Colleen Brown Speaks at ISE Alumni Event

imageColleen Brown, a 2002 Graduate of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ MPhil in Ecumenics, spoke at the annual alumni event on 28 June. The text of her talk is reproduced below.

Colleen Brown Reflects on her Experience at ISE and its Impact on her Life and Work

Happy eve of Graduation, graduates! And happy Homecoming to the ISE family. I think this annual tradition of coming together is very important – after all, the studies and work, as I understand them, of peace, ecumenics and reconciliation, have their roots in human relationships. So it’s good that we all have a little contact once in while. Thank you to Gladys Ganiel and Geraldine Smyth for the opportunity to say a few words this evening. And to Aideen for helping me prepare. It’s good to be here.

First – as I know it can be a distraction until it is just named: Where am I from? San Francisco, Boston, Dublin and Belfast. At this point in my life, I am a bit of a mutt; a mixture of places and imprints. Though I hope you can hear the California shining through, as the older I get, the more I realise it’s always there in some way.

Second – for the Americans in the room, your primary question may not be ‘Where is she from?’, but ‘What does she do?’. The easiest way I can answer this is that my background is a combination of the arts, mental health, spirituality and reconciliation. I promise this will become more concrete in the next 10 minutes.

Now, I’ve some questions for us all to ponder.

Where were you, graduates (and current students, and alumni), when you learned you had been accepted to study with the Irish School of Ecumenics? .. How did you feel? .. What went through your mind? .. Why did you want to come? .. Did anything hold you back? .. What were the things you needed to say ‘no’ to, or ‘please wait’ to, in order to say ‘yes’ to ISE; to the commitment of post-graduate work in Dublin or Belfast? .. How would your life be different if you had decided not to come? .. Was it worth it? .. I want to invite you to continue to reflect on your own responses to these questions, as I try to do the same.

It was Summer 2001, and I was in Mozambique when I got the news that I had been accepted to study with ISE, commencing October 2001. I felt happy, privileged and a bit torn. At the same time, there was notice of acceptance into a Mental Health Counselling & Arts Therapies MA programme in Boston. This was the post-graduate study that I had planned to do, as an undergraduate in Psychology and Music, and I had already taken a massive detour to first do an MA in Pastoral Ministry, which is connected to how I had ended up in Mozambique. Would I ever become a therapist?

I chose to defer counselling studies for a year, and to say yes to time with ISE. I realised I needed ISE’s help. The experience of contextual education in Mozambique, and the previous Summer in an interface area of Belfast, had taught me that my understanding of ‘peace’ was extremely lacking. Psychology and Spirituality had taught me much about inner peace, but not really about the challenges of inner peace within the midst of outer chaos. I was missing the sociological contribution to healing, reconciliation and peacebuilding. I needed more time to listen to the collective and the contextual, beyond the individualistic paradigm I was more familiar with. I knew ISE could help me with this.

So I came back to Ireland September 18, 2001. Ours was the first flight out of Boston, since September 11th, as the planes to New York had left from Boston airport on the 11th, and the airport had been under tight security. I remember feeling both guilty, and grateful, for leaving the US at that time. I thought I was leaving for just a year, but it ended up being two. It was a very interesting two years, to be outside of the US, and, an American in Ireland, studying conflict and peace. My grandparents are from here, I hold an Irish passport, I had lived in Ireland before … none of that mattered as much as my American accent during that time. I learned a lot about collective identity, outside as well as inside the classroom. It was very good for me.

Through my studies with ISE, I wanted to focus on ecumenical relationship as a means of reconciling sectarian relationship – which meant immersing myself in social contexts of ecumenism, as well as sectarianism.

So with the support of ISE faculty, many thanks especially to Andrew Pierce and Geraldine Smyth, I found a way to do both in one year. ISE’s Reconciliation Studies course, had just begun in 2001, on a part time basis, in Belfast. So I spent most of the week in Dublin on the Ecumenics course, and a few days a week in Belfast on the Reconciliation course – and a lot of time on the train.

