lenten journal: story


Saturday when I arrived at work I met one of my colleagues who was wearing a t-shirt that said,
“Stories Matter.” Naturally, I wanted to know the story behind the shirt. He told me it was for something called the 12×12 Initiative that is a twelve week road trip across country, starting yesterday from Raleigh to highlight twelve nonprofits across the country. They describe themselves this way:

We believe in the power of stories to motivate action and inspire compassion.

The 12×12 Initiative exists with the hope of connecting people with causes through the power of story. We want to see individuals get involved in their own communities, embracing the stories around them, and becoming part of one themselves.

Here is their video.

And here is the link to their Kickstarter campaign, which has only hours left and is so close to their goal. (I love that they drove out of town not knowing if they were fully funded.) And I love the quote I found in the middle of their page:

“[Stories] make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.” — George Saunders

One of the lessons I learned about preaching fairly early offered a bit of a paradox: if I wanted to say something that applied to most everyone I had to preach to someone in particular. To make global statements was to miss most of the crowd; to preach thinking of individuals who needed a word of comfort or even challenge meant a whole bunch of people came out of church saying, “I felt like you were talking to me.” The truth is shared best in stories rather than grand statements.

bell hooks speaks about the power of “particular”—telling our specific stories rather than proclaiming the broad strokes—and she used her story of life with her grandmother, Baba, to make her point.

We have too often had no names, our history recorded without specificity, as though it’s not important to know who—which one of us—the particulars. Baba was interested in particulars. Whenever we were “over home,” as we called her house, she let us know “straight up” that upon entering we were to look at her, call her name, acknowledge her presence. Then once that was one we were to state our “particulars”—who we were and/or what we were about. We were to name ourselves—our history. This ritualistic naming was frightening. It felt as though this prolonged moment of greeting was an interrogation. To her it was a way we could learn ourselves, establish kinship and connection, the was we would know and acknowledge our ancestors. It was a process of gathering and remembering.

Story: the process of gathering and remembering. That’s as good as any dictionary.

My friend, Paul Soupiset, who tells stories through both words and pictures, offered a link—What’s So Special About Storytelling for Social Change?—last night that has kept me thinking about the power of narrative. The author, Simon Hodges, is looking at the way storytelling has taken hold in our time, focusing on a storytelling community in Amsterdam called Mezrab. As he talks about the need for new narratives, he says:

[C]limate change, inequality, violence and other challenges can’t be solved by doing more of the same. We need new narratives that connect with peoples’ deepest motivations and promote more radical action. Stories engage people at every level – not just in their minds but in their emotions, values and imaginations, which are the drivers of real change.  So if we want to transform society, we must learn to tell—and listen to—a new set of stories about the world we want to create.

He then goes on to tell what he learned listening to the group in Amsterdam, and he echoes what hooks learned from her grandmother.

So far so good, but what actually makes for a good story in this sense? That’s where my visits to Mezrab were so instructive. For one thing, the storytellers that got the most attention were not necessarily the funniest or wittiest. Instead, they were the ones that were most prepared to put their skin in the game, to state something that was uncomfortably close to how they saw the world. This radical subjectivity—perhaps the basis of all great art—is a crucial lesson for anyone who wants to communicate a complex topic. When we allow our own insights to organize the telling of a story, we give a more compelling account of events. Why? Because our deepest values are closest to what we share with others.

And then he mentions another community that used storytelling to bring healing:

A more local example came in the wake of the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby by two self-proclaimed Muslims in Woolwich, southeast London, in 2013. This event outraged the far-right English Defense League (EDL) who organized a protest outside a mosque in York. Knowing of this plan and anticipating violence, members of the mosque invited the protestors in for tea and biscuits. In the discussion that followed, both parties realized that they had a common interest in ending extremist violence. The protestors’ anger was successfully defused, and the day ended in an impromptu game of football.

The leader of the mosque, Mohamed El-Gomati, initiated a dialogue to identify elements of a shared culture among members of both the EDL and the Mosque. We can do the same with our own stories. Whenever there’s a situation in which we tempted to label one group as ‘the other’, telling a story that reveals shared values aids in the creation of new communities. The narrative ceases to be the property of one side’s rightness over another side’s error. Instead it becomes a story of co-creation and mutual responsibility.

Hodges talks about the power of stories to undermine belief systems. I love the sentence, even as dangerous as it sounds, because the truth is belief systems are constructs, walls that divide us; stories are relational tethers, the stuff communities are made of as we gather and remember, as we come together to tell the story of Love that is at the heart of what it means to be human.

Once upon a time . . . .

It was a dark and stormy night . . . .

In the beginning, God . . . .

No wonder one of my favorite hymns begins, “I love to tell the story . . . .”

Stories matter.



  1. Stories do indeed matter. Tennessee Williams is reported to have said that if one wants to be a successful writer, all one has to do is tell the truth. So far us, there lies the rub. To tell or not to tell the truth.

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