The power of story

She hesitantly and a bit awkwardly began her story, sitting among a group of about 20 people, a handful of whom she knew well, the others she had just met for the first time. This young college student was at this diverse group – a brunch at my home – because she and all of the others present had some connection to Ireland. For some, it was their Irish heritage, some had studied in Ireland, while others were anticipating studies in Ireland in the future. It was the week of St. Paul’s Irish Fair and we had come together to visit with Dr. Tim Campbell, director of the St. Patrick Interpretive Centre in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

The group was having a lively discussion about cross-cultural interactions and experiences and of how best to take groups of students from one country to another. Participants raised a number of questions: Are these kinds of cross-cultural experiences more about the communities that host students or about the students that visit? What are the kinds of experiences to offer to students? What do you want students to learn? What are the most effective ways to help students consider the ways their own culture shapes how they interact in the world? Mindy began to share her story in response to the latter question.

It was Mindy’s conviction that one helps students learn about their own context by exposing them – no really immersing them – in another context, intensely looking at the conflicts, injustices, and inequities in the other. Those kinds of experiences then become a mirror within in which to reflect and see one’s own conflicts, injustices and inequities. She talked of growing up in a sheltered middle-class suburban home, unaware of how that protected environment had prepared her for living in the world and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that values had been bred into her. Mindy came to the Christian liberal arts university where I teach in the fall of 2009. She talked about her trip to the Republic of Ireland and to Northern Ireland in the fall of 2011 and how it had begun to open her eyes, not just to the history and horrors of sectarian hatred and violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, but how that trip helped her see the divisions around her and even within. When she returned from Northern Ireland and back to school, she began to take even bigger steps to learn about the injustices in her own backyard. She moved into an economically deprived urban neighborhood in St. Paul and for the past eighteen months has been living in community with students and residents from the neighborhood. Living in Frogtown has opened wide the windows into the world of oppression and injustice in our own society. She gave the group much to think about, but one comment in particular was chilling in its honesty. As Mindy shared how she had been transformed by her experiences of living in Frogtown, she shared how living in community with others from the neighborhood had forced her to look deeply at the values she held, some so deeply imbedded that she acted upon them without even being aware of them. Growing up in her sheltered and cloistered suburban context, she had learned that black men were dangerous, they only wanted to harm you and should be avoided at all times. Her realization that she held that belief was shocking and revealing and stood in great contrast to the black men she has grown to know and love in her new community. In her estimation, she would not have come to that understanding about herself, nor been given the gift of reconciliation in her neighborhood without having had the initial journey of immersion in the culture of conflict in Northern Ireland. Mindy’s story and her willingness to share it with friends and others clearly articulates the need for the experiential in teaching and ministry. It also testifies to the power of story. But the story doesn’t end there.

Later that afternoon my neighbor and I were cleaning up after the brunch and talking about the highlights of the morning. She brought the conversation back to Mindy’s story. “Here I am,” she noted, “twice the age of Mindy and it wasn’t until I heard her story, that I realized that I have lived with that same assumption about black men.” She went on to share that all her life she had steered clear of black men, was always suspicious of them, feared what they would do to her if given the opportunity, but those thoughts and feelings were always simmering underneath the surface and it was only when Mindy shared her story that she saw things clearly. And, while she was glad to have had that “ah ha” moment, the tragedy for her was the realization that if that was hers and Mindy’s story, it was also probably the story for thousands, if not millions of others. “I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be a black man in America – to live in a society where you are always under suspicion just because of the color of your skin.” For too many black men it doesn’t take imagination, it is their lived reality.