Alexander Wimberly, MDiv ’03, knows a bit about being an outsider. While attending Princeton Theological Seminary, the native Hoosier accepted an internship at the McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church in Belfast. When the 500-member congregation’s minister fell ill soon after Wimberly’s arrival, he found himself in a foreign country, leading two Sunday services, conducting roughly 20 weekly pastoral visitations, and handling all the administrative work. “I was thrown into the deep end,” he says. “And I loved it.”
Wimberly quickly realized the importance of asking what he jokingly refers to as the dumb questions. “I had to be honest with my ignorance, and start conversations from a place of curiosity,” he recalls. “The result was that, even though I was an American student and an outsider, I was brought into the heart of that community.”
Today, he brings this firsthand experience to his role as community leader at Corrymeela, an ecumenical Christian community dedicated to building bridges via forgiveness and reconciliation. “The way of Christ is to get into better relationships with people, love them, and risk being changed by them,” says Wimberly. “We are committed to the idea that you will learn more about the world, yourself, and God by welcoming others who are different.”
Indeed, Corrymeela is a welcoming environment for the outsider, including LGBTQ Christians as well as refugees and asylum seekers who don’t feel at home in their congregations. But it’s also a place where diametrically opposed groups can come together to find common ground, whether that’s Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, or progressive and conservative Christians with wildly different outlooks.
At Corrymeela, groups are invited to gather for day-long or even weeks-long retreats to share personal experiences and stories, based on the idea that there’s more that unites than divides us. Participants ultimately get to know one another personally in a relaxed environment, which creates connections that otherwise would be almost impossible when each side is entrenched in their own camps.
“Both sides tend to know the other only as stereotypes,” he says. “But the truth is that they both have stories to share and once they do so, they can try to form a new story together as a new community. It’s all about transforming division through human encounter, finding that critical curiosity that opens the doors to reconciliation and peace, instead of apprehension or hostility.”