“Peacemaking is like jazz. You listen, you improvise with each other, and you smooth out and embrace the rough spots. And from there, you find the courage to play on,” shared Devon Spier (BA 2012). Devon is a bestselling author, poet, a theologian, and a rabbinical student. In every facet of their life, they have carried with them two lessons from their Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) education at Conrad Grebel University College: differences should be celebrated, and it is necessary to exist in difficult spaces.

Devon completed a double major in PACS and Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo in 2012. Reflecting on their education path, Devon recalled that they “fell into studying PACS accidentally” by taking their first PACS course as an elective (PACS 202: Conflict Resolution). During one of the classes, the instructor, Mary Lou Klassen, shared about her personal experience with international peacebuilding. Devon remembers being immediately intrigued by Mary Lou’s approach to teaching and to the life of peacebuilding she conveyed. “The way Mary Lou Klassen spoke about people, talked about international development, and regarded people’s lives revealed to me that PACS was all about attending and listening,” said Devon.

Devon Spier

Outside of their studies, Devon was involved with interfaith work and Jewish community building. They took on active roles at Renison as a Resident Advisor and Vice President of the Residence Council. Devon also volunteered as a Spiritual Care Group Facilitator at Grand River Hospital, Vice President of the Religious Studies Student Society, and consistently searched for opportunities to work with people—regardless of the barriers to accepting differences.

While Devon studied at Waterloo from 2007 to 2012, tensions were high between several identity groups on campus due to international conflict. Jewish and Muslim, as well as Israeli and Arab-connected groups at the university were trying to figure out how to navigate spaces with each other and process emotions. Devon recalls how PACS 329: Restorative Justice was an extremely helpful course during that time. It helped them to understand that “everyone has their own stories. It is not just about fixing broken pieces. Peacebuilding, when done right, does not try to fix anything. It tries to sit down and listen, and pay attention to stories.” This practice of peacebuilding not only helped Devon develop an enhanced understanding on how to approach the tensions on campus, but it also resonated with them personally, as an individual who is Jewish, adopted, and who has faced persistent antisemitism.

One of the greatest challenges that Devon undertook while at the University of Waterloo was to create, and run, Grebel’s Peace Camp. When Devon applied to the Program Coordinator role, they were prepared to highlight their differences because they believed their strength resided in their unique identities and experiences. They brought pieces of their life into the interview to communicate their background: a Star of David, stories of their grandfather from World War II, and other treasures. Devon believed they could challenge Grebel and Peace Camp to grow in ways that would deeply embrace the individuals and groups from all walks of life in the communities around them. After accepting Grebel’s job offer, Devon describes an ensuing “good sort of chaos”: “This was a project that started with a few hundred dollars in program funding and some drama clothes. From there, the goal was to gather people and start conversations in ways that are not normally connected."

Together with House of Friendship, Kindred Credit Union and the PACS department, the camp brought together neighbourhoods and people of different faith backgrounds, creating a place to share stories. Speakers who were a part of these conversations included members of an anti-bullying movement, a local AIDS action group, an anti-fascist theatre troupe, a Holocaust survivor’s testimony, and a PACS student living with a terminal illness. Devon and the rest of the team cultivated a multi-faith environment where there was space to explore the strength in differences and intersectional approaches to peacemaking.

A pivotal moment in Devon’s life took place after they graduated from UWaterloo and began pursuing rabbinical studies in New York in 2016. They got very sick. While Devon reduced their courseload and focused on recovery, they began writing and couldn’t stop. During this time, they wrote two bestselling poetry books: Heart Map and the Song of Our Ancestors (2018) and Whatever it is, gently: Quiet Meditations for the Noise of the Pandemic (2020).

Today, Devon continues to write and study to become a Rabbi. They recently coordinated their first Jewish wedding are excited to work towards greater justice through intersectionality within their teachings. Devon has also found other ways to utilize their PACS experience, including creating digital art on social media to highlight social justice issues through a Jewish lens.

“The heart of peacemaking is to come to a place of wonder and uncertainty. When we come from our margins, our differences, and our deepest self, there is a wisdom in that. From the uncertainty and risk of not knowing, there is hope,” said Devon referring to a Jewish teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunim. In the teaching, a Rabbi takes two pieces of paper. On one of them they write, “I am but dust and ashes” and puts it in their pocket when needing to be humbled. The other paper says, “For my sake, the world was created” and is put in the other pocket for when they need to feel special and worthy of G-d-given gifts. Each paper is a reminder of one or the other, and that most of life is spent in the space between the two pockets. Devon resides in this divide, marveling at the beauty that comes from embracing the vastness of people’s differences in the work of peace.

Devon's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Zoe Beilby | Tim Saari

Devon Spier is a 2012 PACS and Religious Studies graduate from the University of Waterloo, a bestselling author, theologian, and rabbi-to-be. They currently teach students to write their own theology through poems, prose, and digital images. A recipient of peacebuilding awards from YMCA and Interfaith Grand River, they were recently honoured by the Ontario Government with a "Leading Women, Building Communities" award. Devon's poetry books are currently used in religious communities and academic courses taught in Asia, Europe, and North America.