Pádraig Ó Tuama speaks softly, soothingly, with just a touch of grit in his gentle Irish accent. Next month, you can hear the voice of this poet, theologian, and mediator on his virtual five-day visit to Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).
His book In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015) is this year’s Common Read selection, one book the campus community is encouraged to read, reflect on, and engage with.
Ó Tuama will engage with the EMU community in several settings during his virtual tour from Sept. 14-18, including a live-streamed Writer’s Read event, a virtual coffee and conversation time with pastors, chapels, a colloquium, and gatherings with small student groups, including Safe Space and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
“I’ve heard of EMU for years — and have always wanted to be part of something at the campus,” said Ó Tuama. “Having an opportunity to collaborate and co-create events with faculty, staff and students on the campus is a delight to anticipate: bringing fields of literature, religion, peace-work and language together.”
Ó Tuama is known for integrating themes of language, power, conflict and religion. He is also a peacebuilder and mediator. From 2014-19, he led the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation.
“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,” said Patience Kamau, a staff member with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding who played an integral role in bringing Ó Tuama to campus.
Visit in the works for many months
Kamau convened the committee that has worked for more than a year on this visit. The group includes Professor Kirsten Beachy, who also chairs the Common Read selection committee; Campus Pastor Brian Martin Burkholder; Trina Trotter Nussbaum, associate director of the Center for Interfaith Engagement; and community members Sheryl Shenk and Les Horning. Sue Cockley, dean of the School of Theology, Humanities and Performing Arts, and Professor Vi Dutcher, director of the Academic Success Center, also contributed.
A Facebook post from Horning triggered the odyssey. In early 2019, he dipped into “In the Shelter” on a recommendation from seminary alumnus Blaine Detwiler, who pastors Marion Mennonite Church in Marion, Pa. He swallowed the book in a several-hours-long reading and then posted about the experience on Facebook.
Kamau replied to his post that she had “the great honor” of meeting Ó Tuama while at an “On Being” gathering in California in 2018.
Horning expressed a wish that Ó Tuama might visit EMU.
“Why not? I think we can do this,” wrote back Kamau.
“I sensed in Pádraig a kindred spirit, and had this profound feeling that he would connect well to so many facets of EMU’s identity,” said Horning later.
In the Shelter weaves together poignant and humorous stories from Ó Tuama’s life, Celtic spirituality, poetry, and theological analysis. “His book is personal, profound, and an excellent reading choice for souls in quarantine working to welcome an uncertain future,” Beachy said.
In a vignette from the opening of In the Shelter, Ó Tuama recounts a time he spent wandering around New York City, lost literally and figuratively. He encounters a woman singing in the subway.
I didn’t feel like singing but she was so full of life that I couldn’t leave. She was singing about the woman in John’s Gospel who makes her way to the well during the hottest time of the day and, at the well, meets Jesus. It’s a story I love, because the characters are so rich and lively … 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.
Hello to the city.
Hello to the little worlds we live in.
Before his visit, you can listen to Ó Tuama at a virtual Tenx9 gathering – storytelling events in which nine people have up to ten minutes to tell a true story from their life. He also hosts the Poetry Unbound podcast from On Being Studios. The episodes are short, usually five to 10 minutes, in which Ó Tuama reads one poem and reflects on current and historical events, lines that speak to him, and compassion for the subjects.
“Poetry is a thing that helps me breathe,” Ó Tuama said in one recent episode. “There’s space on the page for my own imagination to fill in the bits that I need, and poetry makes me slow down in my reading. I never skim read a poem. I always read it out loud to myself, and it slows my heart down and it slows my breathing down and it helps my lungs to fill.”