Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we are here. – Sue Monk Kidd
There is power in a story. There is great power in our life stories. But whose life story haven’t you heard? Who is ashamed to tell their story and who leaves out details of their story in fear of judgment or exclusion? Whose life story is quieted, hushed, or not heard at all? Have you ever really owned your story, told it to a group of people that you don’t know? Did you feel liberated, alive, like you mattered?
Some of the most graceful and powerful storing telling that I have ever listened to came from ex-convicts at St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago. St. Leonard’s is a halfway house and comprehensive re-entry program for men who are putting their lives back together after being released from prison. For the past 7 years, St. Leonard’s has warmly welcomed Xavier students doing service for a week through the Alternative Breaks program. Sister Sharon, who is the volunteer coordinator there, always takes students around the campus for a tour their first day. From the administrative building, to the library in one of the residential buildings, to the cafeteria in another, to the transitional apartment buildings, and the Michael Barlow Center where residents and members of the community can take classes and receive support from case managers.
All along our tour we were greeted by unfamiliar faces telling us “if someone hasn’t told you they love you today, I do, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it” or “we are so glad you are here this week, really, thanks for coming to see us”. But it never stopped there with a passing welcome; it was always a deeper invitation into someone’s story.
There was a man we met in the basement who told us about how he works 16 hours days just to make ends meet. He spoke slowly and with purpose, his message intentional, telling us that he never gets mad about how hard he has to work because his parents did the same for his family when he was growing up. Finding joy in the hard work was a story that I, as a graduate student in my last semester of classes, certainly needed to be reminded of.
As we walked into the Michael Barlow Center we heard the story of a wise man who was incarcerated for over 30 years. He had grown up not knowing how to read or write, and in prison, heard the stories of so many men who never grew up to learn these skills. He now spent his days tutoring men and women of all ages, and spent his evenings on the phone with his students who needed extra help. When we visited the women’s project, Grace Place, we heard the story of a woman who ran away from home as a defiant teenager, got in trouble with the law, and spent most of her life as a young adult in prison. Her time in prison prevented her from being with her mother as she passed away. As an older adult, she was adamant about sharing her story with us, telling us to always tell our mommas that we love them, and to spend all the time we could with them, that the boys and the things we thought mattered now really didn’t. When we visited the transitional housing program we heard powerfully performed spoken word tell the story of how a broken criminal justice system turned a successful, newlywed’s world upside down with one seemingly innocent but bad choice. And throughout the entire week we heard the story of St. Leonard’s maintenance manager, who was once a resident of the program himself. I have never experienced someone sharing their story so honestly and powerfully with a group of individuals they had just barely met. After a childhood of gang life and a wrongful conviction, he told us the story of accepting what has happened in his life saying, “I never made any mistakes, I made bad choices”.
The small pieces of the stories I can share may just seem like typed lines on this paper. But they are pieces of real people – and that is what made the week at St. Leonard’s so week so powerful and why I was left wondering why we don’t share of ourselves more openly more often. The stories we were told were gifts given to us simply because people want to share of themselves – not to teach us a lesson, or make us feel sorry for them, or for any alterative motive. Of course, the stories helped us to see that the man who started selling drugs at age 12 was more than a drug dealer. He was a man with likes and dislikes, with struggles and with people that loved him through the struggles. In the same way, a student they met from Xavier University becomes more than a privileged kid from the suburbs when they learned of her close relationship with her twin brother, her love of reading, and her struggle not to be defined by others perceptions.
Whether it is a story from the South side of Chicago or the suburbs of Cincinnati, being at St. Leonard’s taught me what it is really like to connect through and get lost in each other’s stories. As much as we relate to someone’s story, we learn about ourselves and the world around us. We gain new perspective. We feel empathy and build solidarity. But only if we listen, only if we let our stories be told.
Share a story with someone whose story we often forget by donating a copy of your favorite book to Stories for Solidarity, the intentional book collection we are hosting for our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated. Tell them why it is your favorite book with a small note in thr front cover. Keep their life story and all that it might hold in your thoughts by praying for them over the next year. All books and question can be directed to Abby King-Kaiser (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Rachel Snodgrass (email@example.com) in the CFJ.
Rachel Snodgrass is a master’s student in OT and a graduate intern in the CFJ. She has taken a personal and professional interest in working with incarcerated and returning citizens, doing everything from a Bruggeman Fellowship on the concepts, to accompanying club volleyball to play at a prison in Kentucky. When she graduates, she will keep pursuing a more just world for the incarcerated and returning citizens.