First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Story? Or Stories?

November 6, 2016
Rev. Sandra Fees

There’s a Hopi proverb that says: “Those who tell the stories, rule the world.”

This proverb reminds us that stories matter. Each of us needs to be part of the storytelling. The stories that are told, the stories that are not told, who tells them, and who doesn’t get to tell their stories matter. Stories shape our understanding of who we are and of the world around us.

When I was in school, I read William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury. I knew when I read the novel that I was reading something quite remarkable. I’d never read anything like it. The novel begins with a chapter written from the perspective of Benjamin. “Benjy” is a cognitively disabled 33 year old character.

To read a whole chapter of a novel written from this perspective was challenging and eye-opening for me as a young person. I had not thought about what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of someone with an intellectual disability.

Faulkner was known for telling stories from the perspective of multiple characters. He also narrated events out of chronological order and used stream of consciousness. He was doing this in the early 20th century long before this approach became popular.

Today, it is not so unusual to encounter multiple narrators or stream of consciousness in novels, movies, and television. Many of us have come to expect to hear stories from various points of view. These multiple perspectives celebrate our common humanity and our unique cultures and experiences.

An encounter with someone who looks at a particular issue differently from me is a reminder that there is not a single way to understand a situation or experience. Even a family dinner where a family story is told reveals that there are many ways to tell that story and that each family member has a slightly or sometimes extravagantly varied version.

Some versions are more factual than others. But to ask whose version of a family story is factually true may not be the most helpful place to focus attention. Our experiences are not merely a string of facts. They aren’t a math problem with right and wrong answers. Instead experience is deeply impacted by our feelings, thoughts, previous experiences, partial understandings, memory, beliefs, cultural differences, developmental stages of life, age, and gender, among other factors.

To insist on a single story or a “right” story means that accounts that don’t fit the dominant narrative don’t get told. Or at least, those stories don’t get much attention. Or they don’t have as much influence.

This morning I want to share a few stories about how it can be dangerous to insist on a single story. The first one comes from the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She gives a talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she describes how she came to see that people’s lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories not just a single story. She experienced this herself from the perspective of having a single story imposed on her and also from the perspective of having imposed a single story on others. Adichie is Nigerian. She grew up in a middle-class family. Her father was a professor and her mother an administrator. As a child her family had live-in domestic help.

When she was eight, they got a new houseboy. Her mother used to tell her that the houseboy’s family was very poor. They would send his family yams, rice, and old clothes. She felt pity for them. Then one day they went to his village. There the boy’s mother showed them a beautiful patterned basket his brother had made. She was stunned. It hadn’t occurred to her that they could make anything. She had a single story of them as poor. And that image was a dehumanizing one.

She never forgot this experience. She came to the United States at the age of 19 to go to the University. When she met her American roommate, the roommate’s first comment was: you speak English perfectly. How did you learn to speak it so well? Well, English is the official language of Nigeria. Then her roommate asked to listen to her tribal music, and was disappointed when she shared Mariah Carey. Her roommate was astonished that she knew how to use a stove. Adichie was the recipient of what she describes as her roommate’s “patronizing, well-meaning pity.” Her roommate had a single story of Africa. And that story was dehumanizing. Adichie says:

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. …. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of people but can also repair that broken dignity. (http://tinyurl.com/jobdkb9)

The danger of the single story also impacts our religious community. This is the second story I want to share. A preliminary report on class in Unitarian Universalism identifies the following as a common story:

UUs are upper middle class: financially comfortable, highly educated, articulate, independent, socially responsible, liberal, and tending toward humanist theology.

I won’t ask for a show of hand, but I wonder: do any of you feel left out of this story? I could spend the rest of the day teasing apart all the difficulties with this single story. And there are many. But let’s just focus on education for a moment. The findings of a 2014 survey offer a different story from the one commonly told. It shows that 29 percent of Unitarian Universalists have a high school education or less. 32 percent have some college. For those who are doing the math, that is more than half who have not completed college. 22 percent graduated from college, and 18 percent did post-graduate work. When Unitarian Universalists are described with broad strokes as highly educated, those who do not fit that single story are made invisible. (www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/class-coa-report2015.pdf)

The effect is to privilege the experience of those who have more formal education. It is to disempower those who have less formal education. The story leaves out the experiences and insights of many in our congregations. It leaves out stories that might help us move beyond an outworn image of who we are as a religion and toward a fuller recognition of our educational diversity.

