Stories & Songs

I am not the avid reader that I would like to be. Lately, though, I have been digging into Larry James’ book The Wealth of the Poor. At one point, James uses a small yet powerful image that has stuck with me. He relays the thoughts of his acquaintance Dr. Ron Anderson about a Native American philosophy that “everyone has a song, and every song should be welcomed and heard. ‘When another person shares their song with you, it is a precious gift and deserves to be heard, received, honored, and enjoyed.’” A person’s song is their actions, their outlook, their unique expression of the way they live life. And it is their story. I'm a big believer that everyone has a story to tell. Life stories can be sad and happy all at the same time. Told with the particular notes and dissonant chords of each person's experiences and personality, those stories do become like song.

If you know where to look, you can see that storytelling has maintained popularity in our culture. Even though work, play and general busyness urge us to rush, rush, rush, we do realize the power of story. Advertisers know you’ll only remember statistics or facts about horsepower so long, but they can hook you by telling a story. More and more, though we also recognize our need to slow down to hear a true narrative. I encourage you to check out The Moth Radio Hour and podcast. They host storytelling workshops and “story slam” competitions across the country. (A few of my favorites are "About You & Me," "A Change of Plans," and "Lego Crimes." (Note: These storytellers come from all walks of life; some may use strong language, and many deal with adult subjects.)

Hearing others' stories or songs can be enlightening or encouraging, but telling the stories, singing the song and being heard--that is the stuff of transformation.

This past year, I started gathering and sharing short bios of neighbors in a Neighbor Spotlight section of a monthly neighborhood newsletter. Among them are stories of neighbors who have lost family members to war and disease, grown up a world away, discovered new passions and watched a neighborhood transform. I am learning life from these folks, and they are being honored by having someone tell them their story is worth hearing.

Earlier in the same book, specifically from a chapter titled “Beyond Charity,” James challenges assumptions about charity and makes the case that community development takes something more. (A case that John Perkins, Robert Lupton, Steve Corbett and many others make as well. ) He says, “[There is] a two-part paradigm shift that is vital for community development: moving beyond mere charity by taking people seriously and viewing them as gifted with assets to contribute in their neighborhood." The Wealth of the Poor gets its name from the fact that people--specifically the poor--have valuable things to contribute to their communities. Sometimes those contributions look like small acts (sweeping a porch, taking out trash). Sometimes they l look like groundbreaking solutions to problems that only the poor are close enough to see. But one thing everyone can contribute is their song.