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My Storytelling Ministry, Part I By: Marni Gillard

What I love about studying my religion for the first time since 8th grade is realizing what a STORY it is. I am, by profession, a storyteller. A story savorer. A myth wonderer. This is my life’s work. I was called to it as the prophets were called. I want to share how examining memories, the stories people tell me, and the stories of scripture and the saints’ lives has led me to storytelling as a ministry. Part of this ministry is inviting others to see their lives AS STORY. Part is teaching others how to tell faith stories. In Part II, I’ll explore more of how I’m becoming clearer at how God reveals God’s Self through Bible stories.

Every story is a gold mine waiting to be explored and mined for its gold. No person’s life is not a story. Nor is anyone’s life a bad story. Suffering through difficulties and savoring the sweetness of Life’s triumphs both lead us to the gold, if we are willing to mine for it. Our FAITH story – the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament joined to the gospels and writings we call the New Testament – these contain untold nuggets of gold as well. And those stories need mining as well. The Church’s history, containing the traditions it espouses, is yet another important story.

In this blog I’ll share some of what I’ve learned over decades working as a storyteller and new understandings about the nature of my story ministry. Finding the meaning(s) of any storytelling requires digging deep, as miners do,  for gold. My grandfather used to stand at the piano as my relatives took turns singing. He implored us, “Tell the story.” He wanted us to understand and feel the words we sang, so as to convey the meaning in them. From a young age I learned to examine poems and stories for meaning. Eventually I taught middle schoolers to find the stories they loved and ask themselves, “What meaning(s) does this story contain? Most stories contain layers of meaning. To discover multiple meanings over time a student or storyteller returns to them through study or retelling. Just as we might return to view a great painting or reread a powerful book, we learn more and more by returning to and re–examining stories by telling them. People sometimes think I’m like a therapist, helping them make sense of a moment in the past. I might do that, but I see myself as an artist, savoring the beauty of even a dark or troubling tale. I can help others see or shape a tale. And as I listen out a story, I watch for the gold threaded through it. But I try not to tell anyone what their story means. The meaning(s) will shine through for the teller with the support of authentic listening. My ministry includes listening to tales and sharing them. It also involves teaching others about the importance of deep listening. Every day I learn more how the memories we share change the people who hear our tales.

I didn’t feel guided to study my faith after I left Catholic education at age 13. I simply had experiences, all the while tending my relationship with God. I didn’t read the Bible or imagine that I should! But I knew Bible stories like the Tower of Babel, David and Goliath, the Annunciation, and the Finding of the Child in the Temple. Those and more were at work in me. When my Dad died suddenly in a car accident in 1964, the story of God never deserting those with faith kept me going. I felt sure God would care for my dad and my 5 siblings and mom, and God has. We didn’t talk about Dad much, however, and I was always hungry to hear anyone speak of him. My mother simply couldn’t. But she kept us connected to Church where God could work on us. At 16, just after Vatican II, during the Vietnam War, I was accepted as an exchange student to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. There, I attended mass with a Catholic whom my Muslim host family had found to take me. Hearing mass in English as the vernacular shocked me, but Kuala Lumpur, once colonized by the English, included a multicultural population who spoke English well. Chinese Christian friends excitedly took me to Billy Graham video nights. Several gave me copies of The Good News for Modern Man to share with friends when I returned home. My faith had deepened, but the big untold story of my dad’s death made it difficult to speak God’s story to anyone.

I believe now that God guided me through countless challenging experiences: my first bout of depression at 17,  my first marriage and the birth of a son, an early divorce, good therapy to help me share my tight-held grief. I turned to God through it all. A kind priest encouraged me to explore the annulment process, so I might examine what beliefs I’d brought to marrying and look closely at the story of what happened in my marriage. Ironically, I then met a wonderful ex-Catholic “burned” by being forced to attend what he considered the joyless experience of mass. He’s still not ready to worship in a building, but he finds God in the silence of Nature. I trust God’s way of working on him and with us as a couple. Years back, I attended my first Buddhist retreat, curious to hear a speaker whose writings I admired. I loved hearing the story of how Thich Nhat Hanh became deeply connected to the Buddha at a very young age. He felt called to be a monk as a boy. I think God led me to the Buddhists to learn about SILENCE (storytelling’s opposite). I experienced insights in the deep silence and dreamt wondrous images following that retreat. Grace, all of it. Experience, stories, and God – my teachers.