A third story – one that gets told nationally – is that the United States is a Christian nation. That narrative has consequences. It privileges Christian values and the Christian religion. The Christian nation myth is a way to delegitimize the experiences, values, and voices of those in this country who are not Christian. It places indigenous religions, atheism, Judaism, Islam, and other religious beliefs and groups on the edges, including those members of Unitarian Universalist congregations who are not Christian.

Alternatively, to acknowledge that we live in a religiously pluralistic America made up of many religious stories is to acknowledge the validity of many religions. This view cedes power and influence to non-Christian perspectives. We can see the way this is playing out. As the country grows increasingly pluralistic in its faith perspectives, responses to this diversity are varied. Non-Christian religions are sometimes celebrated, sometimes ignored, and sometimes demonized by the dominant culture. A plurality of religious stories can be threatening to the claim of Christian morality and tradition as the one story.

The danger of the single story can also be found in current headline news. Right now a single story is taking shape as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the imperative to ramp up fossil fuel supplies. This is the fourth story I want to share this morning. Pipeline proponents have failed to take seriously the stories of those who disagree with its construction. The pipeline is slated to travel under the Missouri River, with enormous potential to cause damage to the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux. The pipeline also traverses their sacred burial ground. Longtime land defender and justice advocate Michael Bowersox tells the story of why he is protesting the pipeline’s construction. He says:

I am taking this action to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from plowing up sacred sites that are here, near the Missouri River. I’m also taking this action to protect the water and for the future generations in alliance with an accomplice to the first people of this nation. I hope other people will step up to stop this pipeline from being built; we can’t be dependent on fossil fuels if we expect the children seven generations from now to have a healthy earth, environment, and clean water to drink.

Protesters have set up tepees and tent camps on land owned by energy transfer partners. They are threatening to remain through the winter. The resulting crackdown by law enforcement has been extreme. Officers in riot gear used pepper spray and an audio cannon against demonstrators who refused to leave. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested. (www.newsweek.com/tribe-protest-dakota-access-pipeline-through-winter-515030) In an ironic turn, the protests and the resulting harsh tactics have increased attention on the stories of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Others are joining the protest, sharing their concerns about the larger environmental ramifications and about the impact on indigenous people. Our UUA president Rev. Peter Morales and other Unitarian Universalists are traveling to Standing Rock to bear witness. Morales says:

The construction of the massive Dakota Access pipeline, stretching from North Dakota to Illinois, is a textbook case of marginalizing minority communities in the drive to increase fossil fuel supplies. As people of faith and conscience, committed to protecting the interdependent web of all life and supporting indigenous rights, Unitarian Universalists cannot remain silent as land held sacred by our Native American siblings is threatened. (www.uua.org/pressroom/press-releases/uua-president-join-me-opposing-dako...)

UUs are there to tell stories of what it means to live our faith and what it means to protect the web of life. These stories do not fit neatly into the single corporate story.

In this month, when our congregation begins a reflection on what it means to be a community of story, I invite you to consider the dangers of the single story. I encourage you to listen to the stories that are being told, to listen for the stories that are not being told, and to notice the stories that are actively being suppressed.

Looking around our religious community, our nation, and our globe, we do well to ask who is profiting from the single story. Who profits from the way things are? Am I unintentionally privileging a single story that marginalizes others or even marginalizes my own experience? The writer Ursula K. LeGuin notes that:

Storytelling is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, [storytelling] has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truth-teller.

Humans are storytellers. We are all storytellers. Our stories speak our truths. They matter. Ensuring that a variety of stories are told matters.

What does it mean to be a community of story? To be a community of story is to tell stories, to encourage one another to tell our stories and to listen to our stories. To be a community of story is to recognize the power of storytelling and the danger of the single story. To be a community of story is to cultivate stories as a pathway to hope and healing, compassion and dignity, and empowerment and connection.

May we be attentive to the diversity of stories in the sacred web of life. Stories matter. “Those who tell the stories, rule the world.”

Amen. Blessed be.