Gift of storytelling carries Jesus' calling to save lives with stories

(Wikimedia Commons/
(Wikimedia Commons/

by Mariam Williams

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Jesus was a master storyteller.

I was reminded of this on Good Friday, when I attended "Rhythms of the Cross: Seven Good Friday Movements," at St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia. With poetry, music, dance and photography (presented as a slideshow backdrop), artists and ministers provided an interpretation of the last moments of Christ's life as a human walking the earth that felt new, inspiring and validating.

I'm a storyteller. By the time my next NCR column is published, I will have successfully completed my thesis and all required coursework for my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. About five months later, I'll receive the official documents stating that people with the power to determine these things concur that I have mastered my craft.

And in between those points, I'll look for employers, agents and editors who believe my designation of mastery is worth money. I will have one of the same gifts, the same titles, that Jesus had, and I'll be selling it to the bidder with the best benefits package.

Somehow, that doesn't feel like it's supposed to be a part of my calling as a writer.

I feel, instead, that I should be out here saving lives. That's what Jesus did. That's what I believe stories do.

I'm a fan of the radio show "Snap Judgment." The show's host, Glynn Washington, often says that at "Snap Judgment," "We believe it's impossible to hate someone if you know their story." One recent episode was about encounters with the Klan. That Klan. Instead of running away from the danger a Klansman they met presented, people who were targets of the Klan's harassment wrote the hate-filled antagonist letters, talked to him over the phone, offered him rides to the store, or sat down for a series of interviews with him. They found hatred's story, hatred got to know theirs, and hatred melted away. A future hate crime may have been stopped because it wasn't even thought of.

I agree with Washington's assertion. Stories humanize people. They expose vulnerabilities and shared experiences. They create trust and understanding, and slowly tear down walls in the process. Nonetheless, I found the resolutions in the Klan episode deceptively easy to come to, the potential danger faced by people of color and Jews deceptively easy to evade. We forget so easily that the storyteller risks rejection from the audience, every time. And that, ironically, is one reason white supremacy has persisted so relentlessly for centuries — the rejection and erasure of stories told by people of color about themselves and their experiences.

That risk of rejection is one of the heavy burdens that come with the gift of storytelling, of being able to humanize oneself and others, to others. It's exhausting for writers and other storytellers to think of themselves as the griots for an entire group of people, to bear the burden of bringing salvation for us all. What if we want to just enjoy life? What if we want to love our art for art's sake? What if, like Jesus, we deeply want this cup to pass from us?

The more exhausting thought for me as a storyteller, though, is that changing the world one story at a time just takes too long for the kind of systemic change we need now. It might be similar to how Jesus felt every time he asked his disciples, "Are you still so dull?" Do you still not get it? he was saying to them. "After all the parables, the instructions, the lessons, the time spent getting to know me, do you still not understand? What will it take to change you?" I ask the same of the world as injustices persist. What will it take to change you?

The difference between me and Jesus here is that Jesus knew his role was significant. Though he didn't want to go through with it, he knew it was important. So as I finish my Master of Fine Arts degree, I will continue to shake off doubts of the importance of the role God gave me and go about my father's business. I'll be a master storyteller. I'll be more like Jesus. And though there are millions of writers in the world, and all of us fear obscurity, I'm glad, for the sake of change, that I'm not alone.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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