We all have our stories.
We have polite, “small talk” stories that we share around the water cooler at work or during coffee hour after Sunday service. We have half-truth stories, and stories that we wish were true.
We have family stories and personal stories, happy stories and sad stories, unbelievable stories and ordinary stories, work stories and love stories and faith stories.
We have stories we hide and pretend aren’t there, and stories we hold close to our hearts.
And we have stories that we share.
A few months ago, I stood in front of my congregation with shaky knees and shared my story. I told the story of my inherited faith and the plunge that I took into the “belief gap.” I told the story of how I had struggled with postpartum depression at the same time that I was struggling with a crisis of faith. I told the story of how finding Unitarian Universalism felt like coming home, and how finding my current congregation eventually felt like coming home as well.
I am not a minister, nor am I a public speaker. There is a reason—there are several, in fact—why I am a writer and prefer to communicate in safety and comfort from behind a computer screen. Nonetheless, after a lot of practicing and praying, I stood in front of the congregation and shared my story.
With each word spoken, the knots of guilt and shame unraveled a little. With each head nod from the congregation, new connections were made. With each idea shared, the congregation and I stepped further into the sacred space that we call spiritual community.
That is not to say that getting up in front of the congregation and sharing my story wasn’t one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It might not have been as hard as childbirth or taking the bar exam or surviving a weeklong bout with the stomach flu, but let me assure you that it was pretty darn hard. On top of the general fear of public speaking that so many of us feel, I worried about how my story would be received. I feared that my faith story would be too boring for some people and perhaps too radical for others.
Many of us are hesitant to share our stories, especially stories of our faith journey. We might think that our story lacks originality because it doesn’t have the flair or intrigue that other stories have. Our story might be messy and confusing, tied up with any number of other strands in our lives—our families, our culture, our heritage, maybe even our political and social attitudes. Or we might be ashamed of our stories, unresolved with their grittiness. So we hide from them, tuck them away, and pretend they aren’t there.
Unfortunately, when we hide from our stories or lock them inside, we create walls around and within ourselves. We make it easier to rely on labels and judgments and stereotypes—both inside our congregations and outside in the larger world—instead of really getting to know others and ourselves. But when we engage in the act of story-sharing—the truthful telling of stories and the respectful listening to stories—we break down those walls; we make space for the divine.
When we share our stories, we begin to connect on a deeper level with ourselves, our spirituality, our loved ones, our communities, and our congregation, because sharing our stories isn’t just a recounting of events but a spiritual practice.
No one said story-sharing is easy and, in today’s technological age, there is an increasing need to protect our stories and preserve some level of privacy. We need to be careful about how, when, and with whom we share our stories. But when our stories are told with truth and kindness to people who genuinely respect and care about us, we create an opportunity for meaningful connections, and the process can be liberating, healing, and spiritually enlightening as well.
Story-sharing is a way of opening ourselves up to the truth within, allowing ourselves to be seen fully and completely, and honoring the sacred connection that can flow from sharing a piece of ourselves with others. We can get caught up in philosophy, facts, statistics, and finding the rational reasons for this social cause or that outreach program, but when you get down to it, the thing that moves us, the thing that calls us to action, the thing that connects us is our stories.
As Unitarian Universalists, we sometimes shy away from the stories of our faith journey. We might be haunted by the scars of a restrictive and authoritarian religion. We might be confused about our own evolving faith, and struggle to find the words to describe our beliefs. Or we might think that our faith journey is somewhat ordinary and of little interest to anyone but ourselves.
But within our congregations, it is critically important that we create the space for the spiritual practice of story-sharing in order to grow stronger as a faith community. With each story shared, we can begin to see each other not just as another face in the crowd, but as unique and complex people. We can see not just the quilted fabric of our congregation, but each individual thread that makes up that quilt.
The practice of story-sharing in our congregations benefits us all. It benefits the listeners by reminding us of our diverse histories and the uniqueness of each person’s beliefs. It benefits the storytellers by providing self-discovery and affirmation. And it benefits the congregation as a whole by supporting at least two of our principles: the search for truth and meaning and the encouragement of spiritual growth.
We have all come to this faith from different places, and though we share certain religious commonalities, we continue to walk on a multitude of spiritual paths. That is part of the beauty of the Unitarian Universalist faith: We don’t just accept our differences, we honor and celebrate them. And by sharing our different experiences and honoring our histories, we can grow together as we work toward serving the bigger picture and creating a better future.
When we encourage story-sharing within our congregations, we also empower our members to share their stories outside of the walls of our churches and buildings. We give our members the tools to share their faith story—and other stories that are important to them—with their families, friends, neighbors, and communities. By doing so, we guide our members through a spiritual practice with the potential to bring freedom, connection, and maybe even a touch of the divine.