Churches need to do the work of welcoming others and their stories
Languages carry stories. Oral Indigenous societies pass family and cultural stories down generation to generation to preserve culture. To be able to hear one of our Potawatomi stories in Potawatomi is an absolute honor, because it connects me back to who we once were and who we still are today. Even though colonization has taken so much from us, telling our creation narrative or our winter stories, even in English, still means something. Telling our experiences, like I’m expressing my experiences to you in this book, is a sacred kind of work, and as we pass our stories and experiences down to our children, we are changing our children, changing ourselves, and changing the world.
In 2017 I hosted an event in our city focused on the conversation surrounding Indigenous people and the events that unfolded in Standing Rock, North Dakota. The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally set to go through Bismarck, North Dakota, a predominantly white city, but it was rerouted to go through an area near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, so that it impacted Indigenous peoples and their water supply. In response, Indigenous peoples and their allies gathered from all over the world to fight against a pipeline that would poison the water in Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. The event was created to give voice to Indigenous peoples and allies who went to Standing Rock to show support to water protectors, and as someone who did not go to Standing Rock, I wanted to listen, engage, and learn for myself. As the event drew closer, many of the people who were going to share were unable to come, so there were only a few of us left. I decided to open up the microphone to anyone attending and make it a public storytelling event. My friend Jonathan from the Navajo Nation stepped up to the microphone. He reminded us that we belong to each other, that we must stick together and have honest conversations for the sake of a better future. I deeply felt every word, remembering how much language and expression matter, how important it is that we speak to each other in peace and with honesty, especially when we are so divided around so many things. Can you imagine if all over the country we hosted storytelling events, inviting people to step up to a microphone? Yes, it could go wrong, but it could also go so right when people are given space to lead with vulnerability and humility. People could tell their stories of surviving trauma, their stories of beating cancer or still fighting against it. Others might tell about what it’s like to be a queer woman of color in America or a Sikh man in America who battles hate crimes against his community daily. Still others might talk about what it’s like to be lonely or in love or both. You see, our human expressions, no matter how varied, still bring us together in ways that we cannot always understand, and language is the force that guides us.
One of the church’s biggest blind spots is ignoring the stories of those on the outside. We hide behind dogma and theology instead of leaning into our humanity to connect with one another or to the land. But when we stop to look out a window and see what is happening outside, or when we step outside the door of our home to breathe the fresh, cold air, we are taking in the stories of the earth. As Anishinaabe author Richard Wagamese writes, “When you break the connection that binds you to money, time, obligations, expectations and concerns, the land enters you. It transports you.” And when we step back into those spaces again, those spaces filled with noise, we have stories to tell. I find that when I go outside to listen to the language that only the land speaks, she sends me back with poetry. She sends me back with a connectedness to both her soul and mine that can be expressed only in words that have rhythm and movement and life to them.
When the wind blows, we imagine she is erasing every injustice,
sweeping misdoings from the east to the west,
making room for something new, a more whole world.
Instead, what we don’t realize is that she is rustling the tree branches
to sing us a song.
Instead, she is sowing seeds across the landscapes,
seeds that tomorrow will become the beauty that restores us.
Instead, she is whispering for us to hold on, to keep going,
to water those seeds, because one day, they will show us the way home.
Poetry is life to us and to those around us. Throughout time, our poets are often our prophets, the ones who dance and sing and write, expressing things we did not know were stirring inside us for years. Our poets, our storytellers, are the bridge between the languages of the earth and our spoken languages, between the stories of the earth and our stories. May we all learn what it means to be poets who step outside and back inside, made new, sacred language flowing from our lips to and for one another.
We live in an era in which we are beginning to dig deeper into questions of how we got here. We are asking why there is so much injustice, why so many of our police are corrupt, why Black men can’t kneel during the national anthem, and why a holiday called Columbus Day is offensive. Language creates cultures, cultures create nations, and leaders of nations tend to write history, and we must ask what our language evokes, whether we are using it for good or for evil.
We live in a time when Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color are speaking up, sharing our stories, redefining what it means to be alive in America — but let’s acknowledge that many of these people have been speaking up for a long time and are only now being heard, if heard at all.
