Why NPR’s Story Corps makes me cry

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Donald Schell

Listening to NPR’s Story Corps makes me cry. No, the stories don’t always make me cry, but yes, because of those tears rather than despite them, I look forward to hearing Story Corps on Friday mornings.

Even when the couple of minutes of ordinary people telling their stories doesn’t make me cry, what they tell and how they tell it will often stay with me long after the broadcast has ended. And even when the two people’s storytelling conversation falls flat for me, I’ll still find myself thinking about them and their story throughout the day.

Story Corps’ editors appear to be doing more than just listening to ordinary peoples’ stories. Somehow in their couple of minutes offering week by week, the editorial team asks us to discern how these stories matter matter. The stories don’t just invite us to hear and think about events, they draw us into feeling and sensing of well. I wonder if feeling and sense are neglected parts of how people, stories and events matter.

NPR obviously isn’t promoting religion or religious practice, but something I find listening to these stories feels reminiscent of praying.

Frequently their stories are of love, friendship, and compassion – Below are just a few examples of the many emotional and powerful stories that appear on Story Corps:

“How come I didn’t scare you?”

Hilda Chacón and her husband, Pedro Morán-Palma, remember when they first met twenty years ago.

“When did you and Dad decide to adopt?”

Scott Miller talks to his mother, Jackie, about her decision to adopt him.

“I saw this guy with a head of black hair and white, white, teeth…”

Joan DeLevie (R) tells her daughter, Sharon (L), how she met her husband, Ari at a party in 1959.

Sharon DeLevie also interviewed her dad, Ari, about being the primary caregiver for her mother.

“Before they would see a doctor, the families in the community would come to see her.”

Graciela Kavulla tells her husband, Timothy, about her grandmother, who was a midwife.

“I was sick; I had no job; I was lonely—and then Felix called me.”

Rob Sanchez (R) and his friend Felix Aponte (L), who both served time at Sing Sing Penitentiary, talk about Rob’s diagnosis with an aggressive form of kidney disease.

Immigrant single mom finding love, a husband caring for his wife with Stage IV lung cancer, a gay adoptee, an illiterate midwife that community counts on, ex-cons bound in a friendship. The stories have the broad texture of life and are full of heart. But there’s more to how these move me than sentiment and my (admittedly) being a sucker for heartwarming stories. There are tough ones too, like this –

“We’d known death but not like this.”

Hector Black remembers the murder of his daughter, Patricia Nuckles, by an intruder in her home.

“I can’t even begin to tell you the misery of rain.”

George Hill remembers being homeless. Hill has been off the streets for 10 years.

I’m noticing how much some of these Story Corps’ personal vignettes are like Jesus’ parables. The stories create a mosaic proclaiming the work of God in all kinds of human lives, all without the declared or even hidden presence of church or religion.

Like Jesus’ parables, these stories are of ordinary people finding their way through life – sometimes they reflect on the big occasions and crises, but often center on the most ordinary events. Like Jesus’ parables, these stories are emphatically not religious stories, nor are they vignettes of distinctly doctrinal spiritual discovery. They are, however, stories of love, of forgiveness, of generosity, of faithfulness, of humor, of kindness, of change of heart, everyday markers of. . .

– the Spirit that blows where it will

– God’s work in every human life.

My work gives me the privilege of seeing and experiencing congregations and church leaders who act boldly for mission, who care deeply about Christian spiritual formation, whose life and work shine with Hope. Again and again, I find myself grateful for seeing how unrelentingly God pursues us and how eagerly God joins God’s self to accomplish holy work.

I also hear and consult with discouraged clergy and congregations suffering devastating decline or bitter conflicts over disagreements that may be hard to define or strangely disconnected from the everyday work of God. And among clergy in their late 50’s and in their 60’s, I hear many asking if the church is dying, many wondering whether their work in ministry was just a waste.

In these dark, broken-hearted wonderings, I’m grateful to recall Gregory of Nyssa’s bold declaration that it’s all of humankind together that bears the Image of God. The Church can’t contain God’s work. Even if we fail utterly, even when the church voice our society hears is repressive, condemning and the opposite of Good News, God continues to work among and with all humanity.

When I read statistics of the rapid, generation-long decline of the kind of Christianity that proclaims anything we’d hear as good news, sometimes I find courage and hope in the innovative work of a surprisingly brave and open-hearted generation of younger church leaders who keep showing up almost despite our efforts to hold tightly to the church and keep it for ourselves. But are there enough of them? Will our children or our children’s children have faith?

Story Corps takes me to an unexpected place to answer that – the utter ordinariness of the people in Jesus’ parables: their fallibility, their lack of religious standing, their faith with no institutional trappings or sanction at all. Jesus’ voice speaking those parables blesses Story Corps vignettes, declaring, often beyond the reach of church where the Spirit (the mighty wind blowing where she will) is at work. With no evident religious intent, the stories proclaim God’s prodigal showering of blessing on all (‘the just and unjust alike’), redemption and hope breaking in heart-by-heart and touch-by-touch.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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