Telling the stories of those who have been forgotten depends on a retelling of the gospel story, says pastor Lisa Nichols Hickman, who directed a storytelling project in New Orleans.
Such is the interchange between strangers on the streets of New Orleans. Once strangers become friends, the conversation deepens with the opener, “Where y’at?” This revolution of conversation, akin to the turn of a two-step on the dance floor, creates a space that allows for real talk. The response to “Where y’at?” may be one of two Southern conventions: To acknowledge a pretty-all-right kind of day, the person would respond, “Awrite.” On a day when circumstances demanded talk, the conversation would continue, and stories would unfold.
On a June 2007 church work trip to New Orleans, a third response emerged. People of all races, classes and circumstances told us: “Don’t forget us. Tell our story.” It was the informal prayer at the end of many conversations.
The first time we heard the phrase was from the Rev. Cliff Nunn, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. When we first asked him how his job as a pastor has changed since the storm, he said, “Now I am a community organizer, a construction site manager, a volunteer coordinator and an advocate for the voiceless. I realize now that should have been my job description as a pastor all along.”
Then he said: “When you go home, don’t forget us. Tell our story.” We heard in that phrase a new job description for our mission. We were to continue the conversation -- not with the folks in New Orleans weary of Katrina talk -- but with strangers across the nation who are reading new headlines, unaware of the deep grief and unquenchable need in the Gulf Coast even now, years later.
This was not an invitation to continue relishing “the great experience we had;” it was much deeper. This was a call to prayer and to foster in the hearts of others an ongoing and fervent prayer for a people deeply suffering.
So we decided to write. This interchange called for new tools -- the heart of listening, the art of conversation, the craft of writing. The plea we heard called for a creative approach.
As we engaged this new conversation, we discovered a theology of articulation and the power of words. A theology of articulation, in its desire to remember those forgotten and to retell their stories, also depends on a retelling of the gospel story, our story.
We hear the genesis of that story in the Gospel of John, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” Christian theology has battled over the balance between word and flesh. As people whose salvation depends on the incarnation, we stress that the word became flesh. But the beauty of the Gospel of John is in its emphasis that the word entered the world. That is, earthly flesh, flesh that suffers and grieves, is elevated to word. Word becomes flesh, but flesh also becomes word.
Alongside the doctrine of incarnation, we need a doctrine of articulation. This is a doctrine that informs and enlivens. It calls for new ways of giving voice. It depends on putting pen to paper. For those whose deepest prayer is, “Don’t forget us. Tell our story,” salvation lies in articulation alongside the incarnation.
It is this overarching theology of articulation that lets us ask, “Where y’at?” And when the answer is not “awrite,” we are called to put pen to paper.
Writer Eugene Peterson offers this interpretation of John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
Here we see the testimony of the word, the community as that word dwells among neighborhoods and the authenticity the word of truth depends upon. Components of a theology of articulation rely upon and are deepened by testimony, community and authenticity.
Testimony: We saw the glory with our own eyes
A theology of articulation calls for testimony -- offering our testament to a particular time, place and story. That testament is shaped by the coming together of three stories: the stories of a city, our inward stories and the story of faith. Conjuring up words for the intersection of those three stories does not necessitate answers, but it always necessitates prayer.
The process of letting the voice be the storyteller and letting the product be the process allows for a discovery of deeper belief. Answers are not required. Easy answers would not honor the experience of folks in New Orleans.
But testimony -- a word that honors a moment in time when three stories intersect -- can be a holy offering.
Community: Moving into the neighborhood
Our movement, from Pennsylvania to New Orleans and back again, engaged several communities: First Presbyterian Church in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, Andrew Wilson Charter school in New Orleans and the community of New Wilmington.
Community is deepened as these words are articulated, not only for those in New Orleans who need to know that their stories are being told but also for those who by hearing these stories are drawn into the conversation that calls for action and responsibility.
Words for grief and loss can’t bear flesh. Forgotten and unheard, people who scream out are silenced. But upon occasion, Christ becomes present.
Authenticity: True from start to finish
When we arrived at the Andrew Wilson Charter School in New Orleans, we shared our ideas for starting points to tell the story. But we learned the students had different -- and much better -- ideas. The stories emerged from their authentic voice, not ours.
And, as our senior high school students worked with Jim Mulholland, a Quaker pastor and writer, they discovered an authentic voice of their own.
Jimmy Gregory, 17, talked about how he was “lifted of a burden by telling his story.” Sixteen-year-old Solvejg Wastvedt wrote about Peter Badie, a jazz musician who wakes every morning to prayers and grits. Nicole Crumbacher, 18, described how she was changed by an 80-year-old woman in the sanctuary. Howard Moss, an accountant by day, found an authentic voice as a poet whose call was to profess the prayers of the people he encountered.
A theology of articulation: The word becomes flesh
In May 2008, we learned that Cliff Nunn passed away after a heart attack while on a walk with his wife Nieta. Cliff had lived into a theology of articulation as his job description evolved after Katrina. Someone needed to pick up one element of that job description: giving voice for the voiceless.
I have been praying for that element of ministry ever since I drove through New Orleans that first time with Cliff. We had passed through the Lakeview neighborhood just a few blocks south of Lake Pontchartrain. Hundreds of homes stood abandoned. In this sea of despair, we saw no human being for miles.
Lost in thought and prayer, I was surprised as we drove by one lone man who mouthed to our group, “Thank you for coming.” His soundlessness made my spirit ache. In this abandoned community, if he shouted, who would hear him? If he cried out in despair, who would know? And even if he had something funny to say, who would laugh alongside him in a common bond?
Our vans turned around. He told us his story. And he ended with the refrain we later came to expect: “Don’t forget us. Tell our story.”
This essay was written at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research during a Writing and the Pastoral Life workshop, made possible by a gift from Lilly Endowment Inc.