Poetry: Politics, Religion, and Peace. An Interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama, Part Two

This conversation was held at Niebuhr Hall, and kindly co-sponsored by Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute for Sacred Music. We invite you to read Part One of the interview before saying…

Hello to Part Two

SAMUEL: In a way, it might be a perverse evaluation, but accepting the fact that churches are being converted into museums may be part of accepting that God is sleeping.  But you’ve also worked to make real, safe, and living religious communities.

You’ve just finished a wonderful five years as the leader of the Corrymeela community, in which death was not abstract at all. So maybe you could tell us a bit about your time at Corrymeela, what it was for people who may not know about it, and how you saw that space as a vision of what we could be doing, whether we’re religious or not, to accept death in graceful ways that lead to more life.

Pádraig: So Corrymeela was begun in 1965. It’s Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. And Ray Davey was a Presbyterian minister who’d been born 50 years before. He’d been a prisoner of war. In the Second World War, he’d gone out as a volunteer patrae with the YMCA. And he was in a prisoner of war camp when Dresden—just outside Dresden when Dresden was firebombed. He saw that his freedom from this camp came as a result of the annihilation. So he moved back to Belfast, where he was from. Belfast—Northern Ireland—was only freshly partitioned twenty-five years previous. And it was only supposed to be partitioned for three years. That was the original plan. It was a temporary measure.

And so, he saw the imagination of people, the tendency to think the tensions regarding Britishness and Irishness might only be solved by annihilation. He saw the human condition and asked: “Is there anything providing us the imagination to say, rather than killing each other, we might be able to engage with each other?” So as chaplain he started to gather students together. He did that for twenty years, and in 1965 purchased a piece of land, and they called it after the name of the land. Everywhere in Ireland all the fields have names. And the name was just called Corrymeela. And so they said, “Well, Corrymeela can be the name.” There was no building on it, and they used that for years.

Since then, fifty-four years ago, Corrymeela has had about 10,000 people come through for programs and dialogue for peace and reconciliation, much of which looks like argument. It looks like people thinking: “I feel morally compromised sitting in the same room with somebody here because you are from a community where your community killed somebody from my community or your family member killed somebody from mine, or you killed somebody that I know.” Peace looks like that. Peace doesn’t look like people sitting ‘round making daisy chains. Peace looks like genuinely wondering: “Should I stay here? Or does my integrity call me to get up and leave and swear on the way out?” That’s how difficult peace is, and half the time you don’t know— “Am I doing good, or am I compromising?” That’s often what peace does as well.

Samuel: And when did you get involved in this work?

Pádraig: So, I had come to Corrymeela in 2002 and loved it. It was one of the only safe places for LGBT people on the Ireland if you wanted to talk about religion. I started to get involved and then became poet in residence in 2005. That was a freelance, part-time thing, but I did that for about nine years and then became leader in 2014. Our people are doing stuff in the religious field, the educational field, the activism field, and others in the community work field where you’re definitely engaging young people who are at risk of being recruited into a paramilitary organization. So Corrymeela is a displaced community, and it’s about 170 members, mostly in Belfast and Ballycastle—there’s a good number in Dublin. There’s a few across the water in England and Scotland. Staff members, volunteers, and community members are all part, in different ways, of endeavors to be part of the great network of peace.

The last few years, we’ve been consumed with Brexit. And so, I was concerned that the Dublin government—who had been doing a very good job in responding to Brexit—I was concerned that they weren’t holding enough national symposia for religious leaders because Ireland, whether it’s North or South, still has a very high percentage of religious attendance. I think it’s 44% of the population of Ireland attend a church service once a month. That’s phenomenal for Europe. I mean, it’s a steep decline from what it was in 1995 in Ireland, where that figure was 85%, so that’s a huge drop, but it’s still really high. And so, the Dublin government funded a project that we have on Brexit, looking at Brexit through the lens of the book of Ruth, a displaced, widowed, border-crosser wondering will social welfare apply to her when she crosses the border.

So much of the anxiety about Brexit was about people coming over here, taking our jobs and stealing our social welfare. Well, the Bible has something to say about that. It doesn’t tell you how you should have voted or how you should vote in the future, but it does introduce a narrative intervention into something that challenges all people, no matter how you voted, into the serious question about how you reckon with kindness, borders, and law. And so those are the kinds of projects that called me into this work.