A long-time devout Catholic friend recently told me why she left the church. Celiac disease led her to receive rice communion hosts but the Church outlawed non-wheat hosts well before gluten-free hosts arrived. It was her last straw. Years earlier, while very active in the parish where she raised her children, she had been emotionally hurt by a priest. Somehow the communion host “betrayal” brought up that buried hurt, and she left, angry. As we talked, she told me of a modern church where she’s studying scripture along with books about the historical Jesus and other spiritual leaders from history. When I told her I was studying theology, she asked, “But you don’t still believe all that stuff about Jesus being GOD, do you? Sure, he was a great man and probably a prophet, but he wasn’t GOD.” I feel her long untold, unresolved STORY has shaken her faith to the extent that a community could talk her out of her belief in Christ. She seemed to feel foolish having believed in Him all her life, as if she’d been duped.

This is my friend’s story. It is powerful and important, containing layers of literal and sub-textual meaning. It’s not a bad story. I hope she might, in time, come to see it as the story of an experience. Then she might mine it for the gold she’ll find. I want to hear my friend’s story again. I will ask, gently, for it. Not finding fault or arguing -simply listening with respect. I regret that I tightened up when she said, “You don’t still believe… do you?” I made it, suddenly, my story. I felt hurt by her words and her tone. But God is guiding me as He did those prophets of old. I trust God and the faith I’ve seen in my friend over the years. It’s her story to tell, not mine. But for the sake of this discussion, I share it as story. Soup for our souls. I will continue to listen, and pray for her. We’re friends. And God’s got her.

Would you keep me in prayer as I explore this new ministry?

I’ll be back with Part II after a while.

