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A STORY-LINKING PROCESS
The roots of trees spread out in many directions—seeking always seeking the ground of existence for themselves.... They [are] on the hunt—for life.
—Howard Thurman Disciplines of the Spirit
On many occasions, I have invited groups into a story-linking process by sharing a personal story. One of those times came shortly after a chain of events that brought unfathomable responsibilities and challenges to our family. I shared with the group that the sequence of our story began with the ring of the telephone and a message that was simply: "Mom and Pop [my husband's parents] can no longer stay alone in their home. Their health is such that someone in the family must assure a place of care for them, and a decision must be made soon."
I continued: "After much discussion with our parents and siblings as well as exploration of potential care giving locations, preparations were made for Mom and Pop to come to live with their son and me. Our parents were in their eighties and understandably wary of relinquishing their own place of independent living. Our concerns centered on whether we would be able to help ease their movement from a known past to an unanticipated present and a future of failing health. We worried about finding appropriate in-home supports needed during our work hours. Our question to ourselves also became: 'Will we be able to meet the challenge of moving from the point where we were in our lives to the realities of the present and into an unknown future?' After our parents had been with us for a while, the poignancy of the question deepened when my husband was rushed into open-heart surgery, and my brother underwent heart bypass surgery the same day. This situation was followed a few months later by another brother's kidney transplant surgery and the diagnosis of cancer received by my husband's brother."
What 1 wanted the group to know was that at points such as these, really, the questions surface powerfully: "Why is this happening? How do we move through the raging 'storms' on this journey called life? What makes possible our movement from one point to another in the midst of the storm?" Then, I simply asked the group members to choose a partner and share a time in their lives when they asked similar questions.
Even though the group engaged in a lengthy time of sharing, there was the need to continue on. My invitation was to do so by reflecting on the Scripture passage found in the Gospel of Mark, 4:35-41:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
I invited the entire group, first, to hear the biblical story and as they listened, to place themselves in the unfolding scenes. I then asked the partners to read the story to each other while the listening partner placed his- or herself inside the story. This second reading was followed by a dramatization of the story by group members. The third reading was silent and undertaken individually, for the purpose of discerning meanings of the story for our own experiences of the "storms" of life and insights for answering the questions raised in those "storms." An exchange of insights by partners followed this final reading.
A period for whole-group "talk back" resulted in persons' sharing that there are, in fact, times when as Christians, we experience a "sleeping Jesus," but that we need not liken this state with an absent Jesus. My response and that of several other group members was about the times when we felt an inexplicable "presence" that made possible our movement, though slowly, from one point in our lives to another. Others added that Jesus sometimes "stilled their storms" in miraculous ways, but most often came "with skin on" through friends, neighbors, or pastors who were present on the scene, prayed, helped, and in their actions "stilled the storm." Still others spoke of their experience of simply waiting on the Lord and being of good courage, as the song says, and of knowing deep down inside that Jesus is present and "God didn't bring us this far to leave us," as another song makes clear. There were also those who requested prayer for a way through a present "storm."
I continued by sharing with the group that during the difficult circumstances in my family's life, 1 remembered the story told to me by my parents of one of Harriet Tubman's harrowing trips with several black forebears on the way from slavery to freedom through the Underground Railway. The story that had been handed down to them was that during the trip, the freedom seekers encountered rain, sleet, hail, wind, and cold. Their clothes were tattered and soaked. The soles of their feet gradually took the place of the disappearing soles of their shoes. They ran out of rations. Hunger overtook them. Several in the party sat down on the ground and said to Harriet that they simply could not go on through the storm.
Harriet, who became known as the Moses of our people, looked down at them and said quietly but firmly, "Get up and move," knowing that if they did not do so, they would be found and likely beaten or killed, and the way ahead would be discovered. When they remained seated and cried out their inability to go on, Harriet replied with a bit firmer tone, "Get up and move." Following the continued protestations of those seated on the ground, Harriet reached into her cloak, pulled out a gun, pointed it at the protesters, and said resolutely, "Move or die!" They moved!
In follow-up to both the Bible story and the story about Harriet Tubman, my question to the group was: "What do these stories say to us in our stories of moving from one point to another in our lives in the midst of the storms of adversity?" One of the most powerful statements given by a group member was that "to give up on ourselves and on life is tantamount to pronouncing our own death. We don't see a way out. So, our boat sinks and we drown. Sometimes that happens. Another way to put it is that we don't need Harriet's gun pointed at us. In essence, we point it at ourselves and sometimes 'shoot ourselves in the foot,' meaning we stop ourselves in our tracks and don't get anywhere. But, we must not allow ourselves to do this. We must and we can get up and move! I do it by calling on the name of the Lord daily, knowing that I'm going to get an answer and strength to help others to move. One of the clear messages I got was to become a mentor for young men in my community so they won't get stopped in their tracks. 1 guess you would say I got called to make a difference."
This response provided an important opening to my closing invitation to the group members to decide on ways of continuing to get up and move.
Envisioning the Process
My approach to story-linking, which I just shared, is not new. My parents used it in our family story times. It was used in the church of my childhood. And, in my travels to Africa, I discovered it continues to be a commonly used process. Yet, although story-linking has cultural roots, it is not always incorporated to any great extent in contemporary African American Christian education contexts. My point in this book is that a vital Christian education for liberating wisdom and hope-building vocation is one that offers a process that has at its center our lived stories. That is, the starting point of Christian education for liberating wisdom and hope-building vocation should be the everyday life stories we face. Such a process should make possible our arriving at insights, discerning choices, and making ethical decisions—wise decisions about what is right to do to promote and sustain liberation for ourselves and others. The process should also enable us to arrive at insights, discern choices, and make the kinds of ethical decisions that lead to our involvement in vocation that centers on and brings a sense of hope in what often seems to be hopeless life situations.
