Gap Year in Northern Ireland

Photo by Jessica Knowlden

Photo by Jessica Knowlden

I’m not even sure where to begin telling the story of my five-month adventure in Northern Ireland. So, I guess I should start where most stories do: the beginning.

Flash back to the summer of 2013: I’m sitting under a tree in the middle of a beautiful forest writing in my journal. It’s the second day of my first trip to this amazing country. With a full heart and mind I write, “God, I feel like You’re calling me to take a gap year and come back to serve here.” Though this thought was crazy, it did not leave me over the course of my junior and senior years of high school.

Okay, fast forward to spring of senior year: I am desperately trying to make a college decision. I have to decide between three great schools, and I can’t seem to settle on any one of them. Something just doesn’t feel right… Until one morning, I’m sitting in church and the thought seems to come back into my head from nowhere: I’m going to take a gap year, go to Northern Ireland, and then go to Ole Miss.” And I felt peace. It was as if the hamster in my head that had been running on its wheel furiously for the past several months stopped, hopped off, and gave me a big thumbs up. (Not that hamsters have thumbs. Anyways..)

I was set on my decision. Then, I told my parents. My mom just shook her head, and my dad gave me a hearty “no.” I was discouraged but wasn’t ready to give up. I began praying for God to change my parents’ hearts.

Side note: I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always struggled with the idea of prayer. I just don’t really “get” how it works. Like "Hey there Creator of the Universe, care to listen to me complain for a bit?"

But sure enough, a couple short days later, my dad broached the subject while during a car ride. He looked at me with sad, but loving eyes and said, “So you’re serious about this Northern Ireland thing.”

At long last, my parents had agreed to let me go - nothing short of a miracle in and of itself.

I flew over with a short-term youth team from my church. The plan was for me to serve as part of the team for those ten days and then remain in the country after the team left.

However, my main concern was getting into the country. When our team went in 2013, there was a misunderstanding concerning the nature of our trip and our visas, so our entire team was detained in the airport for seven hours. They finally let most of us in, but four of our adults were deported. You would think that after that experience, I would have been on the ball in regards to getting my visa, but as usual, I procrastinated and ended up leaving to go without my visa.

While everyone was filled with excitement on our trip over, all I could think was, “There’s no sense in getting excited and getting our hopes up. We are NOT getting into this country.” After three plane rides, we finally reached customs. My heart was hammering in my chest as I walked up to the official. She grilled me, asking me why I was staying longer than the rest of the team, the full name of one of my friends there, along with an address, my favorite color, my pick for the presidential race of 2050, what the weather is like on Venus, and several other questions. By God’s grace, she let me and the rest of our team pass, and I have never smiled so big in my entire life.

The entire time the “American team” was there, I did not sleep. Yes, I was jet-lagged, but I was also so excited to start my adventure. I didn’t even shed a tear when the team left, to the disappointment of some of my closest friends. I truly was sad to see them go, but I was so ready to get started.

I’m having a lot more trouble than I thought I would put this together into a story, and that’s because the story of my time in Northern Ireland wasn’t plot-driven, but “character” driven: it was all about the people. When I revisit my trip in my mind, events and tourist attractions don’t appear; people do.

During these five months, I stayed with a 78-year-old widow named Kathleen. I will never forget how she took me in and cared for me. She would introduce me to anyone and everyone we met as her “wee granddaughter.”        

My favorite part of my time in Northern Ireland was getting to know the teenagers. The church I worked for was in a government housing area, and there were people of all ages and backgrounds who attended. Those kids absolutely stole my heart.

One thing that really stuck out to me was how different these “church kids” were from “church kids” back home in the American South. Most of those kids did not grow up in Christian homes. At 13 and 14 they were walking to church every Sunday morning and filling up the front three rows. They weren't coming because it was the “right thing to do,” and they certainly weren't coming because their parents were making them. They were coming because they loved Jesus and for each other.

Leaving that place after only five short months was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I don't know about you, but I'm terrified of sadness. Not the type of sadness where I cry while watching The Notebook or reading My Sister's Keeper, but the type I can't stop by pressing the off button on the remote or closing the book.

I'm learning, though, that sadness is an important emotion. If you've seen the movie Inside Out (and I really hope you have -- it's incredible), then you'll know how Joy treats Sadness - constantly shoving her out of the way and treating her like she shouldn't exist. I realized I do the exact same thing.

When people first started talking about my upcoming departure, I adamantly ignored the thought. I found myself using a few phrases like "I'll really miss everyone," and "Time has gone so quickly," robotically over and over again to the point where I didn’t even have to stir up any emotion.

I only allowed myself to concentrate on the excitement of seeing my family and friends back home again because I was terrified at the thought of having to say goodbye. I took up the long and emotional task of writing letters to all my YoungLife and GB girls, and it was a million times harder than I expected. I love those girls so much it hurts, and the thought of hugging them goodbye made me feel sick - I cried just thinking about it.

Having to say goodbye to this place I learned to call home, and these people I learned to call family broke my heart. And that's okay. It's okay because those people are beautiful and incredible and deserved every tear I had to cry. I’ve realized that we try to separate good and bad, happiness and pain. We acknowledge the dark, and we acknowledge the light, but when we refuse to recognize their coexistence, we miss the greatest beauty - like sunrise and sunset. The depth of my sadness over missing Northern Ireland overwhelms me at times, yet my God continues to remind me that a tear-streaked face is the most beautiful because it is the result of real love. 

Nikki Sullivan