lenten journal: tell me a story


    When we lived in New England, one of the staples in my day was listening to a show called The Connection, a call-in show hosted by a man named Dick Gordon who had a marvelous way of drawing people into conversation and making connections for those who both talked and listened. One morning, he was no longer on the radio. WBUR made some (bad) choices based on the bottom lined and killed their best show. And I wondered what happened to Dick Gordon.

    Soon after we moved to Durham, I was in the car listening to WUNC, our local and excellent NPR station, and heard a familiar voice say, “I’m Dick Gordon and this is The Story.” I had no idea he had come to prepare a place for me, or at least to help me feel more, well, connected to my new town. His new show is not a call-in, but an interview with a single person, usually, simply because he feels they have a story worth telling. Some of them are sensational, some quite emotional, some humorous, some wrenching, and all of them helping to paint a picture of what it means to be human.

    Today, as I was driving to work, I came in on the story of Peter Turnley, a man who has been a photojournalist for a quarter of a century, and he was telling the story of his experiences as the first non-Soviet journalist allowed to see and record the aftermath of the Spitak earthquake in Armenia in 1988, when it was still part of the USSR. He talked about several things, but the enduring part of the story that was still very fresh to him as he told it, was one particular encounter (What follows is what I remember from listening and quotes from Turnley’s website):

    I will never forget the man in Armenia in 1988 who had only the day before lost his wife, children, and his home, all casualties of a massive earthquake in which 35,000 people lost their lives. As I drove with my twin brother David in a Russian taxi in this devastated region, we stopped to pick up an elderly man who was hitchhiking. He sat in the back with me. I was so tired after days and days of work with little rest I was falling asleep and then I realized he was motioning to put my head in his lap and sleep. I put my head down and listened, first, as he recounted to the driver that he had lost everything and then, as I drifted off, he began to stoke my head and sing softly and beautifully in Armenian. (Turnley paused, his voice full of emotion.) I think he just wanted to be connected to life.

    When we arrived at his village, Sptiak, he directed the driver tot he spot where his house had once stood; all that remained was a pile of rubble. He fell to the ground sobbing and pounding the earth for minutes. He then rose to thank us for the lift. We told him how sorry we were and that we had to go, but wanted to know if we could be of any help. The temperature was below zero Celcius, and the only things the man had were the clothes on his back. Still, he was determined to stay near the ruins of his home for a while longer. As we got ready to leave, he hugged us both for a long time and then offered me the wool scarf from around his neck. I declined politely. I’ll never forget that gesture.

    Turnley was beginning to tell how that encounter had changed his life and the way he thought about his profession when I had to get out of the car and go to my job, so I didn’t get to hear the punchline, but I walked through the old stone buildings on the Duke campus a little changed myself.

    Somewhere along the way today, I started thinking about this story, from Matthew 26:

    While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

    Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

    How ever cosmic the epic is, whether the aftermath of an earthquake or the road to the Cross and the Resurrection, the best stories gets told in the one on one encounters in the midst of the struggle and grief, where we fight to find our connection to life in things like lullabies and physical touch. One of the things I loved about Turnley’s story is he never talked about the pictures he took or how he photographed the man as he wept and wailed in front of the wreckage of his home. In fact, in the segment I heard, he never mentioned his camera. He just told the story of how he was changed by what the man did.

    One afternoon in Marshfield, I got to speak to Dick Gordon. I called in because his guest was Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia. In October of 1964, the British colony of Northern Rhodesia became the free nation of Zambia, and Kaunda was our president. I say “our” because I was there. We went to City Stadium early on the evening of October 23 and watched all kinds of dances and exhibitions. A little before midnight, the band played “God Save the Queen” and we watched the Union Jack come down for the last time. At the stroke of midnight, the Zambian flag was raised and we all sang our national anthem together (we had been practicing in school):

    Stand and sing of Zambia proud and free
    Land of work and joy in unity
    Victors in the struggle for the right
    We’ve one freedom’s fight
    All one strong and free

    A year or two later, at Christmas, my cub scout troop went to carol at State House, the presidential residence. President Kaunda answered the door as we began to sing and, after we had finished, invited us in for tea and biscuits (cookies, to you Americans). While we sat in the big living room munching away and trying not to spill anything, he said, “You have sung of our Savior’s birth; now I will sing to you of my faith.” He sat down at the piano and sang and played “Psalm 23.” That moment indelibly shaped my life in Africa and, on that afternoon in Marshfield, I finally got the chance to say thank you.

    I started listening to a story today of what happens when people connect and went from Durham to Armenia to Palestine to Zambia to Marshfield and back home. “I love to tell the story,” goes the old hymn, “for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”

    May those appetites never be satisfied.



    1. Milton,
      You brought tears to my eyes this morning. You are a true storyteller my friend. I needed the touch of Our Lord through your words this morning.
      Thanks for this,

    2. What a wonderful story. You’ve truly been in the presence of presidents (Zambia) and saints (you know who these are!). Thanks for sharing your life’s perspective.

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