If you are a living, breathing person, you have a story.
The importance for this lies in a deep soul need to share our story and connect with others by hearing their stories.
We know the facts of a life. We know date and place of birth. We know names of family members and a progression of important milestones from birthplace to burial plot. But this is not the story of a life.
Story is deeply personal. It comes from the heart, rather than stored in memory.
During these days of pandemic, we are unable to share stories with a hug or a shake of the hand, however, I’ve discovered that digital (or virtual) small group meetings can still be very meaningful.
For some people, the physical distance can offer even greater freedom for telling their stories. No matter if shared in a virtual environment or face to face, making a personal connection is vital to good storytelling.
If we begin with children, we soon discover they can be the perfect audience to receive a story. Children prefer a happy ending and, above all, fairness in outcomes.
Adults, on the other hand, know life isn’t always fair with happy outcomes. For this reason, it is important to remind the audience of the necessity of strong faith and trust in God to undergird stories connected to tragedy.
Even the stories told by Jesus often had sad or even violent outcomes. Think of the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful (Mark 10:22).
No one likes to think of their story ending with “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” yet the stories are there, recorded and preserved with God’s purposes in mind.
For many years, at winter’s end, our church planned a spirituality retreat in the foothills of western North Carolina. Over a long weekend, small groups could tell each other their spiritual stories. It was within these “covenant groups” that many people told a story not shared in years.
The retreat gained a reputation as a safe haven for sharing personal stories about one’s faith and how God had worked in one’s life. To this day, church members from their group greet one another with a special connection.
There is an appreciation in knowing the heart of another person. Three things come to mind as I remember these sacred moments of storytelling: “I will not forget you;” “there is someone like me;” “I never thought of it like that.”
In their book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley tell the story of Rwandan women who were exposed to terrible violence as a result of civil war and genocide.
The psychological suffering plagued the women without relief. Unable to sleep, many of the women could be heard sobbing during the night hours. Refugee camp investigators learned the women were told not to mention the murder of family and friends.
In response to the situation, a mental health worker found a location at the edge of camp to set up a “story tree,” which would become a safe place for the women to tell their stories.
At first, the women were hesitant to come to the grassy spot beneath a large shade tree, but with time, one by one, the numbers increased and women told their stories. By giving voice to their trauma, the women showed some recovery and could sleep.
John Henson tells the story of a church with a diverse congregation who offered courtesy to one another but lacked empathy needed to produce emotional healing.
“Empathy is a vital quality that makes it possible for people who are different from each other to understand each other,” Henson writes in his doctor of ministry thesis, “Developing Empathy from Storytelling in the Congregational Diversity of Church for the Highlands.”
We live in the best of times, and the worst of times, for learning to understand one another.
If you’ve ever heard the story from the 1950s of a young soldier on leave from his military base in south Georgia, and how he had risked his life for his white community but could not eat a meal inside a local restaurant, you might understand the shame and confusion that could result.
Today, tensions are even higher as young Black men are taught by worried parents to show their empty hands and a face of humility when stopped for a traffic violation. Hopefully, there will come a time when telling these stories from all perspectives will bring healing.
Finally, listen to the heart-story of my friend, Inaya (not her real name). While living with her family in Ramallah, she faced serious cultural and religious persecution.
After moving to the U.S., she and I became acquainted and shared many meals together telling stories from our youth – how I couldn’t understand religion experienced through violence.
She shared her stress and fears of living in the United States because of her Islamic faith. I received enormous empathy from my friend as we learned to truly understand one another.
I know I have her respect, and she mine, as a beloved person made in God’s image. All this has been gained through stories.
Associate professor emerita in education East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. At Oakmont Baptist Church, she has served as deacon, choir member and on the Sunday School Council. Having served on mission teams to Moldova, Brazil, Belize and Nicaragua, Brown has a special love for tutoring immigrant children living in her community.