There’s a colleague who does some extraordinary work with faith communities to build up their capacity to address gender-based violence within their communities, not just outside, because, of course, gender-based violence within religious communities mirrors that outside congregations. Another colleague is doing a huge amount of work in developing curricula for helping young people look at history in order to make sense of today. As we come up to the centenary of Irish partition in 2021, especially with whatever Brexit’s going to turn out to be, it is increasingly important to find ways to accurately speak about the past. So, they use critical engagement with that, and it’s really vital. We need those things. I finished my term as leader in Corrymeela, but I remain a devoted member of Corrymeela. I’ve been promoted to being a community member now. It’s a joy. [laughs] I don’t have to worry about governance anymore.

SAMUEL: Oh, that’s a relief, I’m sure! You mentioned that Corrymeela is one of the only safe spaces for the LGBT community in Ireland. I know in your book—but you also write a wonderful – well, wonderful is, maybe, a strange word – you write a powerful poem about your visit to Uganda in 2013, I believe, when the anti-homosexuality legislation was being debated, and you were somewhat incognito. And one of the things that I think is striking—I’ve read some of the reports that you and your team have written about these issues—is that none of the buzzwords that get used in the U.S. context are present. You say, in one of the refrains in a poem, that “This is not some liberal agenda.” “This is not some liberal agenda.” And you focus the attention of the reader on the flesh and blood and, potentially or most certainly, broken bones that are at stake.

Pádraig: Yeah. Or corpse.

SAMUEL: Corpses. So how do you think about an issue like this, which is so existential and so urgent for the communities that are pressed in these conditions? Oppression can make a kind of violent reaction understandable and, even in some ways of thinking, legitimate. So how do we talk about them? How do you approach them in ways that doesn’t make it about liberal or conservative? Doesn’t make it about, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but tries to find a way to bridge this gap. You mentioned story, but can you give us some insights in how you’ve approached these incredibly important but difficult issues?

Pádraig: So, I did a bachelor’s degree in theology when John Paul II was Pope, and he had two Ph.D.s in philosophy. So, anybody in that college needed to do loads of philosophy, and I was awful at it because it felt so disembodied. And, now, I was partly reading a particular corner of philosophy. Because I was thinking, “Who wrote this? Who was bleeding while they wrote it? Were they feeding anybody? Were they in charge of anybody’s lives? What’s the flesh and bones and blood at the heart of what it means to be human? And how can we speak about that in a way where we understand?”

And I read a piece that Mary Karr had written where she just spoke about the fact that incarnation, this magnificent word you hear in Christianity, has carne in the middle of it, from which you get the word “carnal,” but it means meat. And I found in that so many energies of my life, and thought, “Oh, thank God.” And so, what does it mean to think of a philosophy through the lens of meat, the meatiness of the human condition? And what does it mean to think about theology through the lens of meat and the meatiness of the human condition? I kind of don’t care if there’s a heaven because we can make a hell here. And I’m interested in finding ways of being where human existence is less hellish.

Samuel: Yes, people are very good at making hell on earth; we so often create our own misery as well as others. Would you say more about this idea?

Pádraig: Yes. I often think that hereafter-addicted philosophies of religion are not holding themselves accountable for the hells that they’re creating in the here and now. And I’m interested in using ways  a narrative as a Christological intervention with other Christians. What if we take seriously the idea that the meat in front of you is the embodiment of God in this thing called the human body, which we understand God sanctified—if we take that kind of meat seriously, what does it mean to murder? What does it mean to create the situations where people feel like they want to kill themselves? What does it mean to create, in policy, the situation where people feel that because of their gender they are going to be treated as less than and so on—because of their sexuality that they’re going to be fundamentally disbelieved? And because of their ethnicity that there is, you know, a curse from the Bible that hangs over their community? That is profoundly unreligious to do that.

And so, I’m really interested in using religion to intervene to stop us thinking abstractly and to think utterly meatily. And so that poem, “This is not a liberal agenda,” is an objection. And finding—finally finding the intellectual capacity in myself to go, “I don’t give a shit what you think about anxieties about marriage and the family and the precedent being set.” There was some bishop in England who was being asked about the anti-homosexuality laws that were being proposed in Uganda, and he said, “Look, I kind of don’t want to get into the liberal agenda that’s behind this question because I’m a bit worried that it will set a precedent about this, and that, and the other.” Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you can’t do that kind of stuff!  You can’t speak about the fact that there are people dying and being murdered in our own countries, never mind anyone further afield, because of their sexual orientation. Imagine that you can reduce your civil and moral culpability by just saying—by thinking we’re stupid enough to believe that this is a liberal agenda. That’s crazy. And it’s such poor language. It’s—the linguist in me just thinks, use better language. Use stronger language. Open yourself up to the possibility of being—of having your language pushed, of being inquired through.