Ministry Journey by Marian Brinker

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ—the last weekend to sign up for St. Kateri Ministries.  This means I will spend all of summer in procrastination.  Should I try something different?  Since arriving in Schenectady in 2004, I have been trying to find the “best place” for myself within a church community.  The first year was just finding the right parish.  My family and I stumbled upon the Rosa Road church when we missed Mass on Union Street.
Well, after that 2005 scheduling gaffe, we tell people we could never go back to a different parish.  Our then two and three year old children demanded “The Donut Church” each Sunday. The truth is less superficial, even though we do love donuts!  The people in our parish were so friendly and welcoming.  My first “ministry choice” was an invitation from the nice lady, who said, “Welcome to our parish” that first time we gorged on donuts after mass.  Yes, Sandy Solomon asked if I would help with the parish picnic. I did that first year, but alas it turned out the picnic is always held on the same weekend as an annual hockey tournament at Union College where my husband has to be non-stop present.  Although I love my kids, when Adam is AWOL for three straight days of relentless childcare, I’m the wrong person to help with the parish picnic. Instead, each year the parish picnic has provided me with a wonderful play date for my children in return for supplying baked goods for the event.
It seems I was also the wrong person for the Faith and Play Group.  By the time my kids were both in school full-time, I had only made one meeting—despite my sincere desire to attend more often.  Yes, the kids have fun with other kids at this group, but for me—at the time—making contact with other mothers when life is all about the endless curiosities and esoteric requests of toddlers—collecting worms after rainstorms, peeling hot dogs, dancing with the Wiggles, re-reading the same cardboard bound books over and over—well, contact with other mothers is a true godsend.  Mommies’ conversations should snap out of third person references to self at least once a week!  I’m just glad I attended the week when Helen Moon shared her pretzel recipe and pretzel samples.  Yum.  My own pretzel attempts were never as sumptuous.
Although it may seem food may be one area where I would delight in contributing, I probably didn’t bake as often as called for despite my appreciation for the Christian Service Outreach our parish partakes in.  That would involve planned preparation.  I’m better at showing up coincidentally, as oft has happened during the summer in Central Park.  There I’ve seen other parishioners passing out free lunches during the very week I thought myself too busy to schedule in the time.  My good intentions have caused me to buy several yellow cake mixes and chocolate frosting for SICM meals, but, I guess, a hockey game, piano lesson, or math homework that I have to re-learn before assisting my elementary student—well, the busy “mom schedule” did take precedent.  I either have the time to volunteer and don’t schedule myself in, or I think I have the time and I actually don’t.  Christian Service Outreach is a feat I’ve yet to achieve.
I was so proud of myself to spend a year attending Social Justice Committee meetings.  Sundays after mass was a “time that worked!”  That is, until my daughter started playing hockey at age five, causing Sundays to become ice rink day. My main accomplishment with this group was attending the SICM banquet where my ticket purchase in no way came close to supporting the mission as much as I was enriched hearing inspirational testimonies of “mission graduates” and receiving a cherished free mug that causes me to say a prayer for the mission every time it’s pulled from the kitchen cabinet.  I left the social justice group an utter failure at assistance, but definitely in admiration of the good people from our parish that pull through for Home Furnishings, our sister parish in Mexico, and in letter writing campaigns to enact legislation in accord with Christian values.
Despite my failures, news of my “lack of commitment” had not filtered through the ranks of our parish, as I was actually invited to serve on the Parish Council (a-hem, after my husband failed to step-forward; probably from fatigue for taking on nursery duty during Mass even though he had the expert assistance of Karen Quinn, Alison Allen, Cathy Rivera, or Matt Andrews.)  I’d like to brag that I attended nearly all the meetings—because I did—and hope that I made at least one suggestion or added one bit of encouragement regarding our merger process. There was a lot of “what if” anxieties that I sensed parishioners feeling about the merger, so I may have helped given them voice.  Yet, Deacon Dick, Council President Dan O’Connell, and then Eric Olson had it all under control without my input. The main benefit of belonging to this group was the security I felt knowing that within the remaining members, there were prayerful thoughts and efforts for parish growth and sustenance post-merger.
The one ministry that I cannot believe I have miraculously sustained is as first grade catechist.  At the start I was a victim of overconfidence and naivety. After all, I had taught eleven years in Catholic schools, and I was über-successfully raising a five and six year old child.  Then doubt crept in.  First, teaching junior high aged kids does not correlate to six year olds.  Secondly, raising two kids through the age you’ve volunteered to teach doesn’t make you an expert on teaching the age group.  So, during the summer prior to starting this “job,” first grade started seeming scary.  So I prayed fervently that Pat Policastro would find another adult to team-teach with me. The women I have taught with have been the best catalyst for my own spiritual reflection.  Both Carey Grisgas and Marlene Brownell helped me ponder, through email, telephone conversations, and after-class planning–the message of our lessons for the first graders and our own faith journey.   They and having a confirmation candidate earning service hours were also super helpful in taming six years olds who just sat through 8:30 mass and felt the urge to bounce off walls, especially with donuts filtering through their systems, before calming down to sit and learn.  I was especially lucky to get Katherine Quinn’s assistance beyond her service requirements.  It has been a pleasure watching this teen get to the point that she can take over the teaching!
Carey, Marlene, and I found concrete ways to illustrate the abstract teachings of our church to 1st graders.  We explained the Holy Spirit symbolically in a Dove mobile, or by blowing cotton balls across tables or bubbles into the air. We translated the Our Father into “real” language and a formula for all prayer. Yes, with all lessons we were able to reflect on our own faith.  But, it’s the kids’ “eureka” moments that put a permanent smile in my memory bank… and gave me the encouragement to do it again each year, (even by myself!) This past year was no different in feeling blessed.  I was impressed with Dominic’s explanation of the Holy Spirit.  “It’s that thing inside us (that we can’t see) but helps us make the right decisions.”  Of course, any “enthusiasm” exhibited could also bolster my confidence, as in watching Rebecca, Kirsten, Michael, and Thomas come up with more and more examples of “the right decisions” that are guided by the Holy Spirit because then they were able to blow more and more and more bubbles.  First graders can also become “fishers of men” when you give them a make-shift pole and some “construction paper” fish (with hints) to catch.  They’ll end the year during Easter—filling up on sugar cookie butterflies they get to frost as you discuss how Lent has transformed them from “caterpillars” into “butterflies.” And if you’re lucky you’ll hear one of them tell next year’s student that he is so lucky to get you as teacher… and your memory “forgets” the follow-up explanation: “You get to frost butterflies at the end of the year!”
You know, trying out ministries ends with you feeling like a first grade Faith Formation graduate: you remember all the sweet points. My experience trying out ministries has shown me that you always gain more than you have given.