Thanksgiving 2018 was a really difficult time for me. Native American Heritage Month happens in November, so while we are celebrating that we are still here, we are bombarded with Thanksgiving myths and people asking us for all the resources they should have been asking about any other month of the year. Kind, well-intentioned parents message me asking for book lists to read to their children, churches email me asking for Thanksgiving reflections that don’t center celebration of Pilgrims or sometimes even inviting me to preach, unpaid, on a topic that is really difficult for me, and I struggle to find the right language to express my exhaustion.
In 2018, when my inboxes were full of these messages, I finally went to my social media accounts and made an announcement asking people to stop messaging me, to do the work themselves, and to stop expecting Indigenous peoples to give more than we already give every day of the year, especially at Thanksgiving. It is a time of confusion and mourning, and I honestly don’t have anything left to give others in that space. Non-Native people responded, held me up, thanked me for speaking, and some of my white friends apologized. One friend sent me a gift a few months later, with a note of both thanks and apology, a bag of coffee mailed with it. I drank that coffee and thought of my friend every day, thought of the kind of ally she wants to become. We all make mistakes in these conversations, and we have to be willing to step beyond our fear of saying the wrong thing to ask hard questions and have honest conversations about where we go from here. My non-Native friends have to understand that the myths told at Thanksgiving only continue the toxic stereotypes and hateful language that has always been spewed at us, and they have to do the work to educate themselves about a better way. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker wrote a book on this topic called “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans. In the introduction, they write, “For five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.”
Indigenous peoples cannot fight against these mistruths alone. Conversations about replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day shouldn’t be happening just once every year or just within circles of Native people. It should be discussed in city planning meetings, and our street signs should be renamed if they carry traumatic names or celebrate the people who committed atrocities throughout history, because language is about the fabric of a place, what we create, how we explain who we are, who God is, and what the responsibility of those in power must be. To be a place of “we the people,” we have to be a place that is truly for all people, and how do we do this if we don’t talk about the stolen land that America rests on? How do we do this if we don’t talk about Confederate monuments and schools named after racists? The answer is with all of us; to tell the truth is to give language to experiences that are often ignored by society.
From the book “Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God” (Brazos Press, 2020), by Kaitlin Curtice. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Joe Richman wouldn’t want to document his life for a year with an audio recorder, but that doesn’t stop him from asking others to.
As the founder of Radio Diaries, he has asked dozens of individuals ranging from prison inmates and judges to nursing home residents and adolescents with Tourette syndrome to keep audio journals of their lives for up to a year.
With Richman’s guidance, they have recorded daily musings, interviewed people they know, and captured the sounds of their everyday lives. And Richman has edited the raw audio to make radio documentaries for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
“My natural tendency is to hide a little bit behind the tape,” said Richman, who worked for the NPR programs “All Things Considered,” “Weekend Edition Saturday,” “Car Talk” and “Heat” before founding Radio Diaries more than 15 years ago. “I’ve always done pieces that emphasize the tape and the characters and the stories. The mission is to get people to speak in their own words and to tell their own stories.”
Radio Diaries also produces more traditional radio documentaries that interweave historical recordings with present-day interviews. Among its productions are “The WASPs: Women Pilots of WWII”, “Strange Fruit: Voices of a Lynching”, and “Becoming Nelson Mandela.”
Richman spoke with Faith & Leadership about how to tell stories, how to draw out other people’s stories, and the role that storytelling can play in institutions. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why radio documentaries? What do they offer that you don’t get in print or in film or on television?
Radio is such a medium of characters. We really hear people in a way that I think can be truer than the way we read about them or the way we see them on television or film. The voices tell a lot, and there is a lot between the lines.
It has been said that radio is an intimate medium. In good radio storytelling, you can get to know people in a way that feels sometimes deeper than in any other medium.
It doesn’t mean it always happens, but there’s an opportunity for that. There is something about the magic of the real power of radio that can really transport you into people’s lives.
Q: You have produced radio diaries involving teenagers and the elderly. What have you learned about the different ways younger people and older people tell their stories?
One of the great things about teenagers is that they feel like whatever they say, it’s important. Once you start doing the stories with grown-ups, they don’t always feel that way. What about my life is worth broadcasting to 12 million people?
