The presenters and attendees came from a variety of faith backgrounds, cultural traditions and geographic locations. Some attended in person, others joined virtually. But all turned their attention to a fundamental form of human connection: telling stories.
With the theme, “Speak Up! Stories for a New Day,” the 2021 Perkins Fall Convocation brought together theology professors, authors, activists, performers, pastors and laypeople for two days of programming at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
Keynote speakers included Amy-Jill Levine, who is Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford Seminary and University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Emerita as well as Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University; Lillian Daniel, pastor and author of When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ is Not Enough; and Patrick B. Reyes, Chicano educator, administrator and institutional strategist.
The program opened with worship, with Alyce McKenzie, LeVan Professor of Preaching and Worship, offering a sermon, “The Oncoming Story,” centered on Luke 21:25-38. The passage urges the faithful to be alert for a dramatic oncoming event: ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.
“So how do you prepare for oncoming negative events?” she asked. “Have you ever perused the laminated map on the interior door of your hotel room that tells you [what to do] in case of fire? Have you ever actually removed a safety card from the seat pocket in front of you? Why bother to prepare for things that probably aren’t going to happen?
“But there is a dramatic oncoming event that is going to happen to everyone on the face on the earth… the coming of the Son of Man.”
As attendees embarked on a two-day program focused on storytelling, McKenzie urged: “Find and name your story of where and when the oncoming story of God’s victory over evil and despair and injustice is breaking into your story. Then gather your story up in your arms. Hold it to your heart. Lift your head and stand up. For your redemption is drawing near.”
The worship continued with brief testimonies by Perkins student Benjamin Chimwenga Simba, who shared his story of a dream that led to his call to accept Jesus and become a minister, and recent Perkins graduate Rosedanny Ortiz, who shared her story of prayers answered in her struggles with infertility.
In the opening plenary, “Learning to Ask the Right Questions: Stories by and about Jesus,” Amy-Jill Levine offered a look at the parables of Jesus.
“I can’t come up with better stories than the ones Jesus told,” she said. “I’m Jewish. I don’t worship Jesus. My heart is filled with my own Judaism. But my gosh, Jesus is smart. These stories work on me.”
She urged attendees to approach the parables as stories, not as moral lessons or allegories where the landowner or authority figure in the parable always represents God.
“Instead of beginning with, ‘What does this text mean?’ begin with ‘What does this text mean to me?’” she said. “What does this text do? Approach it like a painting or music. How does it make me feel? Does it make me feel consoled? Indicted? Challenged?’”
Levine cited the saying that ‘Religion is designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
“Parables do the afflicting,” she said. “Parables tell you stuff you know but don’t want to acknowledge.”
Lillian Daniel opened the Tuesday morning lineup with another plenary, “Spirituality without Stereotypes, Religion without Raging, Stories that Bridge the Divide.”
Daniel noted that typical portrayals of Christians in the media don’t represent most Christians in mainstream congregations. She thinks that, in part, that’s because most aren’t comfortable talking about their faith.
“In mainstream Christianity, we have a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy when it comes to our faith,” she said. “Mainstream evangelism in the last 50 years has basically operated under the idea that, if we don’t say anything about Jesus, if we get together and act nice, if we don’t tell anyone what to believe, we will seem humble, and they will come.”
In particular, she added, mainstream Christians are ill-equipped to talk to the growing number of people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ One strategy to better connect, Daniel said, is telling stories.
“Stories are a way to evangelize without making truth statements about doctrine,” she said.
Sharing personal stories can be risky, however, especially for pastors. In considering whether and how to share a personal story in a sermon, Daniel advised preachers to ask two questions: Is the story about God and in service to the Gospel? Is the story fully cooked and crafted?
“Good storytelling requires practice to hone it and shape it,” she said. “Don’t confuse spontaneity with vulnerability. Tell a real story, and don’t leave God out of it.”
In the third plenary, “Closing the Story Gap,” Patrick Reyes invoked a common storytelling framework, the “Hero’s Journey” made famous by Joseph Campbell: the call to adventure; mentors and new skills encountered along the journey; conflict; and at the peak, the achievement of a goal. That’s followed by a return home to share the wisdom acquired, and eventually the end of the hero’s story.
“I think this whole thing is bogus,” said Patrick Reyes, in the third keynote of the Convocation. “For so many people in my community, there’s a purpose gap. What if you never receive that call to adventure? What if no one says you’re special? What if you’re constantly told you’re not good enough?”
He contrasted the Hero’s Journey with the reality that many people of color and children born in poverty will face: no call to adventure, no opportunities or mentors, periods of hopelessness, and ultimately a return to the status quo.
“One in seven children are born in poverty in the U.S.,” he said. “The Hero’s Journey doesn’t reflect real life. The communities I work with are just surviving.”
He proposed a different way to approach story, centered on “purposes, people, places and practices.”
Instead of the individualistic path envisioned in the Hero’s Journey, Reyes invited attendees to consider a communal process of “seeing how our stories fit together.”
“Our lives are non-linear,” he said. “They are in conversation with other people. We can co-construct a story together.”
Rounding out the two-day program were performances by Bandan Koro, an African dance ensemble; closing worship led by Dallas Indian United Methodist Church; and a Slam Poetry Open Mic event led by Mike Guinn. Participants also had an opportunity to test some of the ideas in a practicum session following each plenary.
During a break on Tuesday, participants were invited to connect with other attendees informally to discuss a set of conversation-starting questions popularized by French writer Marcel Proust, such as: “What is your greatest fear? What is your idea of perfect happiness? What is your greatest regret?”
In a panel discussion on Monday night, the three keynote speakers reflected on the power and meaning of story.
“A good story has tension, complexity, and a hanging ending that leaves readers thinking,” said Daniels. “As preachers, we need to resist the urge to end every story with a moral or a lesson.”
She recalled a joke about a child during children’s time in worship. When the pastor asked, “What’s furry and has a long tail and collects nuts?” the child piped up, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me!”
A willingness to let stories speak for themselves will allow preachers to connect more powerfully, Levine added.
“I try to break people out of, ‘What does the story mean?’” she said. “A good storyteller will speak to people where they are.”