A process that enables these actions is one that links us to the Story of God and the good news of Jesus Christ told in Scripture. A vital Christian education must be forthright in asking the questions: What is it that the Christian story in Scripture has to offer? How may Scripture inform our choices and decisions as African Americans about what is right to do to bring about liberating wisdom that leads to liberation and the enactment of authentic and hope-building Christian vocation? To address these questions is to respond to our deepest needs for God's presence and direction in our liberation and vocational quest. By choosing and entering Bible stories/texts that reveal the hardships and sufferings of an earlier people and God's activity in the midst of anguish, we are enabled to envision God's presence and activity now. We are enabled to envision ourselves, as did those in earlier times, in an unfolding story that is undertaken on faith and in faith and in faithful, hopeful cooperation with God's direction.
The intent of Christian education for liberating wisdom that leads to liberation and hope-building vocation is to place us in touch with our African American forebears' faith and their experience of God's action in their liberating wisdom and hope-building vocation. Linking with our forebears' story helps to inspire us and to foster our commitment to continue on the Christian faith walk. This linkage also promotes our openness and expectation to be continually formed and informed by the Story of God and the good news of Jesus Christ.
Of particular importance are exemplars from the African American heritage who struggled with and overcame tremendous blocks to liberation and who engaged in the kind of ethical decision making that led them into hope-filled vocation. Also, of particular importance are predecessors who interpreted and acted on difficult and oppressive life issues by identifying with stories/texts found in Scripture. Our intent is to see as applicable to ourselves what it meant for them to place their lives in dialogue with Bible stories/texts. We want to see how they made a connection between life hoped for and life valuable enough to continue striving for, and what this means for us today.
In short, in Christian education from an African American perspective, three primary stories are integral parts of the story-linking process: (1) the stories of our everyday lives, (2) the story of God and the good news of Jesus Christ in Scripture, and (3) postbiblical Christian faith heritage stories, particularly those from the African American Christian faith heritage. The task is to engage African Americans in story-linking in ways that help us reflect critically on our particular life stories in light of the Christian faith story. A second task is to guide us as African Americans toward envisioning and deciding actions that hold promise for our forming liberating wisdom that moves us toward liberation and hopebuilding vocation in the midst of our particular life situations.
The intent in the remainder of this chapter will be to give some direction on how story-linking may be included in Christian education contexts. Attention will be given to a definition of story-linking, the process for story-linking, a process summary, and the importance of compassionate listening.
A Definition of Story-Linking
A definition of story-linking builds on the three primary stories identified above. Specifically, story-linking is a process whereby we connect parts of our everyday stories with the Christian faith story in the Bible and the lives of exemplars of the Christian faith outside the Bible. In this process, we link with Bible stories by using them as mirrors through which we reflect critically on the liberation we have already found or are still seeking, as well as glean wisdom that guides our ongoing liberation efforts. We also link with our Christian faith heritage by learning about exemplars who chose a hope-building way of living based on the liberating wisdom and understanding of vocation they found in Scripture. By linking with Christian faith heritage stories, we may be encouraged and inspired by predecessors who have faced the circumstances with which we readily identify.
The story-linking process can help us open ourselves to God's call to act in ways that are liberating for us and others and to decide how we will do this. It can also help us discern our vocation, formed and informed by the Christian story, as well as ways of accomplishing it.
Engaging the Story-Linking Process
Story-linking is comprised of four primary phases: (1) engaging the everyday story, (2) engaging the Christian faith story in the Bible, (3) engaging Christian faith stories from the African American heritage, and (4) engaging in Christian ethical decision making. Each of the four phases will be discussed in more detail in the following sections.
Phase One: Engaging the Everyday Story
We either consciously or unconsciously use our own personal stories as a lens through which we view what is being focused on in Christian education. We interpret the Bible, struggle with its meaning, and respond to God's word contained in it in light of the realities and demands of our everyday lives. We look at our lives in comparison to the lives of our predecessors and to the ways they lived the Christian story. By placing our stories up front, the intention is not to compromise the importance of the Christian faith story disclosed in the Bible. Rather, the intent is to acknowledge that Christian education leaders/teachers and participants already have an agenda when they come to Christian education. Our stories are the agenda we bring to our study of the Christian faith story in the Bible and our Christian faith heritage.
We may rightly ask: On what should the disclosure of everyday life stories of African Americans focus? The story of my family shared earlier focused on a series of life events. But, life events are by no means all that make up our everyday life stories. There are a number of key components of our lives that give shape to our everyday stories. I am proposing six broad, interrelated factors that contribute to our stories and that can have either facilitating or inhibiting effects on our liberation and vocation. A description of each of the six appears below. As you read each description, consider briefly your own story.
Our stories are shaped by who we perceive ourselves to be as we continue to relate with the world around us. This includes the personal and cultural identity that becomes ours at birth and about which we form perceptions as we go about our lives in our ethnic cultural context and the larger social context. Our self-identity is how we answer the question: Who am I?
Our stories are shaped by the social contexts in which we live and engage in the affairs of life. Where we live, work, and attend school and church; what these places look and feel like; and what larger society feels like are all parts of the social contexts that help to shape our stories. The quality of our social contexts is informed by the availability or nonavailability of needed resources, as well as by kinds and extent of opportunities to participate in them.
Our social contexts are also related to our self-identities. We see ourselves in certain ways in accordance with the qualities comprising our social contexts. We perceive ourselves as like or different from others on the basis of our social contexts. We may also feel ourselves valued or devalued by others on the basis of the social contexts in which we live out our lives.
Excerpted from Soul Stories by Anne E. Streaty Wimberly. Copyright © 1994 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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