3 Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work

By Patel, Eboo; Kunze, April et al. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

3 Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work


Patel, Eboo, Kunze, April, Silverman, Noah, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I can only answer the question "What am I to do?" if I can answer the prior question "Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"

--Alasdair MacIntyre

Introduction: Storytelling

In the spring of 2003, a diverse group of high school students assembled on the stage of a Chicago exhibition hall to perform a spoken-word piece titled "The Sacred Stories Project." The stories that formed the piece were exercises in representing the importance of the central value of hospitality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The stories were written and performed by members of the Interfaith Youth Core's Chicago Youth Council, a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teenagers who met regularly to volunteer across the city and to discuss how their various religious traditions inspire them to work for a better world. Each story was a young person's interpretation of how an ancient religious narrative or practice exemplifying hospitality should be applied in the contemporary world. The stories were richly textured and complex, but their key message was clear: We have to take care of each other. This command is in all our religions, and following its imperative is our only chance for survival as a human race.

The process of writing their stories, coupled with performing them in juxtaposition to each other, caused the members of the Chicago Youth Council to realize that, while their diverse traditions all called them to the same value, they each did so in their own language. The Jewish stories were different from the Christian stories, which were different from the Muslim stories. As one Jewish participant articulated, "I came to realize, perhaps for the first time, that my story was distinctly a Jewish story and that my inspiration to serve others, while universal, was colored in distinctly Jewish ways." The participants all agreed that the experience of service, storytelling, and dialogue had not only increased their understanding of each others' traditions, but also strengthened their sense of belonging, inheritance, and identity within their own respective traditions.

At its heart, interfaith dialogue is about identity--one's own identity and the identities of the other participants. Identity, both individual and communal, constructs itself through stories and storytelling. It is through the act of telling personal narratives--and the involved processes of reflecting on, distilling, and constructing our "life story"--that we come to form an idea of who we are. Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who has written extensively on the centrality of stories to Christian theology and human identity, explains the role of narrative in identity as follows:

   Narrative plays a larger part in our lives than we often imagine.
   For example, we frequently introduce ourselves through narrative.
   To be sure, any story with which we identify "ourselves" can be and
   should be constantly tested by the history we have lived. But the
   telling of the narrative is itself a reinterpretation of the
   history. We see that because the self is historically formed we
   require a narrative to speak about it if we are to speak at all.
   One should not think of oneself as exemplifying or being some
   individual instance of a self, but one understands in what his or
   her selfhood consists only insofar as he or she learns to tell that
   particular story. (1)

This remarkable phenomenon--the generative power of personal narratives in identity-formation--is now being verified by recent scientific research. As noted in a recent New York Times article, "We are Jail] continually updating a [screenplay] of our own life--and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find." Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern, is quoted as saying, "We find that these [personal] narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future. …

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