And so, working in Uganda with some clergy there, all of whom who had given public support to the death penalty—so many of the interventions and the engagements in Uganda that had been happening were taking a human rights framework and intervening with people whose motivation for proposing the death penalty was justified through religious narrative. Let’s use religious narrative to question this. Is it a Christian thing to propose that somebody dies? How did Jesus engage with marginalized communities? Let’s look. Let’s read. Let’s make ourselves more Christian in a way that you don’t feel like you’re becoming secularized as if that’s a bad thing. You don’t feel like you’re becoming secularized by opening up the possibility that this community of people might be human. In fact, you might feel like you’re becoming Christianized in the truest sense, being turned into something that is incarnational and being brought into the shock of you being the site of conversion, rather than the “they” out there, who’s always convenient to fantasize or convert into something or other.

The human heart is the place that’s in need of a turn, over and over, typically by those who have most power and hold themselves to the least accountability. I don’t think I’m a good Catholic, [laughs], at all, but I’m so motivated, more so now than ever, now that I feel like I’m on the edges of religion. I’m so motivated by the facts to say, “Take this shit seriously because to do so might be that we might save ourselves.”

SAMUEL: That’s so powerful. You mentioned a theme, which I think is very relevant to all of us here at a divinity school, and to the students and everyone involved in the teaching or study of religion, which is that: what we call theology, what we call philosophy, or whatever it could be in academia is often an escape from reality, and, in a negative sense, it’s a flight away from the concrete demands. Some people have even suggested that education in our contemporary moment can be a way, typically grad school, of people deferring their futures—that the actual process can sometimes be a way of avoiding the concrete demands of, “Who am I? What am I going to do with my life? What am I going to do?” But you also talk in the book—you give a quote, which I love, from Tolkien’s essay on fairy stories, and where Tolkien is critiquing the idea that escapism is only a negative thing. And you give great examples, like accusing a man who’s in prison of wishing to escape and of thinking and dreaming of things other than his prison walls.

So you’ve given us one picture of the negative role of escape, where we flee from the concrete, we flee from the blood and the bones and the messiness of real life, but it seems the positive vision of escape involves story and the imagination. So could you maybe tell us a bit about—I mean, you could talk about Tolkien if you want to, because I love Tolkien—[laugh] but maybe just if you want to start with a concrete story, just how story and imagination is a way to escape in the best ways, to have a safe place to be and to find the language we need to cope with our situations that could be just overwhelming in any normal descriptive sense.

Pádraig: Well, I mean, I think story is an extraordinary civic intervention. The book of Ruth, for instance—nobody knows who wrote the book of Ruth. I like to think it was written by a woman because the female characters who are in it are so extraordinarily shaped and put in such a particular way. But one of the theories is that it was written around the time that Nehemiah was trying to reestablish Jerusalem and trying to return back from the Babylonian exile. And you can, somewhat ungenerously but also accurately, look at Nehemiah as the patron saint of sectarianism. He says, “If you came back with a foreign spouse, get rid of them. If your children are half-foreign, get rid of them. Get new ones. Have pure bloods. We don’t want any of that Babylonian mud-blood among us.” And the thought is that the writer of the book of Ruth thought, “You know what we need? We need a piece of fiction that’s about a foreigner who returns us to ourselves by coming over here in a way where we couldn’t let her die of hunger.” That’s an amazing imagination about the power of story and a theology of fiction.

You look at Margaret Atwood working these days, in terms of Handmaid’s Tale and then—what’s the new one called . . . The Testament? Haven’t read it yet. It’s sitting at home to read. And there’s ways in which story, even story that’s fiction, is really powerful. If you look through the lens of psychotherapy, so much of what’s necessary about psychotherapy is that when something terrible happens, when we can’t make sense of it, that finding a way to tell the story until it can become a meaning-making story is really powerful and can save a life. It isn’t to say that the story changes, necessarily. You can’t change the past. But you can find a way, even with the most diabolical a story, to make it into a meaning-making story, and having the capacity to put words about something aloud with another person in a room, and that creates a safety where you might be able to integrate parts of your life that have previously felt fractured.