My thesis, at the end of it all, focused on ‘the spiritual costs of the Troubles’.

I had the chance to interview over 30 people about how growing up in Northern Ireland during political violence and ‘in’ the psychological attidudes and social structures of sectarianism, had impacted them theologically, ecclesiologically and spiritually. People spoke about their images of God, understandings of ‘church’, and sense of the Sacred within themselves, others and the world. ISE faculty Cathy Higgins, Johnston McMaster and former Leader of the Corrymeela Community, David Stevens, who has since passed, were vital supports for me, academically and emotionally, through this process. The outcome of the research was a conclusion that sectarian socialisation did not necessarily lead to sectarian spirituality, however it often did lead to separated spirituality – unless opportunities for ecumenical (cross-community, multi-cultural) socialisation were available. In 2002, I was left with a sense of ‘we belong apart’ in Northern Ireland – that this was how people were surviving – psychologically, spiritually, socially – still feeling safer, better, apart. Those involved in ecumenical work, hoping to create the alternative paradigm of ‘we belong together’, in solidarity – were still going against the flow.

I realised I needed a year to unpack all that I had learned; to put it into practice in order to really understand it and carry it with me.

So I deferred counselling studies another year, and worked as part of a retreat team in Dublin. I began to experience the benefits of my time with ISE immediately. I lived in community with Catholic brothers and sisters from a mixture of Catholic orders – Christian Brother, Franciscan, Mercy, Brigidine – and 6 of us worked on the retreat team together; myself the only lay person, the only American, and youngest by at least 15 years. We facilitated retreats primarily for high school students, from both North and South. The importance of knowing how to hold a space or diverse views, cultural tensions and hard conversations, was paramount.

In the background that year, the Irish Catholic Church crisis began to be more publically exposed in the media. My housemates and teammates, had given their lives to an institution and its work, that now brought them despair and shame. They carried this – the primary and secondary impact of violence, by religion and religious – via clergy sexual abuse and cover-up – on a daily basis.

During that year I also began some short-term volunteer work with the Corrymeela Community, in Northern Ireland. I was given the opportunity to be a part of a programme for a diverse groups of young adults, wherein we explored the ins and outs of ethnic identity conflict and peace – within our own group and with a group of young people in the Basque Country.

By the end of that year, I was ready to return to Boston for counselling studies at last. By that stage I had witnessed enough and gotten caught up in enough trauma, to know that if I wanted to keep going in the area of healing, reconciliation and peacebuilding, which inherently means being involved in contexts of conflict and post-conflict, that I now needed help to really understand the impact of conflict. I needed help developing an understanding of trauma, and how to protect others and myself in work with trauma survivors, towards healing.

So I brought the learning from ISE with me – back to Boston, and its pluralistic society where there too the work goes on of the many trying to be one; the ecumenical; the many trying to recognise and prioristise our common humanity. My first year internship was with homeless women, living in a downtown Boston shelter. The first Summer was spent working with domestic violence survivors in Cape Town, South Africa. My second year internship gave me the chance to learn from teenage girls and their families, who had sought refuge in Boston, from violence in Uganda and the Congo. The second Summer brought me to Peru, where I spent time with Andes migrants, mostly women and children. All the while utilising arts therapies activities, as a way to attend to the wounds of living within a particular socio-political context, and as a way to express and address the wounding nature of that context. The final year, I worked on my thesis, where I explored the creative process as both inner and outer peace process, and began to understand my work as both therapist and advocate; an intergration of personal and social transformation. I had finally found a way to bring the psychological, spiritual and sociological together, in practice.

It was time to come back to Ireland to stay, as I had always hoped to – but not yet. There was a sense of a life waiting to be lived in Ireland, but also a sense that I was not strong enough yet to make the leap for good. I was so tired. Three Masters degrees later, I was so tired.

