How Storytelling Opens Hearts and Minds

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Exodus 33: 13-14

 13 [Moses said], “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”

 14 G-d replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

storytelling

Credit: Creative Commons/ Guido van Nispen

On a late Spring afternoon two years ago, I vividly remember watching my colleague Macky Alston hold a room of multifaith movement for justice activists spellbound when he recounted his remarkable religious journey. Macky had grown up religious, realized he was gay, and then worked his way back to Christianity.

While I listened, I felt myself grow jealous, wishing I had a compelling story like Macky’s. Then, I felt empty. I may have joined Macky at Auburn Seminary a year earlier, but I still didn’t have a great understanding of why I had taken this new job in progressive religion.

I knew the answer wasn’t simple. My journey was different, my story hidden from view.

I spent six months in a crisis of faith, wandering a spiritual desert, searching for my own story and calling. I gained a structure and practice in a class with storytelling and organizing guru Marshall Ganz. Ganz’s course brought together nearly 100 organizers from all walks of life and from all over the world in a combination of offline and online formats to learn his method of community organizing and public narrative.

I found myself groaning as I tried telling stories that fit like an itchy sweater, too snug and uncomfortable. And I remember being angry when I over-simplified a difficult story that made hard experiences appear effortless and uncomplicated. I ended up discussing this journey in counseling, which gave me safe space to wrestle with the hard stories that surfaced and challenged me to open up wounded parts of my spirit.

What I learned is that telling a story about oneself is both delicate and dangerous. It involves navigating a minefield of hurts and pain, while trying to find a balance between half-truths we tell to keep our sanity and the undeniable truths that turn us into a blubbering mess. It isn’t easy work to find the balance. Too many of us also tell old stories half-heartedly when it’s time to throw a new log on the fire. Sometimes we shy away from telling the hard parts because we fear being vulnerable. Yet the strongest stories and deepest power can come from these tender points.

I’ve also realized personally, and learned in watching many others, that discovering how to tell stories from our divine spark can root us in our deepest calling — building a bridge between passion and reality — modeling for others what it means to be vulnerable and opening the door for their vulnerability, too.

It is through the discovery and the telling of these stories that we can heal the wounding perpetrated by the world upon each of our souls. This healing, this tikkun, can allow us to find justice and peace within our own bodies — which provides firm ground then to engage with a world that continues to be broken and needs its own tikkun.

The organizers and change-makers that I admire most are masterful and radical practitioners of the art of storytelling. They unlock power hidden within themselves and help others do the same. They don’t let anyone turn their stories into simplistic commodities, instead using stories of deep truth and real pain to offer needed critiques of injustice.

I still struggle with my own story and will for the rest of my life. I’m also answering a call to help others tell their own stories because of my struggle locating my own story. As I’ve begun teaching storytelling to faith-rooted activists, I realize there is no better way to find the divine in each of us and forge relationships on which we can build strong communities and powerful movements.

Questions for further reflection:

What does it feel like to tell your story to a friend? At work? When is it that you tell the greatest, deepest truth of your story? Are there elements of that truth that you want to further elevate in your professional conversations?

 Isaac Luria is an educator, trainer, and activist at Auburn Seminary, where he teaches strategic faith-rooted storytelling, organizing in a modern age, and speaking prophetically in the media. As Vice President for Auburn Action, Isaac also organizes with Auburn’s Groundswell network, a digital faith-rooted social action community of 100,000 people of faith advocating for social change, and is a Media Fellow at the New World Foundation.  Married to a rabbi, Isaac lives in Brooklyn with his two young children, Caleb and Eva. Email Isaac at Iluria@auburnseminary.org to set up a training or share your views on storytelling for social change.