So we see on a civic political level, but also on a personal level, that the capacity to engage and tell a story. Stories bring us, in a certain sense, into a genesis moment for ourself. Somebody sat down and thought, “Where did the earth begin? I don’t know? In the beginning, when the earth was water and waste?” They wrote that. How audacious, to put words into the beginning of things. I think it’s brilliant. I wonder who they were. I wonder what their name was. I wonder who taught them to write. And I wonder did they think, “This is really plucky, to write something like that.” [laugh] To imagine that you can write something about, “in the beginning—” how extraordinary! But they did a dexterous thing.

Students of Hebrew will know, “In the beginning, God created” is  B’reishit bara Elohim. B’reishit. B. They didn’t start with A. So they left a little gap at the beginning. And you see it the whole way through with Genesis, that the letter A—the second son or the second daughter is always the one who’s getting the inheritance rather than the first. And there’s a gorgeous Hebrew midrash where the letter A and the letter B, for 26 generations, argue before God because the letter A feels left out. And the letter B is like, “Hey, I started the Bible. And that’s it.” And God, eventually, after 26 generations comes up with an idea, and says to the letter A, “How about you start something? What do you want to start?” And the letter A goes, “The Ten Commandments. People are going to say those all the time. I’d rather lead more often.” So God, like any frustrated parent, relents and allows. It’s genius!

So here we have a story about a story about a story, and it just keeps on getting better. It keeps on recreating itself. And it’s filled with poignancy and pain, and, you mentioned earlier on, imagination. And it can hold us in some kind of dance of imagination, which then allows a lot of space as we try to make meaning together. And it’s the reduction of those things into data that I think is so problematic. When somebody tries to say, “Let’s take the book of Genesis and use it to prove something about the creation of the world.” Like, oh God, that’s ridiculous. And it’s asking the wrong question of the literature. The literature is actually better than being data-driven.

SAMUEL: Yeah, well, that’s interesting you bring that up. That data-driven pursuit makes me think of things data-driven questions would elicit—like, you mention in the book the Japanese word, “mu.” Like, you’ve asked the wrong question, to place it in a Zen context.

But, just to take a little digression on that point—since you’ve brought it up—why do you think the broader culture is so oriented, especially now, even in the last ten years we’ve seen this acceleration—the sort of obvious cause seems to be the internet and technology, but particularly in America—why do you think people are obsessed with technology? They’re obsessed with data. And if you told the average person, “I think,” you know, “story is actually more important than data,” I mean, they might just scoff. So how do you think about that? Why has this data-driven craze taken on, and how do you think we can think better and, in a way, be better storytellers about story, so that we can sort of think more well about ourselves while acknowledging whatever seems to be happening in culture that we think is negative?

Pádraig: Well, some of it is that we need to move away from a binary system where we think that because one thing’s important it has to be better than the other thing. I love data. It’s great. And I love story. They’re not fighting. They’re just doing different things. And so, being a data-driven person who’s interested in story isn’t a contradiction. There’s something really powerful about thinking, “There’s truth to be found in both. It’s just different levels of truth and different purposes of truth.” There’s narratological truth. There’s diagnostic truth. There’s all kinds of truth. There’s meaning-making truth. There’s mythological truth, which is more true than the truth of the question of the data within the story. And I think we all know that, but sometimes I feel like we need to be reminded. You know, sometimes I hear people going, “Oh, I don’t believe in religion. I just believe in science.” And you’re like, “Oh, God. What do you think science is?” [laugh]

We need to have a sophisticated understanding that there is no pure system that will lead us into moral living. Some people who believe science is going to be the answer to everything clearly have paid no attention to the history of the eugenics movement. Science can do awful things to us. There’s always going to be the need to ask the moral question. And religion doesn’t necessarily give you a better answer. I’m not saying religion is the place to get it. But I’m saying we’re always going to have to ask that, “And so what?” question.

