Expanding Safe Spaces 

IMG_0312By: Will O’Brien, Social Media Intern 2015

Yesterday evening I had he privilege of attending a prayer vigil. This in itself is not a unique or infrequent occurrence for me over the course of the past months. This one however struck a different chord for me; I felt that a safe space had been created for all in attendance. This is a feat that is rarely accomplished, and is made even more remarkable due to the nature of the vigil – an interfaith vigil for peace in Israel-Palestine.​

As an Arabic speaking Christian who is dating a Jew, this is an issue that is becoming increasingly present, confusing, and meaningful in my daily life. The firestorm of rhetoric from all sides is ceaseless, and increasing more rapidly than the violence in the region over the past month. A topic with multiple facets – a small sliver of land thousands of miles away.

​However, among this constant bombardment of the twenty-four hour news cycle, forty plus people of all different faiths, ideals, and nationalities set these matters aside. They came together for a shared ideal that they all appear to place above everything else – peace. We held our electric indoor fire safe candles in silence before hearing prayers for peace from both the Muslim and Jewish tradition read in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. This was not a forum for debate, discussion, or argumentation. This was a space of grieving, hope, and safety.

​The most impactful effect of this safe place was the observation of my friend from the Arabian Gulf who had never heard this Jewish prayer read in Hebrew before. He was amazed at how much he understood and how similar the requests of the prayers were. For the first time the opportunity was presented for him to consider these commonalities with the goal to be understanding and not refuting.

​Before we could begin to ask for safety for others without a sense of safety among our own little group. The vigil closed with a word or two about getting to know everyone in the circle and seeing who around us cared and felt passionately about the issue at hand. Trying to take this safe space with us to create a network of safe spaces on a small college campus, that might spread into the surrounding communities, and maybe some day to that small sliver of land thousands of miles away.

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Accepting Where I’m From

By: Will O’Brien, Social Media Intern 2015

I have spent the last three years of my life going new places, meeting new people, and trying new things, but I have always had a benchmark. The control in my life experiment is always my family and my hometown. However, simply saying “St. Louis” when people asked me where I am from never seemed sufficient. I felt it wasn’t the complete picture of my background that everyone thought it was and most people from the Northeast needed me to pull out a map to show them where exactly that “small southern town” was.

The effort to truly accept my hometown, which has been particularly difficult with the media coverage we have been getting over the course of the past year, has not been easy. However, this past week I made a breakthrough. My sister sent me an exercise from one of her classes for graduate school. It was an adult Mad-Libs of sorts to the form on George Ella Lyon’s Poem “Where I’m From.” My sister and I have not yet had the opportunity to sit down and compare notes, but taking 15 minutes out of my day to reflect and accept my roots was refreshing. I was also very intrigued when an article on Lyon’s passing mentioned a traditional religious upbringing. Both my liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic upbringings still have strong influences on my worldview that I am constantly sorting out and accepting for myself.

Below are Lyon’s original poem, a fill in the blank style template, and my personal variation on his theme. They have helped me find some acceptance of my roots, and I hope they help you do the same.

Where I’m From

By: George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Where I’m From

(template)

I am from _______ (specific ordinary item),

from _______ (product name) and _______.
I am from the _______ (home description… adjective, adjective, sensory detail).
I am from the _______ (plant, flower, natural item),

the _______ (plant, flower, natural detail)
I am from _______ (family tradition) and _______ (family trait),

from _______ (name of family member) and _______ (another family name) and _______ (family name).
I am from the _______ (description of family tendency) and _______ (another one).
From _______ (something you were told as a child) and _______ (another).
I am from (representation of religion or lack of it). Further description.
I’m from _______ (place of birth and family ancestry), _______ (two food items representing your family).
From the _______ (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the _______ (another detail, and the _______ (another detail about another family member).
I am from _______ (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).

Where I’m From

By:Will O’Brien

I am from desserts,
from Jif and Smucker’s.
I am from the odd stair on the porch.
(White, new,
made by hand.)
I am from the dead grass
the Old Oak
whose ancient roots I remember
as if they still showed through the sidewalk.

I’m from meat and potatoes,
from Blue Stone and Trout Lodge.
I’m from the ‘stop smacking’
and the ‘use your lips,‘
from ‘don’t yell!’ and ‘bring it here!‘
I’m from Webster
with a St. Joe’s tinge

and trespasses, and sins, and debts.

I’m from Metuchen and Berea,
burnt chicken and black coffee.
From the thumb my uncle lost
at the factory,
the burn on my father’s hand.

In my basement was a Build-A-Bear box
spilling old pictures,
a mess of 90’s outfits
Each accompanying a story.
I am the pictures–
the stories —
the memories.

Growing Up Church-ed

The following is a guest post by Will O’Brien who currently resides in Rochester, New York but is originally from Saint Louis, Missouri. Will speaks to the way church, or any other religious community for that matter, can shape the people we become and the wisdom we recognize. So here’s Will on Growing up Church-ed…

The weirdest people seem to gather in the most dignified and “normal” places, and there is one community in my life that is like a Whitman’s Sampler of quirky.

My church community may seem normal but the people in it have contributed to the best abnormal education anyone could want. I was raised with 57 some odd sets of surrogate parents and grandparents and a bizarre array of sort-of older siblings, kind-of aunts and uncles, and crazy not-really cousins. Every week this world of weird gave me a safe space and plenty of inspiration to create my own unique identity.

Whether it is the couple who are both science teachers that show up every week in a different one of their many matching and bizarrely-themed Hawaiian shirts or the 84 year old man that loves to tell you about his most recent hand crocheted lace doyly, they all stop and say hi and truly care about you. This caring is passed through time and place to all corners of the earth through members of this odd little family that squabbles about whether or not Easter Brunch should be before or after the church service but always agrees to love and care for one another.

This dysfunctional second family has taught me not only to embrace the things that make me different but moreover that it is these very things that will help be a light to the world.