We did a diary in a retirement home years ago, and that was really interesting. Some of the elderly there had done very remarkable things and certainly led interesting lives, but they said, “Why would anyone want to hear my story?” You don’t have that problem with teenagers for the most part.
Q: How do you get people comfortable enough to share their stories?
It’s not really about getting people to feel comfortable; it’s more about getting people to feel like there’s a reason to share their stories.
Q: Why should they share their stories?
I find there are different reasons. For Laura [who had cystic fibrosis and was 21 years old when she recorded her life for “My So-Called Lungs”], she wanted to live on. She knew she was going to die at some point, and she wanted her memory to live on.
For Thembi [a 19-year-old in South Africa with AIDS who recorded her life for a year for “Thembi’s AIDS Diary”], I think her interest was the stigma inside Africa about AIDS. She was young and beautiful, and when she would tell people that she was HIV positive, their jaws would drop, because they had these stereotypical images. And no young people were talking out about AIDS, so for her it became a political issue.
For others, it may just be about sharing their personal story. Every story is different, but when people feel like their story is being treated respectfully and with dignity, I think all of us want to share our stories.
Q: You have said that you have developed a radar for detecting authentic and real stories. How does someone go about developing that radar?
I think that radar comes from knowing the people. When I go out and do a quick interview with others, it’s a lot harder to tell what is really them versus if I’m following someone for more than a year and I have 40 hours of tape.
I can also tell because so much of it is between the lines. It’s not just the words they say. It’s how they say it. It’s what they don’t say. It’s the pauses. The information between the lines — that stuff is really important. It’s the emotional truth, and sometimes it’s hard to pick up on that or get a feel for where that lies unless you have enough time and enough tape.
Q: For many of the documentaries you produce, you hand a recorder over to someone and ask that person to record his or her life for six months or a year. Why this approach? Why not just interview the person or follow him around for an extended period?
There’s something so intimate about radio. When you can cut out that middleman — me or the reporter or the host — and have someone like Thembi or Laura talk directly with the listener, it puts them in the passenger seat.
Someone is stuck in traffic driving home from work, and all of a sudden they are hearing this young girl from South Africa with AIDS. They’re not hearing me tell them about her. They’re hearing her, and there is something so much more direct about that. It’s about getting people to know people that they don’t know.
Q: Why is that important?
There is something incredible about being able to listen to and experience other people’s stories. It’s like having this passport into other people’s lives that you wouldn’t otherwise even meet. There’s no more important thing you can do than to get other people’s stories.
What is that quote? “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.” Fear and hate and misunderstanding all come from not seeing people as real human beings. Stories help to make people three-dimensional.
Q: How do you draw out other people’s stories?
You have to be curious. Without a doubt, though, the most important thing when you’re interviewing someone is to make it a conversation so it’s not just questions and answers, but it’s a dialogue. When people feel like it is a conversation, they feel like they are being listened to.
Q: What are the keys to being a good storyteller?
There are different kinds of good storytellers. When I first started doing diaries 15 years ago, I thought I had a pretty good idea of who was a good diarist and who wasn’t. As the years have gone by, I have less and less of a good idea who’s a good diarist and who isn’t, because it’s not necessarily just the funny, extroverted good talkers. They are one kind, but then there are also the ones who are quiet, intimate, and they draw you in and make you lean closer to them.
Everyone is good at different things. Some are good at recording sounds and scenes. Some are good at interviewing people. Some are good at telling a story with all the details and color and anecdotes. And some are good at sitting on their beds late at night, reflecting on their lives or the world.
Partly my job is about getting people to play to their strengths and pushing them with the things they’re not as good at and not as comfortable doing. But mostly — about what makes a good storyteller — it’s about honesty and curiosity.
Q: What should people in leadership positions keep in mind about storytelling?
Everything is about stories. It’s the way we communicate and the way people receive information. So whether it’s radio storytelling or any kind of storytelling, the stories we tell about ourselves are important, too. We’re so used to the stories of celebrities and politicians, but it’s really important to make sure to hear the stories of ordinary people.
Q: What role should storytelling play in institutions like the church?
The act of interviewing people and having people share their stories — you can’t lose. It’s a valuable thing, whether it’s through a microphone or a pen or a video camera. Just the act of someone listening and paying attention — having your story heard and respected and paid attention to — is a powerful thing, both for the storyteller and for the listener.