And when it comes to data, I think the best thing to do with it comes to thinking about data and the idea that data can save us is to have a few sociological friends. Because they’ll always go, “Well, what’s the numbers? How do you weigh or measure the number? What kind of question do you ask? What’s the context within which this data was gathered?” I love listening to sociologists because they know the art of saying, “No, let’s take this really carefully because by being precise we can get some precise analysis from it, but actually that analysis would be really pointed to a small data group.” And that doesn’t diminish truth. It actually focuses it. And I’m delighted for that. Everybody needs a sociologist in their life. [laugh]

SAMUEL: I have a lot of sociologist friends—

Pádraig: There was a festival of sociology at Belfast a few years ago, and I spoke at it. And I remember the palpable shock of thinking, “You people have parties.” So, well, [laughs] they do. I had a few pints.

SAMUEL: [laughs] So, one more question about story. Story is orienting. We know we can tell bad stories. That, indeed, many of the terrible things we do come from bad stories, and stories organize communities. But one of the things that I think is so powerful in In the Shelter is that you focus a lot, not just on the community role and on the individual and how they’re inseparable, but also how much of what is good and bad about each of us as individuals starts with the stories we’re telling ourselves, or the stories that are telling us, and in that context, you talk in a very innovative and helpful way about the idea of sin.

You talk of sin in a way that’s very different from the way it’s conventionally presented. And I think—I saw in the book a connection between your discussion of sin and the role of the shadow in psychotherapy. Could you maybe talk to us practically about how, if we’re individuals, and maybe we think we have a very clear vision about what is right in the world and what is wrong, and we think we know how to solve it (and maybe we’re right), but I think part of what you’re encouraging the reader and the people you work with to think about is: How can I also change myself? How can I recognize myself as a source of problems? Could you maybe talk a little bit about that?

Pádraig: Yeah.  Well, so much of it comes in the book in the Shelter, that phrase “in the shelter,” it comes from a phrase in Irish, which I love, an old Irish phrase, ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine: it’s in the shelter of each other that the people live. Scáth being the word for shelter. But that word scáth can also mean shadow. And it’s not to say that shelter’s always lovely and shadow is always bad, but I suppose it is showing us a bit of flexibility and a movement in this as to what’s going on. Sometimes you do want shelter, and other times you don’t want shelter; sometimes you do want shadow, and other times you don’t. And what I loved is the space within scáth—is shelter always good? Is shadow always bad?

I was brought up, in many ways, in a time that was like, “Well, you’re shit until you prove otherwise.” You know? If you come home with a good grade in school you might hear, “Ah well, you could have done better,” or “About time,” or various things like that. The idea that anybody would be friends with their parents or friendly with their parents was just bizarre. There was one fella in my group of friends who liked his friends, and we just thought he was from a different planet. That’s not to say that things were terrible at home. It’s just to say that there wasn’t an imagination of friendliness in the home place. And thank god that has changed. It is a nicer age, now, to be a child, I think, than the time when I was younger.

And all that’s good. However, in the midst of it, I do think it’s important to have the kinds of stories that do lead us to ask self-critical questions. Because in the midst of thinking, “Great, it’s fantastic to be me, and it’s great to be dignified, and I love being part of a situation where we have a higher anthropology of the human person,”but we are not immune to asking, “What do I do when I mess up? What do I do when I realize I have a deep compulsive vengeance in me? What language do I use for that?” Do I always need to think it’s because of a wound in my life? No, maybe it’s because I’m a deeply impulsive, vengeful person. [laughs] You know? How do I come up with that? What kind of story is going to face me with the reality that maybe I just need to be held accountable no matter what the reason for this in my life? You know, maybe you just need to be healed, maybe it just needs to be activated, or maybe it just needs to be contained in terms of parts of my life. And I think, at its best, that’s what the language of sin is trying to do.

I’m not interested in punishment for sin. I’m interested in seeing sin as its own punishment. James Alison, the British theologian, describes sin as an addiction to being less than ourselves. And I think that’s very helpful language. I’m fairly bored by sin as this idea to say, “Oh, Jesus will heal it and stand in the gap, blah, blah, blah.” That just makes no sense to me anymore. I can write in a theological essay about that idea, but I wouldn’t believe that theological essay. I am more interested in thinking about how we confront ourselves with the parts of our lives that just consistently return to choosing the self over choosing the other. What is that desire that we have? What is going on? And how do we – even in the midst of thinking I can’t control it, and I can’t act on it – how do we do something different?

