Bibles, Bombs, & Bullets

One night in Northern Ireland, a young pastor looked up from his sermon notes to see armed men walk into the full meeting hall.  He kept  preaching, knowing violence could erupt at any moment.  After sharing about the love and power of God, he invited people to come forward for healing prayer.  He did not know what would happen next.  Would the terrorists attack them?  Shootings in church services had happened in other towns in recent times.  With shaking hands, he began to pray for a woman who was blind in one eye.  After a few minutes she began to cry, sobbing that she could see out of the injured eye.  The meeting erupted in praise to God for the miracle, as the armed men walked out.  

 

What if God called you to hold an evangelistic meeting in the center of terrorist activity?  That is the danger Keith Gerner faced in 1972, when his healing services in Northern Ireland were sometimes attended by Irish Republican Army (IRA) soldiers.  One night in the town of Newry, with "violent men", as he calls them, in attendance, a woman received her sight in a blind eye.

The miracles continued, in meeting after meeting, all over Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This was at the height of "The Troubles", an era of fighting and bloodshed marked by frequent bombings and shootings.

 

An Oxford-educated Englishman, Keith Gerner's mission to Ireland began in 1961 when he firmly believed that God called him to minister there.  Keith went to the ferry dock to cross the Irish Sea, with no money for the passage.  A man waiting at the dock walked up to Keith, telling him that "God told me to look after you", so his ticket was bought, and the trip was made.  Upon arrival in Ireland, he immediately began holding meetings in Belfast, sometimes in homes and often in rented halls.  Within a year he and his Irish wife Elsie ventured into the southern Republic. This was a somewhat dangerous move, but with wonderful results.  

 

It quickly became obvious that the many Catholics attending the prayer meetings and healing services in the Republic lacked basic Bible information, and many had no Bibles.  So the Gerners' "Bible smuggling" practice began.  In those days the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was closed, with checkpoints to endure on the roadways when traveling between the two nations.   A load of Protestant Bibles being taken into the Catholic dominated south would have been confiscated as incendiary.  But the Gerners were never searched and were able to distribute thousands of Bibles and study materials. The boundaries the Gerners crossed were not just the physical borders between north and south, but more significantly, the borderlands existing in the hearts and minds of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland.

 

How could it be dangerous to preach the Gospel in a western European nation in the closing decades of the 20th century?  The situation in Ireland can be understood only in light of the deep divisions that developed over many years between Catholics and Protestants.  Catholics are almost universally "republican", meaning they want the whole country to be one Republic.   Protestants, on the other hand, are almost always "unionist", and loyal to Great Britain.  These differences go back to an era that left lasting resentment: "The Plantation".  Under King James I of England, large tracts of land were given to Protestant Scottish and English "planters" to settle in Ulster (Northern Ireland) during the seventeenth century.  In the middle of that century, England's Oliver Cromwell led an invading force around the Dublin area, killing hundreds of thousands of Catholics in revenge for a Catholic sponsored slaughter of Protestants a few years before.  And so it began.  

 

In 1921, Northern Ireland was partitioned from the Republic of Ireland, but by the late 1960s, this uneasy arrangement had begun to show signs of erupting, with the civil rights of Catholic citizens in Protestant dominated Northern Ireland at risk.  Violent episodes of bombings, shootings, and civil disruptions created a war zone atmosphere for many years.  Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, peace has apparently been achieved; but as a Belfast taxi driver replied, when asked in 2013 how he had experienced the change to peace, "Oh, we don't have peace; we have quiet!"

 

In front of this tense backdrop, God gave Keith Gerner a vision for a united Ireland, not politically, but spiritually.  In his book Obey the Vision, Keith describes this vision: "…the Lord showed me that only a miraculous manifestation of God's power could save the province from bloodshed.  I determined in my heart to go to every country town in Northern Ireland with this message." 

 

After the dangerous meeting in Newry at which God showed His power through miracles, Keith and Elsie saw a remarkable thing begin to happen.  "…from Newry round to Enniskillen, Omagh and Londonderry, we proclaimed the power of God" in towns that were soon going to see terrible fighting, "with bombs and bullets".  The meetings they held in these areas gave the people an opportunity to first find eternal peace in Jesus Christ. 

 

Keith admits he was afraid to go into Londonderry, a city infamous for political violence; but, on the first night of meetings there, a woman was healed of multiple sclerosis and walked out of her wheelchair.  After that, the hall was filled each night with both Catholics and Protestants praising God together, a remarkable sight for that time and place.  

 

During those years, a musician who often sang in Keith's meetings returned home one night to find his son's body filled with bullets from being in the IRA's crossfire.  To see the man hug a priest at a following meeting, getting up and singing about his heavenly Father, sent a wave of love and reconciliation throughout the community.   Another amazing story set during the "Troubles" is that of the Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Church elders who were killed during a church service by terrorists, but their families expressed forgiveness during television coverage of the funerals.   Keith has written that he believes the love generated by the charismatic movement could have healed the nation of Ireland if all of God's people had responded as some did.

