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Darriel Harris: 'Let me tell you a story'

The South Sudanese culture of storytelling taught an American pastor how to use Bible stories to teach and to delight.

Photo courtesy of Darriel Harris
Women from the Mothers' Union participate in a Bible study at a diocese-wide leadership workshop that incorporates health lessons.

April 9, 2013

I often heard it during my time in South Sudan: “Let me tell you a story.”

Bishop Enock Tombe and other leaders of the Episcopal Church of Sudan would say this before starting to speak, and through their stories I was introduced to a culture I knew little about.

They told of community life among the Bari people before the advent -- in the 1980s -- of international aid. Each household raised its own food, including crops and chickens. The Nile provided fish, and goats were kept for dowry. If a household found themselves in need, they depended on in-laws and extended family. Only in complete desperation would the Bari turn to the market.

In the market, the stories went, the people sat around all day and often stole from one another, and the dirt and smell of the market clung to them. The market seemed to be a place for those who were lacking: lacking the zeal to farm and hunt, the discipline to ration appropriately, and the self-respect to provide for their families through honest, traditional means.

Others, overhearing our conversation, would chime in: “Yes, in those days, we didn’t need money”; “My daughter began working in a hotel once, and people came to me and said, ‘What happened to your daughter? I hear she is working in the hotel. Tell her to come home.’”

Listening to their stories -- familiar to everyone else hearing them -- taught me important things about the culture: how foreigners were viewed by many South Sudanese, why the Bari opposed working in the market, and how the South Sudanese traditionally viewed cattle and other livestock.

I also heard stories that helped me in my work. My mission was to establish a community health education program, working through the Mothers’ Union, a women’s organization of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The goal of the project was to create healthier communities through medical and Christian biblical theological engagement.

I began to notice that narratives were used not only to instruct me. At village meetings, church gatherings and government symposiums, people used narratives and proverbs to articulate opinions and overcome opposing viewpoints. People usually sided with the person who demonstrated mastery over the group’s common stories.

As I listened to people’s stories, I learned important things about the health lessons I was charged with communicating: why some people favored drinking river water over well water, why some people rejected pit latrines, and why many viewed pregnancy as the responsibility of women alone.

It soon became clear that I could use storytelling to teach as well as to learn. Of course, I couldn’t use my own stories. The tales would be effective only if they were stories that the people already claimed as their own.

We found such stories in the Bible. Scripture provided both the gateway and the language to capture people’s hearts and imaginations. While they rejected many other NGOs who came with charts and graphs, the people listened when we talked about something they had already accepted -- Abraham, Mary, Jesus and the nation of Israel.

Our health program consisted of 10 health lessons, including the importance of safe water in preventing diarrhea, the proper handling of human waste, and maternal and child health.

Stories were at the heart of our success, and the Scriptures were at the heart of the stories.

Mama Rose, the Mothers’ Union leader, and I led discussions about the birth of Jesus, asking why it was important for the angel to tell Mary what to expect before she conceived. We asked how important it was for Mary to question the angel and have her concerns addressed. We talked about how Joseph, despite being a good man, made the bad decision to send Mary away before the angel informed him of Mary’s pregnancy.

With these and other narratives as a guide, the Scriptures helped the people see pregnancy as a process that needed early preparation, with the mother receiving counsel from someone who could tell her what to expect, and one in which the father should be involved.

Before delving into why it is important to drink clean water, we read Genesis 26:18-22. This story illuminates how Abraham, the first to pass through the “land of promise,” was concerned about safe drinking water. Abraham used his own resources to dig and maintain wells, despite the fact that those around him showed little concern for them, eventually sabotaging the wells after his death.

The mothers of the South Sudanese villages, often newly literate through a diocesan reading program, would read aloud at village gatherings about Isaac’s reopening of Abraham’s wells. The mothers would share the story of how Isaac dug three wells yet used only one, acquiescing to the contentious local herdsmen and declaring that he and his family would prosper in that place of peace and safe drinking water.

This passage opened up a wide-ranging discussion about how to resolve disputes as well as the value of safe water and the importance of perseverance. The story allowed us to explain why wells were often a far better choice than rivers and streams, which carry waste from the village, as well as neighboring villages.

Isaac’s behavior was also useful in helping overcome the people’s resistance to building pit latrines. A few early adopters had built latrines in the past but were discouraged after neighbors overused them. But Isaac’s peaceable responses, combined with the camp etiquette described in Deuteronomy 23:12-14, persuaded them to persevere and to encourage their neighbors to build latrines as well.

Finally, the stories went beyond addressing people’s behaviors. They also reminded people that they were loved and valued by God. Our lessons included John 3:16 and John 10:10, and we discussed Easter and how important their lives, and the lives of their children, were to God.

And the more the people lived into the stories, the more they gleaned from them. “I understand more now” was a common response on follow-up visits. And the stories of Scripture became our common language and motivator.

“Man can’t live on bread alone,” I said when the inns lacked the food to feed us. “You are not hirelings,” said Mama Rose, the Mothers’ Union leader, when people asked for money to put the health lessons into practice. When I left a village, the women often said, “Blessed are your mother and your father,” and I would borrow from the stories and say, “Blessed are those who hear the words of God and put them into practice.”

Just as the psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:24, the Scriptures became our delight and our counselor. My teacher Ellen Davis once translated delight as “plaything.” We played with the Scriptures joyfully, handling them afresh, asking them to counsel us in ways we had not previously imagined.

Using the Scriptures to teach in South Sudan showed me how they could be used to address all kinds of issues. My hope is to lead communities in the U.S. to this conclusion as well, allowing the stories of Scripture to inform the stories of their lives.