The Ministry of Stories
Creating Space to Notice and Know
During the four hot, humid months between my junior and senior years of college, I waited tables at Beethoven’s Inn, a hole-in-the-wall deli that served sandwiches named after classical music composers. The realm of the “Handel, Bach, and Scarlatti” was a land of firsts for me. There, I ate gazpacho for the first time. I interacted with members of a traveling circus troupe for the first time. (Suddenly there they were, standing on tables and balancing chairs on their fingers!) And I encountered, for the very first time, two non-related women who shared a personal checking account. Regulars at the restaurant, they always arrived together, and they typically paid by cash. But one July day, they used a check instead, and I noticed: Two different names. One shared address.
At Beethoven’s Inn, everybody had a story. The owner and his wife, who met when she accidentally hit him with her car and then fell in love as she accompanied him to the hospital. The circus performers, who stopped in on their journey from one small Southern town to another. The two women, who gave me a form of payment that publicly disclosed their committed relationship 23 years before the Supreme Court sanctioned marriage equality.
Then there was me . . . for I, too, had a story, shrouded though it was. By the time I had reached twenty, I possessed an inkling about my own heart’s inclinations, about the way it could love. So I noticed, and from that point on I knew: Two women’s names. One shared address.
As I put the generic yellow check in the cash register, I wished I could have kept it. I wanted to fold it up and slip it into my pocket, ready to pull out whenever I needed a reminder that there were other kindred spirits—other people like me—out there in the universe.
The women at Beethoven’s Inn were the first same-gender couple I ever met, but I have no recollection of their names, unfortunately. We never talked about anything other than music-themed sandwiches, and they never paid by check again after that fateful mid-summer day. In the big scheme of things, though, that didn’t matter, because I had noticed, and I knew.
And who can tell? Perhaps they had sensed my truth, too. In any case, simply by being themselves and not hiding, they served me hope. I began to imagine talking with them. My fantasies always included some version of the following introduction: “Hi, I’m Alyssa. If I tell you my story, will you listen? Will you help?”
The conversation never took place, of course. I was too shy, and I feared the prospect of inappropriately crossing some sort of restaurant-relationship boundary. But the desire to share was definitely there. Something in me understood the transforming nature of narrative, and in the years since then, I’ve only gained more appreciation for the kinds of story-sharing my younger self could only imagine.
The significance of narrative and stories is something we’ve been attentive to here at Bearings. Two months ago, Mihee Kim-Kort described “A Church of Storymakers.” Just before Christmas, I explored political and spiritual narratives of hope and fear. Last spring, The BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence, Pam Shellberg, wrote about finding meaning in shifting narratives. In our first blog season, Elizabeth Drescher penned a piece on “The Stories of Spiritual Selves in the Postmodern, Postchristian World.” Before we joined the conversation, back in 2013, a TED Radio Hour examined the power of narrative. As is evident, the topics of storytelling and narrative have been generating dialogue for quite a while. That said, they are not yet tapped out. New chapters emerge; characters and plots continue to develop and change in the telling.
That perhaps explains how I recently found myself at an event entitled “Introduction to Narrative Leadership,” which was facilitated by Rev. Kelli Walker-Jones, co-author of Know Your Story and Lead With It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership. During the seminar, we were encouraged to identify and reflect upon some of the biographical stories from our lives that have shaped our ministries. As colleagues lifted up their life stories and I offered my own narratives in return, I realized just how much I had been missing that type of mutual sharing.
As faith leaders, we are called by God to listen to other people’s stories. But how often do we get to relay our own stories and be heard through filters of compassion and care? I used to experience the privilege of those sorts of listening sessions with my spiritual director, but she moved away several months ago. Only in her absence do I fully understand how my spirit and ministry benefit when I have someone in my life who is dedicated to not only hearing my deepest spiritual and vocational narratives, but also posing insightful questions about them.
A bit of that story-sharing and question-asking has occurred over the past few days, as I have participated in the “Foundations of Christian Leadership” program offered by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. Here, at a beautiful retreat house in the woods of New Hampshire, I am flooded with gratitude for this opportunity to re-connect with old friends and meet some wonderful new colleagues. To a person, they have listened to my vulnerable narratives of self and ministry with great sensitivity. The experience has proven so powerful that I now am beginning to wonder how I can help cultivate institutions that nurture holy friendship.
Listening. Telling. Witnessing. Noticing. Knowing.
All activities of ministry.
All acts of love.
Once upon a time, during the summer of 1992—which will forever conjure memories of the taste of cucumbers and tomatoes, and the smell of rain on hot 11 PM pavement, and the sound of The Cure—I met a pair of women at Beethoven’s Inn who ministered to me without knowing it. By making themselves known, they created space for me to notice them, and once I had done so, I could begin to imagine the possibility of sharing the deepest stories of my heart with compatriots who understood.
All the two women knew was that they used a payment status that hinted at their relational status. But for me, that subtle gesture proved revolutionary. In one serendipitous moment, I saw them, and myself, in an entirely new light. Every time they walked into the restaurant after “the check incident,” my heart expanded.
Looking back, I can see that I harbored a bit of a crush. But rather than being characterized by romantic longing, it was marked by aspirational dreams. I felt connected to those two women for self-referential reasons, of course. They helped me envision a relational future for myself that didn’t involve isolation. That said, I also admired them for a reason that went well beyond me. Simply by being themselves—by living their lives and going about their daily business—they modeled a type of quiet courage that was unheralded by fuss or fanfare.
Twenty-four years ago, on a hot July day in Williamsburg, Virginia, two women paid their restaurant tab with a check that bore both of their names and a single address.
That was all. Two names. One address. Probably even enough syllables to count as a haiku. But in my eyes, that check was a sweeping, romantic novel that held a thousand stories.
It was, in short, everything.