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Irish missionary finds peace on earth in North Ga.
St. Michael youth director recalls Christmas cease-fires in Belfast
St. Michael Catholic Church youth director Andy McRoberts from Belfast, Northern Ireland, gives instruction to a group of youths prior to a Wednesday evening Mass. McRoberts leads a youth service at the church called Teen Life for high schoolers, and another called Edge for middle-school age youths.


Listen as Andy McRoberts of Belfast, Northern Ireland, talks about adjusting to life in America and how his Irish accent affects his mission work with St. Michael Catholic Church. post status:

A world of tradition

Those who call Hall County home come from varied backgrounds, with different beliefs, traditions and cultures. This Christmas season, The Times celebrates that diversity with a look at seven individuals who have come here from different countries. Over the next week, we'll explore Christmas traditions from their home countries and also talk about what has brought them to North Georgia.

Peace on earth - for most Americans, that's just a nice phrase.

For Andy McRoberts, peace on earth was a literal two-week cease-fire each Christmastime in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The police would wear Santa hats and there was a reprieve from shootings and bombings between the Catholic and Protestant factions, he said. And that reprieve was something extraordinary during "the troubles."
McRoberts was born in the 1970s and grew up during a time of frequent and volatile clashes between the two groups in what is still a divided city.

But peace came during the holidays.

That and the birth of Christ are what have made Christmas special for McRoberts, who is now youth director at St. Michael Catholic Church on South Enota Drive in Gainesville.

The violence, though, is part of what drove McRoberts toward the church in the first place.

After a group of Protestant teens beat his cousin to death, he decided to enter the ministry. Not only was his cousin's life wasted, he said, but the teens' lives were wasted, too, as they were sentenced to prison.
Since then, sharing God with others has become a passion for McRoberts.

"Talking about God is probably the hardest thing in the world," he said. "But ... you don't pick this job, (God) picks you."

And that makes doing the job easier, he added.

McRoberts went to a school in Rome, Italy, to become a missionary. It was during that time that he first visited Gainesville.

In the early fall of 2008, he landed in Atlanta for a 10-day mission trip in Gainesville.

"I walked out of the airport - I had to walk back in again," McRoberts said. "What do you call it, the humidity, I had never experienced humidity before."

It's one of the many things he's had to adjust to since coming from Belfast.

One of the other difficulties was getting people to understand him.

"When I first came here, I had a really thick Irish accent. ... This is my international English," he said, with a still notably strong accent. "The American people here ... they go ‘I picked up maybe 50 percent of that.' So I had to learn to speak more slowly and enunciate more of the words."

Being an outsider has also had its advantages, though.

After his mission trip, church leaders at St. Michael asked McRoberts to work for the church. He got a religious visa and came back in March 2009 to work for the John Paul 2 Center on Atlanta Highway.

For three months, he worked with Hispanic day laborers in the area, providing them with clothing and food, and using that as a way to also talk to them about God.

Adjusting to the Hispanic language was a struggle, but the people responded to him.

"For an American to do this job, Hispanic people, they look at you differently," McRoberts said. "Or if I was an Hispanic person doing this job, the Anglo community would look at you differently. But because I've come from across the world ... they just open to me."

That's another part of American culture that has been an adjustment for McRoberts.

"Here, people will talk about their faith at the drop of a hat," he said. "Back home, you would have to know someone personally before they would open up to you about where they are with God, where they are with the church, where they are with their religion and faith.

"And what I like about here as well - there seems to be a lot of tolerance between the different faiths."

And that's important as churches across Gainesville and the world, of different denominations and varied beliefs, celebrate Christ's birth. What McRoberts wants is for Christ to be the focus.

"It has become so commercialized it's very hard to get the message through: what Christmas is all about," he said. And it's the same back home in Ireland, he added.

Celebrating at St. Michael, though, is also similar to celebrations in Ireland. Midnight mass starts in the early evening, and the congregation gathers to, as McRoberts described it, wait for the coming of God.

"The families come here to the mass, and it's the same back home," he said. "And the kids have got all their new pajamas on and their new house coats, and they have their dolls and everything like that. And they all come and sit in front of the other and watch the play.

"So they do know it's not just about Santa Claus. It is about Jesus; it is about Mary; it is about Joseph, the donkey, the manger. They start getting the picture at an early age what it's actually about. And to see that it is fantastic."

Teaching the younger generation is now McRoberts' mission.

"I still cast myself as being a missionary," he said. "Even though I'm the youth director or youth minister now. Being a missionary is just to be there for someone."

It's something he says he couldn't do in Ireland.

"I couldn't be the person I am here back home ... here I am a missionary."

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