As Scripture Union celebrates 150 years of sharing God’s Good News with children and young people around the world, the organisation in Northern Ireland continues to go from strength to strength.
The first beach mission in Northern Ireland began in Portrush in 1893 and from that small beginning, nearly 125 years later, there are around 1,200 volunteers serving across more than 45 summer activities including camps, traditional beach missions, and outreach in urban and rural settings.
These summer outreach activities complement work that is carried on throughout the year by Christian teachers and volunteers in schools up and down the country.
Chair of the SUNI council Alistair McCracken, 66, has journeyed with the organisation for over 50 years.
He said: “As a boy of 13 or so I went to a Scripture Union camp with schools from all over Northern Ireland. I was at Ballyclare High School at the time.
“There used to be a series of boys camps out in the far west of Donegal.
“The camps were under canvas with activities like canoeing, swimming, games and orienteering alongside a strong elements of Bible teaching.
“The leader of the first camp I went to was David Hewitt, who was an Irish and Lions rugby international.”
Mr McCracken went on to become a team member of summer missions before getting involving with committees and eventually moving onto council where he holds the position of chair.
While Scripture Union activities have been running in Northern Ireland for more than 100 years it was only in 1970 that SUNI became a recognised group with the charity commission.
Mr McCracken said: “There’s been enormous growth in my time. When I was first going to camp there was probably only three or four camps happening and five or six missions.
“In 2017 we had almost 50 activities between our camps and missions.
“The way in which adults interact with children has changed.
“When I first started it was very formal, with the leaders being referred to as Mister That, Mrs This or Miss The Other. It’s first names terms now and there’s a lot more young leaders.
“Looking back over those 50 odd years there are so many people who have had a tremendous influence over me as a Christian and as a person.
“I would still bump into people from those early camps who I would have made friends and stayed friends with and that’s really very special.”
In August 2017 the organisation welcomed only its fourth General Director Damian Wharton, who follows in the footsteps of Rev David Armstrong, Rev David Bruce, and Helen Warnock – now principal of Belfast Bible College.
Mr Wharton, who is from Lancashire came to Northern Ireland four years ago to become pastor of City Church Belfast.
The 46-year-old father-of-three said: “I’ve always had a heart for working with young people. As I’ve had my own children it’s become even more of a reality for me.
“SUNI is a great team, a great organisation. I’m privileged to be part of it.
“I love it here in Northern Ireland. My wife Andrea is originally from Bangor. She moved to England with me when we got married but now she’s back home.”
Of the organisation he added: “It’s an opportunity to give hope to people, or at least share hope to people.
“That’s one of the things that attracted me to this role, that we are bringing hope to children and young people through camps, missions or in a school context.
“Some who may have heard it before and some who may never have heard it before.”
Young people are the focus of SUNI and their vision to reach out to all children and young people with the gospel message has fuelled the development of schools’ work through the E3 model – Engaging school pupils, Equipping Christian teachers, and Empowering churches to be actively involved in Schools Ministry.
E3 is currently operational in seven areas across Northern Ireland, and work is underway to explore the potential of the initiative in other locations.
This is all supported by the Resource Centre at SUNI headquarters in east Belfast, which provides Bible reading materials to individuals, and teaching resources to churches with contemporary Christian literature and music also available.
SUNI is one of 135 Scripture Union movements in countries across the world.
The Northern Ireland branch has links with the Scripture Union movement in Russia and supports the work in St Petersburg financially and through prayer.
A special event will take place for SUNI in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on Saturday, November 18.
It will be an opportunity to gather across the generations to worship together, open God’s Word, celebrate the stories of the past and the present, and inspire one another for the future that is ahead for SUNI.
l For more information and to book tickets go to www.suni.co.uk/150, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 02890454806. Tickets £10 per person, £7.50 for under 16s