Poetry as an artform can serve in manifesting connection between strangers and unity between identities.
This week, Eastern Mennonite University is virtually hosting internationally acclaimed poet and speaker Pádraig Ó Tuama as the first peacemaker-in-residence for the fall semester to usher conversations of inclusivity, welcome and acceptance across sprucing fields of literature, religion, peace work and language.
Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian and mediator with experience working in conflict resolution in Ireland, Africa and the Middle East. Programs this week led by Ó Tuama include a livestreamed Writer’s Read event, a virtual coffee and conversation time with pastors and a colloquium.
Kirsten Eve Beachy, director of EMU core curriculum and program director of language and literature, moderated Monday’s Writer’s Read and said Ó Tuama is a valuable visitor to the campus who provided insight on “words, language, meaning, stories and how stories bring meaning to our lives.”
“The warmth and humor and presence he brings into a space are wonderful, and this is a very chaotic and difficult time for many of us,” she said. “He’s able to bring some moments of … warmth and rest, as well as challenge.”
Patience Kamau, a staff member with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, played an integral role in bringing Ó Tuama to campus as both the seasonal resident and Common Read author.
“I am ecstatic that we here at EMU, and in the Harrisonburg community, will have the blessing of Pádraig Ó Tuama’s gift of teaching and guidance through the process of holding and examining questions about who we are, and how we navigate this beautiful and broken world,” Kamau said in a press release.
Community member Les Horning helped conceive and manifest Ó Tuama’s campus visit in 2018 alongside Kamau and said the visit could contribute to furthering the community’s identity and principles.
This year’s Common Read, “In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World,” is a collection of stories in prose interwoven with narrative theology, culminated through Ó Tuama’s Catholic upbringing and Celtic spirituality. The Common Read is an annually selected written work the university encourages to be read across the campus community for transdisciplinary reflection and engagement.
Kamau said the lessons speak to the impression and impact a simple greeting and welcoming arms, illuminating how simple grace and kindness can encourage a stronger society.
“As he has so aptly put it, ‘In poetry, form can hold the things in us that feel formless,’” she said.
Ó Tuama’s writing often nods to societal plagues and suffering, digging through life’s journeys and uncovering treatments and salves for the world’s ails.
In a vignette from the opening of EMU’s 2020-21 Common Read, he writes, “So there I was, in the belly of the city, hearing songs about a story that I loved on a day when everything seemed to be dying. I was the only white boy surrounded by Black women twice my age, and they were singing ‘Alleluia’ and I was crying and thinking that maybe everything wasn’t lost anyway.”
Kamau first encountered Ó Tuama in 2018 during a gathering for Public Radio Exchange podcast “On Being,” which works to define the fabric of humanity and inspire intentional, mindful lifestyles. In late 2019, Ó Tuama was named theologian-in-residence for the program for his contributions by weaving art and theology into public and civic life.
As a former leader of the Corrymeela Community, a peace and reconciliation collective in Northern Ireland, Ó Tuama spent years conducting peacemaking work in communities torn by identity conflict. Beachy said his experiences can be reflected upon and applied to the local area to bridge understanding and lay the foundation for healing.
“There’s so much synergy between his work and peacemaking and theology and the work we’re doing on campus, thinking about how we can be kind to each other in times where there are great disagreements,” she said. “That’s relevant all over the world, and it’s relevant here.”
By sharing the poet’s programs virtually through Zoom and Facebook Live, Beachy said she hopes scholars across the globe can tune in and learn from Ó Tuama’s writing and perspective.
The list of publicly accessible events this week is listed below:
Seminary Chapel — Jesus of Nazareth: “strange man in strange times.” From 11 to 11:45 a.m., moderator Carmen Schrock-Hurst explores gospel texts through narratives and analysis to study Jesus’ character. From 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., a talkback will be moderated by Kevin Clark.
WMRA Books and Brews — Saved by the Book: “how poetry, books and reading kept me safe.” At 3 p.m., the virtual radio event will discuss the concepts and understanding of “shelter” and how stories provide mutual context for understanding conflicting worlds.
EMU Convocation — In the Shelter: “Finding a Home in the World.” From 10:15 to 11:05 a.m., the event will be held live with limited seating at Lehman Auditorium and streamed over Zoom and Facebook. Ó Tuama’s speech will dive into the power of language and how it can wield to harm or heal. A virtual talkback will run from 11:05 to 11:30 a.m.
University Colloquium — “Reading can save your life: living our lives in conversation with received narratives.” From 4:15 to 5:15 p.m., moderator Fred Kniss will direct conversations to exploring reading and questioning personal narratives.
Center for Justice and Peacebuilding — “Insights and Mistakes from Ireland for Isolated times.” From noon to 1:30 p.m., Kamau will moderate reflections and lessons from Ireland as the country approaches a century since its partition.
Furious Flower Poetry Center — “The Shelter of Stories in Uncertain Times.” From 10 to 11:30 a.m., Ó Tuama will speak to how poets can curate truth-telling, social justice and activism to model security and reconciliation during turbulence.
Closing: “how shall we go from here?” From 1 to 2:30 p.m., Catherine Barnes and Kamau will facilitate the final residency session, “Acts of the Imagination,” with discussions on imagination’s place in peacebuilding through the perspective of Ó Tuama’s experience as an LGBT+ advocate.
Among the invitation-only events are a virtual coffee and conversation hour for pastors, an on-campus LGBTQ+ advocacy group meeting and a CJP Foundations class on identity. Registration for the open events is available at https://emu.edu/academics/padraig#events.