American Fellow Chris Schumerth joined the PPI-NI staff in mid-August. Here, he reflects on his first month in Belfast and what brought him there:
My road to PeacePlayers has been a windy one, but I suppose it started in 2008 when I read an article by Chad Ford. As a former athlete who had dabbled in coaching and a student of political science and international relations, the program seemed a perfect merger of two interests. But because I had only recently committed to a job at that point, I did not apply for the program until 2010.
Before filling out the application, I–like many Americans at the time–had been captivated by the Invictus film and the book that inspired it, John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy. As I interviewed a couple of times with PPI’s South Africa office, I was sure this was exactly what and where I was supposed to be. Except…I wasn’t offered the position. I received the news with great disappointment and ultimately enrolled in graduate school.
Truthfully, I had all but given up on the idea when I received the e-mail requesting an interview with the Northern Ireland site in January of this year. Northern Ireland, of course, has its own versions of the Invictus story. During this second round of application and interview, uprooting my life had become increasingly complex, but when an offer was extended, I simply could not pass up such an opportunity to learn and hopefully contribute some of who I am to a place with its own unique history with both conflict and sport.
I was supposed to arrive for my term with Megan Lynch, but Visa problems postponed my arrival by a week. Now that I am here, a month settled into Belfast, I am relishing the cultural differences like a new currency, different driving norms, and constant use of the word “wee.” Not to mention the huge ego trip that results from–for the first time in a decade–teams from several sports (basketball, American football, baseball) trying to woo me onto their teams.
But I’m still thinking and living out this same question that drew me to the program in the first place: is there a possibility that sport might play a role in the healing of a society that has been ravaged by sectarian violence. That sport can be venue in which difference doesn’t exclude.
I thought about those things, during my first week in Belfast, when I stumbled upon a Northern Ireland-Finland soccer ticket. So I attended and watched the locals earn a 3-3 draw at Windsor Park, a place that has reputably been a place and team for Protestants, but is increasingly becoming more open to Catholics and others, more of a united team for Northern Ireland.
I was also thinking about diversity within sport a few days later when I helped coach the basketball sessions at a Game of Three Halves (soccer, Gaelic football, and rugby) Camp, and a group of twenty or so young adults from Eastern Europe crashed our afternoon session. I’m still not sure exactly what happened, and I use the word “crashed” affectionately here, but these young men and women had almost no basketball skill, but they enthusiastically jumped right in and had a blast throwing basketballs at hoops as a part of their visit to Belfast. There is this universal appeal to sport and competition and our ability to channel that appeal is a great responsibility.
I was still thinking about the ability of sport to bring different people together for good last weekend on a personal trip to Dublin to watch my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the Naval Academy in football as a part of the Emerald Isle Classic. The two teams have played each other with great respect every year since 1914. During the second half of the twentieth century, the largely one-sided rivalry continued as an appreciation of Navy’s financial assistance to Notre Dame during World War II. The fans at this year’s game seemed to be a mix of curious locals, tourists, and football fans.
I trust that there is much more to come in the way of work, sport, learning, and observation, and I relish this two-year opportunity to intentionally participate with PPI-NI.