In high school, I went on a mission trip to Brazil to perform a mimed drama to Portuguese narration as a form of evangelism. We “told” the story of the Toymaker who sent his Son to Toyland to break the Evil Magician’s barrier of Greed, Hate, Fear, Pride, and Anxiety and restore the relationship of the Toys with the Toymaker who loved them. I remember the one day out of our time in Brazil when our group had the highest response to our story.
Everything else had gone wrong that day, so it was no surprise to us when—after we had gathered children and their parents on the playground, broken the ice with funny skits, and taken up our positions to begin the drama—the sound equipment failed. It took two hours to fix the problem, and in the meantime, our group had to figure out how to entertain nearly 60 children to keep them from leaving.
So we played with them, pushing them on the swings and riding with them on the see-saw. Even though we couldn’t exchange a word, we bonded through a common activity, so that when we finally performed the drama to tell God’s story to people who longed to hear it, every hand went up across the crowd. Every child, every parent wanted to know more about this Toymaker who we’d gone to so much trouble to tell them about.
That was my introduction to “the ministry of hanging out,” building relationships through common experiences and then sharing our stories with each other when vulnerability has become possible. I took that lesson to heart and expanded it in college when a friend and I instituted “Tea in the Hallway.” Every night from 11 at night until whenever people went to bed (which was sometimes as late as 6 in the morning!), my friend and I hosted anyone who wanted to come sit in the hallway, drink some tea (or apple cider for those less inclined), and talk about anything at all. Some nights we had debates about philosophy and God. Other nights, we took care of inebriated students. And occasionally, when most people had gone to bed, someone would linger over a mug of tea and whisper shameful secrets or painful experiences, just because in that moment of vulnerability, there was a raw need for sharing the story in a safe space.
It was during these occasional moments that I learned, really learned, how to listen.
Listening came in handy when I began my honors research project my senior year of college as an exploration into the realm of creative non-fiction. Over almost a year, I interviewed family members and friends of my grandfather, who had died just two years before. I learned quickly that it only took one or two questions to get the ball rolling, and then all I had to do was try to keep up as the stories and reflections poured out.
The story of my grandfather became the story of my family, and my story, too. And in telling these stories, I learned how to clothe the truth in…well, story. Here are some of my reflection on the nature of story and storytelling (or writing) when trying to capture not just what a person said and did but the true essence of a person:
Family stories are all connected. Pleasant or not, it’s hard to separate ourselves from someone in whom we have part of our identity. In fact, to do so would be to deny part of the story. In this way his story becomes our story, too.
When I presented my work to the faculty, I introduced my process this way:
I always liked Chaucer’s line from the movie A Knight’s Tale, “Yes, I lied. I’m a writer. I give the truth scope!” Scope is what I wanted to give my readers in this effort at cultivating a creative piece of writing. It is an essay in the true sense: an effort, a try, as I looked for the balance between historicity and fiction, and I found the tight-rope called memory.
What I want to point out is the flexibility of memory. I was so intrigued at the different little things people remember about my grandfather, and more particularly, the way they remember them. For instance, there is a hot debate at the moment between my mother and one of my uncles over whether my grandfather used to be referred to on the mission field as a “wild man” or as a “wild Indian.” Not that it matters, but the point is that our memories are fluid things, always moving and changing and impressionable. And faulty.
I have taken it upon myself in this little work to sort through all the memories from the interview process as well as the contributions made by email and online posts. I sorted through all the conflicting images and stories, to the reality of who he was not just actually but as we remember him.
This balance between fiction and historical fact is what the gospel writers struggled with as they told their different stories about the same Jesus. When we share our own stories with each other, there is always that element of choice involved. We filter our stories according to the audience and the level of intimacy reached. What I am learning through these experiences is how to foster that level of intimacy, how to create safe space for people to be vulnerable and share their stories.
It is only through sharing that community is truly built, especially in contemporary society where emphasis is placed on the individual, on being self-sufficient. We succeed, and we succeed on our own. And when we get to the top, we are lonely and ashamed of what we did to make it there. We look around for a safe space to apologize, to make it right, and to try again. It is the church’s job to provide that safe space, in whatever way possible.
Holistic body theology is about more than who we are and what we look like. It’s also about what we do with our bodies in the world. We were not created to be alone but to be in community. Through our stories, we connect with deep truth within ourselves, we connect with each other, and we connect with God.
This week, we’ll explore the power of story both for speaking truth and for fostering community. For today, think of your experience with story, and share in a comment box below.