A violent childhood in Northern Ireland led Billy Stevenson to his life’s work as a peacemaker

Billy Stevenson

When Billy Stevenson was 6 years old, his father handed him a gun. He was ordered to protect his mother and sister, but from whom?

Just days before, in his little house on Shankill Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the IRA opened machine guns on their doors and windows. Stevenson’s grandmother jumped on top of him to shield him from the blast. “She says that she saved my life that night . . . but honestly, the sheer weight of her almost killed me,” he recalls.


After that, Stevenson knew what he had to do with that gun. He waited at the bottom of the stairs for his father to come home, gun pointed at the door. But when the key turned in the lock, he found himself running up the stairs. “I was so full of fear and hopelessness, and it was all pointing towards my father,” Stevenson remembers.

Instead, he began to pray.

During Stevenson’s childhood, Northern Ireland was racked with violence. Loyalists, who were overwhelmingly Ulster Protestant, wanted, for historical reasons, Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, while Nationalists (and Republicans), who were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, wanted Ireland to leave the UK. During the unrest, two paramilitary groups emerged: the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). These groups turned Northern Ireland into a living nightmare. They saw the conflict over Ireland as a “guerilla war” and took to the streets fighting, kneecapping and bombing, making them terrorists in their own country. Stevenson experienced the terrorism firsthand, as his father was an influential member of the UVF.

“I never knew the love of a father,” he says, drawing up images of his childhood, which is stained with fear. His childhood home became a place of despair, as much of the violence he saw – bombings, shootings and kneecappings – came from the hands of his father. Stevenson became hopeless that the violence would never end. He waited for his father on the stairs that night in a desperate attempt to restore hope and peace into his household by eliminating the person who brought it in, but he was not able to do it, and to this day he thanks God for that. 

It was around this time Stevenson met his grandfather for the first time and found his hope renewed when his grandfather gifted him his first Gideon Testament. His grandfather would visit every week after that, asking Stevenson to memorize a verse for him. The first verse, John 14:1: “Let not your heart be troubled, believe in God and also in me” (KJV). For Stevenson, his grandfather became a beacon of love in his world, which was so consumed by darkness.

“I didn’t know who Jesus was,” Stevenson recounts when talking about his first interaction with God. “I just wanted to be with my grandfather, so my heart broke when my grandfather said the Lord was coming back to take his people home, and you will be left behind.”

The idea began to torment him. He could not go to school without thinking that Jesus would leave him behind, and so Stevenson decided he would try to speak to God. He remembers praying to Jesus in his grandparents’ bathtub. “When you come to take everyone home, please take me. Don’t leave me behind.” It was a prayer of childhood fear, but for him, it became a prayer of hope. 

When Stevenson returned home from his grandparents, he declared his faith to his father, which was met with wrath. “Billy, if you ever mention Jesus Christ in this house in front of me, I will break both of your legs.” The threat wracked Stevenson. In the UVF, he explains, there are varied punishments. One kneecap was shot if the crime was minor. Two meant a more serious crime. After that, it was a bullet to the head. For Stevenson’s father to threaten to break both of his legs, he began to realize the severity of his choice to follow Jesus; he also began to realize the brokenness of his father’s heart. 

Stevenson began his own personal prayer campaign for his father, praying for him every night to accept Jesus. A day after he started, his mother began following Jesus. A few days later, his sister proclaimed her faith. Stevenson grew angry at God. Was his father even listening? 

At this time a friend of Stevenson’s grandfather began to take them to church. He came every Sunday, and every Sunday Stevenson wished that his father would come with them. One night, when they were getting ready to go to church, Stevenson’s father came home drunk, and Stevenson asked him if he wanted to attend church with them. His father agreed. Stevenson turned to his grandfather’s friend, curious if this man would take a drunk terrorist to church. He agreed as well.

At church, despite his father being a drunk terrorist, Stevenson’s family was given front row seats. His father was shaken by the message. On the ride home, Stevenson gave him his Gideon Testament, opened up to John 14, because he knew his father had a troubled heart. His father threw the Bible to the floor.

When they got home, Stevenson went to his room and got on his knees to pray for his father. “My prayers were more like begging God, pleading with God,” Stevenson remembers. He went to bed that night and remembers his father coming in and ripping the sheets off him. The next thing Stevenson knew, his father was throwing him into the air saying, “Billy, I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior.” 

However, his father faced another obstacle to living out his faith. There was no resigning from the UVF. As Stevenson says, “The only way to get out is to die.” His father went to meet his fate. Stevenson remembers watching the minutes tick by on the clock. 10 p.m. came and went. 11 p.m. arrived, and they had still heard nothing. At 11:32, there was a knock on the door. It was his father. “Everything is going to be alright,” he said. 

The UVF had let Stevenson’s father go on the condition that he not return to Ireland. From there, the family spent a few years in Korea, doing missionary work before moving to the U.S. “We went from being terrorists one week to missionaries the next,” Stevenson says with a laugh.

Since then, Stevenson’s family has been doing missions work in Korea and the U.S., where they now live. Since 1977,  Stevenson has actively worked toward peace in Northern Ireland by bringing over American college students to help reconcile and heal a divided country. They help people, as Stevenson says, to “understand forgiveness and what it means to hear and say it.”

In the end, Stevenson never needed a gun. He had a heart for peace and the diligence to see it out in the world. To this day, he continues his peacemaking as the senior director of international programs at John Brown University. Each semester, he takes students on semester abroad trips to Ireland, teaching them Irish history, politics and culture while also teaching them to be active peacemakers. “No matter what our profession is, we are all invited to be peacemakers. The world is full of conflict. What difference in our world we would make if we were active peacemakers.”

Watch: Billy Stevenson Speaks in Chapel

Want to learn more?

The Center for Study Abroad offers a semester abroad in Northern Ireland.

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