Blogger Laura Kline is the Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University and serves on the NCMA CoordinatingCoordinating Committee Committee. This blog post talks about the value of storytelling in campus ministry.
I don’t remember when I first heard an episode of The Moth podcast, but it was love at first listen! For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, The Moth shares “thousands of true stories, told live and without notes, to standing-room-only crowds worldwide.” Stories range from the horrific (a refugee recalling their flight from war-torn homeland alone as a child because their parents prioritized the child’s safety over their own) to the very mundane (a forgotten grocery delivery service cart causing embarrassment when a single apple is delivered). There’s something very voyeuristic and fascinating listening to intimate details about complete strangers’ lives. At the same time, it can also be affirming to hear our own struggles, mistakes, heartbreaks, and successes echoed in the lives of others. Those common threads unite us, binding us closer together in a time when our society and media outlets scream constantly about all the ways in which we are divided.
Storytelling is a quintessential human practice, which has been used since the dawn of time. Across national borders, in every language and culture, we find stories in our homes, in our schools, on our televisions, and in our houses of worship. As Campus Ministers, many of us were raised on these religious stories. In fact, every major religion utilizes storytelling to help followers understand where we came from, who made us, and how that Maker wants us to live. Our religious stories may be historical retellings of prophets and their teachings or imagined parables meant to help us better understand the unknowable nature of God and God’s Kingdom. And throughout the ages, these stories continue to move us, inspire us, and teach us.
Incorporating storytelling into our ministry, then, seems like an obvious move. In fact, as I began looking around, there are a number of churches already implementing part-time or full-time staff in storytelling ministry. Many of these look like coordinating witness testimonials and/or social media campaigns in congregational settings. Additionally, any good preacher could school us all in the use of storytelling as a means to lead and teach congregants. And so we find many natural extensions into the ministry we do on college campuses, of which I’d like to share just a few.
Our trifold mission statement in Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University is committed to creating opportunities for students to encounter God, their true self, and others. In this encounter of others, we hope to build and strengthen faith communities and a larger sense of Bellarmine community. Again, there are so many things that divide us – from denominations or political affiliations to race and sexuality – that when we can focus in on that which connects us, that shared humanity, we are reminded of the Thomas Merton quote, “we are already one, but we imagine we are not…” One such program we implemented at Bellarmine is the Everyone Has a Story monthly evening of storytelling. Each month, we select a theme – home, fear, love, destiny, etc. – and invite students, faculty, staff, and occasional community members to share their personal stories around the given theme. Faith is always an underlying motif, which sometimes is brought to the forefront of a given story, other times left less explicitly-stated. Following the 3-4 stories for the evening, a facilitator begins a Q&A discussion with the group, including storytellers and attendees, and will often try to zero in on where God or faith was present in the story. We also ask attendees to reflect on how they saw themselves reflected in the story or what it spoke to within them. In other words, how do our stories connect us, one to another? It has been an intimate program and one that often ends in tears and hugs all around. This is the ministry of encounter!
Another aspect of our mission of encounter is to encourage authentic engagement with the ways in which many of us orient around religion differently. I am of a mind that I cannot be firm in my own faith until I have been exposed to worldviews different from my own, challenged to critically evaluate that which I was taught as a child, and either embrace or move away from those teachings into a more adult understanding of and commitment to my own faith. We have explored a couple ways for students, faculty, staff, and members of the larger Louisville community to share stories of their faith beliefs and what that looks like in personal practice. Two worth mentioning are "speed-faithing" and Human Library events. While neither of these are original programming, we have found their implementation to be beneficial in broadening students’ worldviews through exposure in a way that feels both personal and authentic. In speed-faithing, which we have done with Res Life and other staff trainings, students pair up with a peer for quick 2-minute speed-dating-esque conversations with each other about values and topics with some spiritual depth. What happens is that students report having conversations with their peers that are more substantive than the topics usually broached with each other in day-to-day conversation, many times for fear of offending or disagreeing with each other. All speed-faithing is, at its core, is storytelling in a Q&A format that draws from the students’ own experiences and belief systems: Who is a faith leader that inspires you? How do you recharge spiritually? Does your current worldview match the one in which you were raised? At our Human Library event, which we presented for first-year students during their week of welcome activities in August, human “books” were able to be “checked out” by small groups of first-year students, whereupon they told the story of their own particular worldview. For our event, the books had a short time limit so that the students got the opportunity to hear from at least three different books. Titles of our books included: From Trinitarian to Unitarian, Syro-Malabar, and Bi-Religious Baha’i. Even books reflecting similar worldviews presented very different lived experiences (ie: two cradle Catholic male-identifying students had very different faith experiences as out-gay/straight men – both still finding beauty and truth in their shared tradition in different ways!) Again, what resulted was a desire by students to know more about each other and about religions or spiritual practices different from their own. The point of these activities is not to persuade or evangelize each other, but to grow in our understanding of and respect for the variety of thought and practice, recognizing that we all find meaning and connection to the Divine in different ways. Again, these events have led to the creation and deepening of relationships between students and others in our community, helped students in crystalizing and naming their own values and beliefs, and opened the door to further panel seminars on interfaith topics due to growing student interest.
These are just a few of the ways that we have utilized storytelling on our campus to promote the mission of Campus Ministry and provide opportunities for spiritual growth for all of our students. Our stories, afterall, do more than simply inform us; they can take us on a journey. Done well, a good story can make us FEEL the experience of another person and force us to adjust our own experiences accordingly to make room for new understanding, spiritual stretching and growth.
So, as we say to our students here, Everyone has a story, what’s yours?