This is where I think confession is a really, really interesting thing. Not that we have to confess to a priest, but what’s it like to give our confession to each other? To say, “I’m just terrible and I need to tell somebody.” What’s that like? The sacrament of confession that you find in Catholic religion and other religions is only an echo of something that can happen between any two people where you trust them enough to say, “I have to tell you something about me.” And those moments are profound. I think 12-step groups do that very well because 12-step groups are filled with the mystery of the human condition but also help people hold themselves accountable. You use sentences beginning in the first-person. You have to articulate what you’ve done and what’s happened, and you have to think about the impact of the facts. That’s extraordinary. I think 12-step programs offer something of the essence of religion. They know something about being human and being in community that many of us are frightened of because it’s so damn familiar.

SAMUEL: Yeah. You make this remarkable sentence that I was struck by in the book in this context. You say, “We need narratives of sin that are prescriptive but transforming.” And I think you get that in In the Shelter. We’re going to turn, in about five minutes, to questions from the audience so you all can ask Pádraig your own questions, but I—I just wanted to share something with you and ask in response to what I’m about to share if you have any stories you want to tell about, sort of, these transforming narratives. Because your book caused one of these moments for me, and I wasn’t going to talk about it, but I think I’ve decided I will.

You talked about Judas . . . I probably shouldn’t talk about this. But I’ve been talking recently with a dear friend of mine about Judas and thinking about poetry and the imagination and how, sometimes, it’s dangerous to think about these figures; it’s powerful but dangerous. But what happened was I was reading what you were saying about Judas, and you were giving an alternate story, a way to think about him. And what I imagined, and it made me cry—I was in a café, so I, like, put the book in front of my face— I imagined that after Judas committed suicide, he woke up, and Jesus was massaging his neck from where he had hung himself. And the idea that Judas can be redeemed seems, in some sense, the heart of religious hope. That instead of being a symbol of that person –whom the scriptures do say, “Better that he had not been born”— that there’s also this possibility in the text, like if he repented. Something about what you wrote, and maybe just my own unconscious triggered that, but you have so many wonderful stories. It could be from your own life or anything that you’ve heard, but maybe we could end, just our part of the conversation, on sort of a story that you see as embodying this small mundane or really dramatic power of narratives that transform us.

Pádraig: There’s so many. Thank you for that. That’s beautiful what you’re saying—that somehow the physicality of his neck struck you, and you were moved by that.

Paul is my partner, and . . . Paul has two children, one from when he was married before, and one later. Paul and I wrote this story telling thing called 10 x 9, nince people have ten minutes each to tell a true story from their life. It’s delicious. Great fun, you know. And Paul’s kids were there, and their mum was there, and her partner. And this felt like an episode of Modern Family. And we all went out for a drink afterwards. I was driving, so I was in sparkling water. [laughs] And . . . I’ve met the kids one or two times. Paul and her were separated for years before I came on the scene, and she looked at me, and she said, “It’s nice to be here. Lovely. Yeah. Very nice.” And she looked at her two kids and said, “We all love them, don’t we?” And I thought, “How generous, to be sitting in a pub with your ex-husband’s boyfriend and to acknowledge to me that I love your children,” which I do. Tara and Luke. They’re  adults, you know. I’m not in any kind of parent role to these people. They’re very, very wonderfully co-parented by their own parents. And how generous was she to take that moment, a little bit of awkwardness and, you know, thinking like, what’s my place here? Certainly, that’s what I was wondering, and she welcomed me in by saying, “We all love them. We all love these two.”

I remember speaking to Paul afterwards and then speaking to the kids and saying, “Your mother is amazing.” And they were like, “Yeah, we know.” [laughs] It was so beautiful. And I just thought that was so unnecessary. That was a generosity that went beyond generosity. That was so creative and so moving. And it was just happening in the corner of a pub in Belfast. And there’s nothing world-changing about that story, except for the fact of: What would it be like for all of us to try to participate in that kind of generosity across the various fractures and fragmentations of our lives? Personal. Political. Societal. What if we could think: How can I look to somebody who might, maybe for even good reason, wonder, is the space here safe? Is their presence here welcome? And she didn’t just say, “Oh, you’re welcome into this, you know—we admit you in.” She said, “You’re already in. You love them. And that’s why we’re here.” And I just thought that was amazing. So that’s the—that’s the story that comes to my mind.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet and theologian working to  bring art and theology into public and civic life.  He is currently Theologian in Residence for On Being.  To learn more, visit his website and check out his On Being podcast, Poetry Unbound.

Samuel Loncar, the interviewer, is a philosopher and scholar of religion, and the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. He is also the host of the podcast, launching in March, called Becoming Human.