 

In 1973 the Gerners invited David du Plessis, who had led the Pentecostal dialogue with Catholics, to a meeting at Gormanstown, in the south of Ireland.   This conference came to be called a "watershed moment" in the history of the charismatic movement in Ireland, as hundreds of people were filled with the Holy Spirit, were healed, and experienced visions.  Many even heard a call to the mission field.  

 

Keith's ministry came with a heavy price tag.  He received numerous death threats - so many that, for years, his wife would not allow him to answer the front door.  His role as one of the first Protestant pentecostal leaders to reach out to Catholic charismatics made him vulnerable to attack from both sides.  IRA groups, as well as loyalist paramilitary organizations targeted him.  Unfortunately, the opposition sometimes came from denominational leaders, who criticized his efforts as weakening the church.  He wistfully recalls the situation in A New Day: 

 

This move had the potential to heal Ireland by bringing a new unity based on the Holy Spirit and not tied to politics.  People began to meet in groups as 'Christians', no longer with the label of being 'Protestant' or 'Catholic'.  Traditional attitudes were however, hard against it.  Sadly I was present when many Bible-believing pastors voted that this charismatic outpouring was a 'move of the enemy'.

 

Early on, it became clear that the many people who came to Christ at the services and home groups needed more teaching about the Bible and the Christian faith.  "Audio Visuals Ministry" was born, through which the Gerners and their ministry team led and trained hundreds of new Christians.  They innovated the use of cassette tapes and later, videos in correspondence courses, a more interesting and dynamic (for that time) approach to Bible study.  As technology developed, so did the training methods, now reflected in their websites at www.audiochristian.com and www.avmworld.co.uk. 

 

During the 1970s and 80s the Gerners were headquartered at Holywood, a town near Belfast, pastoring and teaching thousands who came from all over Northern Ireland.  One Belfast police officer who later became a pastor described the Holywood ministry as a "feeding center", a place to be taught and discipled.  In the 1970s no other place like it existed; all were welcome, whether Protestant or Catholic. 

 

Keith spent many days each month traveling out to visit house churches and prayer groups throughout the nation.  A researcher in pentecostal church history, David Carnduff, recently reported a surprising finding when he studied church plants in Northern Ireland from 1980-2000.  Nearly all of the churches had one common denominator: Keith Gerner's name appeared in their early histories as the first to hold charismatic/pentecostal prayer meetings in their town, to start a home group from which the church later evolved, or to serve in an apostolic capacity to nurture the church in its formation. 

 

The Gerners' children, now grown and with children of their own, sum up what they call their "spiritual DNA" as one of life in the Spirit.   Their childhood was filled with miracles, from remarkable healings to prophetic warnings of terrorist activities.  They report that God's presence in some meetings was overwhelming.  Because of the openness of Keith's ministry toward both Catholics and Protestants, his young daughter once asked, "Which side are we on"?

 

For thirty-five years, the Gerners organized a large annual conference at Castlewellan Castle attended by both Catholics and Protestants, strengthening the bonds between them. The cold, drafty castle halls rang with praise and prayer as Pentecostals and charismatics worshipped together in unity.  Joe Kelly, a good friend of Keith and Elsie described the Castlewellan meetings as expressions of the "Celtic heart for God."  The believers who gathered year after year were joyful, even coming from difficult situations.  They were (and still are) spiritually sensitive and willing to "go out on a limb" for Christ.  One young pastor carried a cross all over Ireland for several months to bring healing and peace to every corner of the nation.  A young woman who had trained to be a nun conducted "prayer walks" in areas known to be stressed by civil unrest.   Some established prophetic ministries, or taught at Bible colleges, or planted churches in IRA strongholds, but all believed prayer was the key to bringing peace to Ireland.  They all credit the Gerners with teaching them to believe everything is possible with God! 

 

In recent years, at an advanced age, the Gerners still travel widely, sometimes internationally, preaching and teaching God's message of unity and love.  They are fully engaged in ministry, energetic and unafraid, expecting even greater revival and miracles ahead not only in Northern Ireland, but in all the world.

 

The legacy of Keith Gerner is the healing bridge he helped build between two people groups in the same land torn apart by their history.  He spoke openly and bravely, did not shirk his heavenly mandate, and went to parts of the country no one else dared to enter.  His courage in taking the full Gospel to both sides of the Northern Ireland divide brought peace to thousands of Irish hearts.

 

by J. Kathleen Harder

September, 2014

© 2015-2017 by J.K. Harder and P.H. Harder