood together and demanded change. Millions of people inspired by hope; hope that they could change history, and they did.

Despite the challenges, we see shoots of hope around us. We can draw hope that in the midst of the terror attack on Westminster, our brave police and security services ran into the face of danger, our brilliant NHS staff treated the very man who moments earlier had tried to kill them.

As a nation, together, we need to summon that spirit of hope. There are myriad issues that require us to be hopeful, but can I suggest two?

Firstly, we have chosen to leave the European Union, I respect that vote, but I don’t believe we voted for this particular Brexit that risks damaging and hurting the poorest in our society, that risks fracturing our United Kingdom, that risks the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland.

We need to be hopeful, and we need to get off our backsides and we need to speak up and speak out. We need to write to the Prime Minister, to our Members of Parliament, and say yes we voted for Brexit, but we didn’t vote for a Brexit that damages workers’ rights, that impacts human rights, that seems to think that no deal on trade is perfectly acceptable, when millions of jobs in this country depend on trade with our European neighbours.

Secondly, every day I am astounded by the sheer number of homeless people on our streets. We cannot just sit by and tolerate that our fellow humans should sleep rough. We need to have a deep hope that we can fix the housing crisis, we need to campaign for change, and also to interrupt our day to stop and say hello to those on the streets, to buy them a hot drink. We could solve the housing crisis within a year if we had the political will

This is Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Day, the day when Christ has been crucified and is dead, it is the darkest day in the history of the Christian faith. Yet the very next day resurrection happened, and light extinguished the darkness. Hope triumphed, life triumphed, love triumphed.

This Easter, I hope you will join me, in choosing to be hopeful, and allowing that hopefulness to inspire us to effect change, and together we will effect change because as Martin Luther King put it, and he knew what he was talking about, the arc of the future is long, but it bends towards justice.

Mark Russell is chief executive of the Sheffield-based Church Army. He writes in a personal capacity and tweets @markrusselluk