Oscar Romero said that the testimonies of the poor informed us of the way the world really worked. The Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger understood this principle. His biography relates how he was generally suspicious of official briefings by government and military spokespeople. He got his stories by going out to rural communities and entering urban slums. He had a simple question: What is going on here? He tried to report those stories back home.
We know the power of stories. In Seed Falling on Good Soil, I drew on the socio-narratology theory of Arthur Frank. Frank believes that stories have life. Each of us is a has an inner library of stories that shapes our moral decisions and life directions. Narrative ambush happens when a story breaks through our resistance and introduces new ways of understanding the world and our lives.
International humanitarian workers tell stories in Canada and the USA about people in their program areas. These stories open insights into the way the world works and the ways that God works in a broken world. A few years ago, I was moved when Don Peters, Executive Director of the Mennonite Central Committee, told us of the unexpected hospitality of a Palestinian family in Jerusalem. The conversation in their home opened a new perspective on the challenges faced by Palestinians that want justice without violence. A few weeks ago my heart was stirred by a story told by Joanne Beach of the Alliance Church. She had visited a savings and loan program for women in Kenya. We heard more than a promotional piece for the program. One of the women had shared about the violence and limited possibilities faced by many women in Kenya. We live by stories. They shape our understanding and attitudes.
Congregations can use stories from the borderlands in three ways:
The first way is in our speaking, preaching, and writing. Do we tell stories from the underside to help congregants to enter into the spaces of people that face unemployment, hunger, violence, mental health issues, and the loss of human dignity? Narratives from the borderlands enable us to develop a prophetic critique and a more vibrant prayer life.
A second way is to feature speakers from the borderlands within our countries and from the Global South. Carlos Cardoza Orlandi is a missiologist at Perkins School of Theology. He once conducted research into the way a US denomination had used foreign visitors in their Sunday morning services. He found that some were introduced, brought greetings, or spoke to a church group. Very few were given the opportunity to bring the morning message from the pulpit. What a waste! Sisters and brothers from the borderlands often have a prophetic voice developed from years of suffering. The stories of their lives and their people often have a prophetic quality.
The third way is to learn from borderland stories is for Americans and Canadians to travel on so-called “short term mission trips.” These trips have a greater impact on those who travel than on the country and churches that they visit. Participants are allowed to listen carefully and attentively to the stories of borderland people. They are privileged to worship with them in their churches. Research shows that the greatest impact of these kind of trips happens in the first two weeks after returning home.
About fifteen years ago a group of Canadian Baptist pastors sat in a circle with campesino farmers in El Salvador. One of the farmers explained how the war in Iraq would divert American attention and create a democratic space in Latin America. We listened to political theory, the nature of Christian solidarity, the vulnerability of farmers with small landholdings, and the role of a local church. Many of us are still talking about the impact of that trip and the stories we heard.
I believe that the renewal of our congregations may come through prophetic stories of courage and faith from the borderlands.