So, humbly with the support of my parents, I slowed down a bit. Paid more attention than usual to my health and my limitations. Felt my breath. And spent some time working within the Boston Archdicese, as an arts-based spiritual director for people directly and indirectly affected by the abuse crisis in Boston. This was a very painful and enlightening experience, which shed light on what I had previously glimpsed in Ireland. The people that were ready for this work, were in a place in themselves where they could say: “The Church is not God, I still have a relationship with God. I still have a spiritual life. I want to keep growing, but I don’t feel safe to do so in the Church as it is now. I need a space to sort out where I go from here.”

The differentiation between Church and God, is perhaps easier in America, with its history of separation of Church and State (ideally) – but it shed light on perhaps why people felt particularly betrayed by the abuse and cover-up in Ireland – where without clear separation between Church and State, the Church was God.

I came back to Ireland with a one way ticket in October 2007. Thinking I might work in the area of the abuse crisis in Dublin. I would do so, in a way, but not in the way that I planned. After some counselling work in an inner city Dublin school, I got a job in Belfast. Northern Ireland was different in 2009 than in 2002 – there was more money, more nightlife, more ethnic restaurants, more political stability, less overt violence – but people for the most part still lived, schooled, worked and worshipped apart. For the next 3 years I coordinated a programme that helped raised awareness about individual and collective trauma, particularly within the faith communities. The programme was called Journey Towards Healing.

It had begun within the Victims Unit of the NI government in 2002, as a means to capacity build the various faith communities in Northern Ireland, faith leaders and pastoral workers within them, to better understand trauma, and better support victims and survivors of trauma. A high level of burnout had been noticed, within the clergy population in particular, due to very little training in psychology and counselling skills while in training for ministry – skills which their social context of work, especially during the Troubles, demanded. Without faith workers who understood trauma, victims and survivors of the conflict suffered – because the crisis of faith that is common after a traumatic event was often judged or misunderstood – and clergy and religious suffered as well, with symptoms of secondary trauma that went unnoticed by themselves and others.

Journey Towards Healing developed a holistic trauma awareness training, often delivered within theological colleges, North and South; undertook research to understand all the needs, including the spiritual needs of victims and survivors of trauma; and hosted events to bring reflection about the complex relationships between conflict, violence, religion, trauma and healing, into the public domain.

The biggest event was an international conference, entitled ‘Trauma & Spirituality’, in Belfast, 2011. We explored both how spirituality (including faith and religion) can play a role in healing from trauma, and how spirituality (faith, religion) can play a role in causing trauma. The conference held space for conversations about the role of religion and religious in reconciliation work and the peace process, as well as in sectarianism, the abuse crisis, and the treatment of homosexual people. It was a critical conversation, and one that left us all very aware, that in 2012, it is difficult to talk about spirituality in Northern Ireland, and Ireland – without first being able to talk about our relationship with religion. We first need to learn how to talk about a traumatised at most, conflicted at least, relationship with religion, before we can talk about human spirituality – or relationality with the Sacred – as a meeting point.

These are hard conversations because they often go into hardened, painful and terrifying emotional places. Yet they are vital conversations if our relationship with the Sacred, and our lack of a sense of the Sacred in each other, is to be exposed.

Things like this often lie unconscious and yet are the ultimate drivers of war and peace. We need to research, to write, to talk in order to make conscious what is going on and what we are doing. We need peace, ecumenics, and reconciliation studies and work to help us find a way to deeply understand, respect and serve our common humanity, together. To be able to risk the handshake. That the many can be one.

Ten years later, I am still here. I am still on that train up and down between Belfast and Dublin, though the roads are much better now for border-crossing. I can with confidence say that my time with ISE was worth it; it changed my self-understanding, the scope of my work and the steps of my life. I sincerely hope that you can say the same. That you have been changed because you took the risk to study with ISE.

If you are heading home, prepare for the familiar to now be strange. If you are heading into new territory, prepare for the strange to be familiar.

Either way, keep going, and know when to stop and rest for a while, too.

This is the work of ages. And we are all in it together. Do what you can.

Colleen Brown, 28 June 2012, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland