The Value of Stories
As we at Advance Memphis walk in relationships with our neighbors, one thing that we continually recognize is the importance of stories. Each person on Advance’s staff, each volunteer, and each neighbor has a particular story, which includes the gifts God has created us for, our pains and joys, our desires, our relationships, and so much more. Because we value relationships so deeply at Advance— in fact, we think that relationships are at the very center of God’s design for our lives— we are always looking to participate in each other’s stories. In our Work Life curriculum, we spend two full lessons talking about the importance of acknowledging and dealing with things in our past (our story) in order to move forward into God’s design for our lives.
On Day 6 of Work Life, the class gathers together for a time of sharing and listening. It takes a lot of bravery and trust to open up to each other and put it all on the table, the good and the bad. Consequently, this time of sharing life stories is consistently the most difficult and impactful part of each Work Life class. The result is an opportunity to look into each other’s lives and see deeper than the sorrows, joys, pain, and growth – it is an opportunity to see God at work, to learn from each other, and to begin participating in each other’s stories.
Acknowledging Our Collective Story
In the month of February, we want to acknowledge the fact that, though individual stories are important, there are larger Stories that affect each of us deeply. To be sure, we are all part of a grand story of cosmic redemption that God is working out on this earth, healing the effects of sin and brokenness all around us. More particularly, the month of February is a time to focus and highlight some parts of our shared story as Americans that is too often glossed over in history books, and dangerously ignored in our conversations about our collective story. Black History Month calls us to acknowledge and inculcate stories of amazing accomplishment against all odds; stories of deep, soul-wrenching pain; stories of success stomped out by sinister systems; stories of beauty and flourishing; all stories that have black people at their center. We must be open to listen to both the heroism and the hurt as we hear the history.
“The problem occurs when we cover [our stories] up, try to ignore the pain, and live as though these things did not happen.” Each of our Work Life students hears this in Lesson 3, as we begin to look at our past. The Church needs to hear this, too. We hope that the Church, both black and white, will take time this month to listen to our black brothers’ and sisters’ stories from the distant and the recent past in order to be more knowledgeable and maybe even more empathetic participants in our own—and each other’s—stories.
Looking Back: A Story to Listen To
Let us offer one example, from John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation Hope. John Hope Bryant explains in his book How the Poor Can Save Capitalism, how President Abraham Lincoln began the Freedman’s Savings Bank shortly after the end of the Civil War, in order to help empower former slaves who desired to enter into the economy. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated shortly thereafter and the new president, Andrew Johnson, had vastly different stances on black empowerment. Bryant notes, “At its height, the Freedman’s Savings Bank had seventy thousand depositors, all of whom were formerly enslaved. Unfortunately, due in large part to the destructive efforts of Johnson and the mismanagement and gaming of the bank that followed, the bank ultimately did fail, and every depositor lost his or her money. All of it. This may be part of the reason that black Americans and other disadvantaged groups do not trust banks and the government today.”
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the early 1900’s of the crash of the Freedmen’s Bank, “All the hard-earned dollars of the freedmen disappeared; but that was the least of the loss—all the faith in saving went too, and much of the faith in men; and that was a loss that a Nation which today sneers at Negro shiftlessness has never yet made good. Not even ten additional years of slavery could have done so much to throttle the thrift of the freedmen as the mismanagement and bankruptcy of the [Freedmen’s Bank].” Du Bois demonstrates in an almost-prophetic manner the incredible effect that this Historical Event—an intimate piece of our Nation’s Story—had on the trust of former slaves in financial institutions, and on the perceptions of black people in the eyes of the Nation.
Moving Forward: Participate in Others’ Stories
Without listening to our Story—even the parts we wish we could ignore—we cannot move forward. Advance Memphis desires to continue to build relationships every day that help us to be a part of each other’s stories as we walk together in God’s design for our lives. During Black History Month, we wanted to take a moment to recall one episode in our Nation’s Story that affects people to this day, and to encourage the Church to learn more about our history—our stories—so that we can all take steps to move toward healing.
This healing will be impossible without listening and participation. At Advance, we seek to take time to listen to our neighbors, and when we do this, we find that we truly learn. It’s our human tendency to speak our minds. But how can we learn without taking time to genuinely listen? In this vein, we encourage both white people and black people in the Church to enter into long-term relationships with each other—come volunteer at Advance, or visit a local church where you are in the minority, or invite somebody into your home that has a very different story than you do. May God help us to begin actively participating in each other’s stories; when we do this, we will reflect his Kingdom in more deep and beautiful ways.
 John Hope Bryant, How the Poor can Save Capitalism (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2014), 62.
 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994), 22-23.
Here at Advance Memphis, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to witness so often the transformation that happens when genuine relational interaction takes place between our neighbors and others who live in different circumstances. These interactions are not transactional encounters; rather, they go beyond relief to create real empathy and understanding. Recently we had the opportunity to join our neighbors in the 38126 neighborhood and employees of SouthernSun Asset Management in a “Cost of Poverty Experience” (COPE) simulation, which occurred in the Advance Memphis Warehouse. Advance Memphis graduates volunteered to role-play neighborhood institutions, while SouthernSun employees played roles of people in poverty.
A SouthernSun employee described the experience: “During each week [the simulation included four 15 minute “weeks”], you had to complete what seem like simple tasks, such as going to the grocery store, paying rent, and getting to and from work (if you are fortunate enough to have a job). These roles turned out to be much more stressful than I anticipated. Trying to prioritize what had to be taken care of first to not lose your home or job was a struggle… It was a very overwhelming hour.” She also noted, “There were many circumstances that arose that put people in a place to make difficult decisions to provide for their families.”
During the event, we were able to see some light bulbs go off and see our neighbors learn and teach others about what it is like to live in poverty. Here are some of the thoughts from our neighbors who chose to volunteer to be a part of the COPE simulation:
“[The simulation] shows the reality of so many people in the community: just because you have a job doesn’t mean that everything will be easy. “- J. Reeves
“It really is something that we in the urban community deal with. [We] helped people see what poverty feels like and that it is not a myth but what many people deal with every day”- A. Williams
“I liked that… we were able help people see just for a moment what we go through every day” -J. Reeves
“I think we should do it every class to help others not just judge from the outside”- Q. Pitchford
And from a SouthernSun employee:
“It was a beautiful experience to witness this vast group of people come together and empathize with one another while also discussing what one could do going forward to help alleviate poverty.”
So often in America we break down society into categories such as the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but the reality is that we are all in need because poverty goes beyond material possessions. Our hope here at Advance is that, through fiercely loving our neighbors, providing services for sustainability, and engaging people with the truth of the gospel, we will help enable our neighbors in 38126 not only to feel advocated for, but to contribute to changing 38126 and the city of Memphis.
Life Stories. We all have a unique story authored by God. My belief is that we are all right where we are supposed to be at this very moment in time. Our story has been written by God himself, however, we like to take the pen sometimes. I also believe that if it weren’t for our past, our stories, we wouldn’t be able to have the relationships that we can have with Him now.
My favorite scripture that I share with the Work Life class is from Philippians 6:1,
“For I am confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will see it through until completion,
until the day of Jesus Christ.”
My story is still being written and so is yours.
We share Life Stories as an activity in our Work Life Class, separating the men from the women. As one particular woman stood in front of the classroom and pulled out the most elaborate poster board obviously made with thought and time, I wondered to myself if this would be a creative story spun with loads of fun and activities (you see, she is the most outspoken woman in the class).
As she began, I immediately knew she was coming from a place of truth and pain in her life. She disclosed that she was sexually molested as a young girl and placed in foster care. She disclosed that she was emotionally and physically abused by multiple foster parents. She tried to dress up the fact that her hurts led her to alcohol and drugs, more unwanted sex and unwanted children, given and taken by the state. The anguish she shared over taking the life of an unwanted child seemed to multiply the shame. She felt as if she was the horrible person. She shared that she felt she had no worth and no right to be treated kindly – she said she didn’t believe she deserved to live.
As I listened to her, my heart and soul shook with awe and pain. Everything in me trying to hold it together. How does she come to class everyday? How does she hold up her head when I would want to cover mine? As an instructor and a woman that works with other women in addictions, I’ve heard these stories before, just not as raw and emotional. As she continued to share her story with us, I started praying for her, I prayed that God would heal her wounds, that He would make her feel valued and loved, that He would help her feel His presence.
I think we all felt His presence in that classroom. As she finished, we prayed and she asked Jesus to come into her life. As I prayed and spoke God’s truth to her, she wanted more. They all wanted more. The personal psychological and emotional toll is even devastating to me. She expressed anger and disappointment with God. She believed he was ignoring her cry and turning His back on her. But she was willing to fall at the foot of the cross-without the hope of God’s help, she felt there was no other way to end the pain. She is in critical need of accurate teaching about forgiveness and grace. God, help me to commit to being vigilant in praying for her. Help me to represent you as an Image Bearer and live in Kingdom Action. God please help me to continue to show her You, where she can trust You and let you continue to spin her story with redemption and grace.
Our heavenly father welcomes the prodigal today. He watches and waits for us to come home. He is ready with redemption and free with forgiveness. God gives grace without hesitation. He wants to heal her pain more than I do. Our Father provides the ultimate healing from our trauma as wounded children.
Will you join me in prayer that we would all allow God to continue to write our stories and for us to trust in Him and put down our own pen.
“Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.” Psalm 139:16
Cindy Chapple is a Work Life
graduate and has worked at
Advance Memphis since her
graduation in 2009.
Routines and work and busy schedules—day to day life—can make us forget, or miss, what God is doing around us. Recently at Advance, three conversations with South Memphis neighbors woke me up and reminded me that our neighborhood is filled with talented people, made in God’s image, who are working to improve their lives and their community. Here are three things I observed in a fresh way, thanks to our participants.
PEOPLE WANT TO GIVE BACK
As we welcomed folks to class for orientation today, we asked, as we always do, “What would a positive possible future look like for you 18 months from now if you worked hard to move towards your goals?” Almost immediately a gentleman in the back spoke up and said: “I would be giving back to my community, investing in those like me who need somebody to help them along.” “I’d be financially stable and able to give generously to my community,” said another. “I could be a mentor or role model for younger folks, because they will see the change in my life,” said a third. (And grads ARE giving back – see this recent story.)
These answers get at the heart of why we do the Jobs for Life class: work is one of God’s best ways of empowering His people to contribute to the life of their communities. That’s why Paul tells even thieves to work with their hands: “so that you might have something to share with those in need.” Our neighbors are deeply invested in their communities and care about improving them. That’s a big part of why they’re here.
INJUSTICE KEEPS PEOPLE FROM WORK
At the beginning of each class, though, we also ask about challenges that participants face. Criminal records are a common answer, but today I heard a story that reminded me of the injustices facing ex-felons in the marketplace.
“I worked for six years for a company, full-time with benefits, and good at what I did,” one woman shared. “But because of a situation at another warehouse, they decided to do company wide background checks, and when they saw I had a felony from 12 years prior, they fired me.”
What a reminder of the way the system stacks up endless obstacles against low-skilled workers and workers with troubled pasts, no matter how far back. Paul thought thieves should be able to work so that they could contribute, but too often our system ensures that former thieves, regardless of how recovered, find it very, very difficult to find any work at all. And in some cases, like this woman’s, a person’s background trumps 6 years of quality performance on the job. I’ll remember that story the next time I hear someone say that if somebody really wants to work they can find a job, or that businesses will always reward hard work and solid performance. The story from the community’s experience reveals a much more complicated situation.
OUR NEIGHBORS ARE OVERCOMING THE ODDS
This afternoon, I also ran into a recent LAUNCH grad. LAUNCH is a 10 week entrepreneurship class that seeks to equip our neighbors to achieve greater economic self-sufficiency through starting or improving small businesses. This woman was on the computer filing her paperwork with the IRS because she just got another regular commercial client. As I talked with her, I realized this woman is set up to be doing $2,800 dollars of guaranteed revenue each month! And she’s looking for more! What a testimony that this woman, currently living in government housing, is using her God-given gifts and her God-given hustle to overcome the odds and create work for herself and her family.
Isaiah 61 tells us that the Messiah would come to turn the poor, captive, and indebted folks into Oaks of Righteousness who would rebuild the walls of their devastated cities. One of the best parts of working at Advance is getting to know some of these Oaks, some of these folks who, like those I talked to today, are using their God-given gifts to become a “planting for the display of His splendor.” May we open our eyes and ears to all of God’s image bearers, looking for ways to encourage one another on our way towards His kingdom.
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed . . . Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves . . . they all ate and were satisfied . . . The number of those who ate was about five thousand . . . After Jesus had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.
There may be no greater mystery than the Christ’s apparent reliance on prayer. Jesus the Word made flesh often spoke his own words back to the Father. The Bread from Heaven turned to his Father to ask for earthly bread for the hungry. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, the God-Man begged God-the-Father for an alternative to the cross, before laying down his own will, and life, for his friends.
Unlike Jesus, I have always had a hard time with prayer. Not least when working with and for friends who are hungry, prayer often seems inadequate and distracting, a necessary ritual performed before and after the real work of training someone for a job, grieving with someone whose friend was recently shot, or discerning the wisest course of action in dealing with their slumlord property manager. Prayer just doesn’t get the job done.
But nor has prayer typically provided me the kind of revitalizing rest that it seems to have provided Jesus up on those mountain tops in the Gospels. Exhausted from a day serving 5 people, to say nothing of 5,000, I’m much more likely to look to a good meal with a friend, or a mindless hour in front of the TV than a night-long prayer vigil. My prayers mostly turn into endless verbal vomit anyway, containing a million requests or artificial sloppy “prayer-isms” that leave me exhausted. And if I’m honest, doubtful about whether anything is happening. Or could happen.
And so it is that many of us in ministries of mercy and justice decide that we, unlike God-made-man, do not need the life of prayer beyond the perfunctory requirements of our work, and seek simply to do our best on our own steam.
Abide in me and I will abide in you. And you shall bear much fruit.
This summer, I was required to take a course called Spiritual Formation for Ministry. I showed up to class weary with the world of work, broken relationships, injustice, and failure. I had low expectations, and so I was surprised when, instead of showing up and finding an out-of-touch fluff course, I found Jesus instead.
Not that we hadn’t met, even gotten pretty well acquainted. It’s just that when I read David Benner’s words that prayer is simply being attuned to and responding to God’s presence throughout the day, I started thinking about how most of my prayers fall into the “Thank You, Please, and I’m Sorry” category, as my friend Daniel put it. I also started thinking about what my relationship with my wife Rebecca would be like if all of our conversations began that way, and if they were all crammed into 5 minute slots at the beginning of the day and before meals. And I began recognizing that when Jesus called his disciples to abide, he probably meant more than either my ceiling-aimed verbal vomits or prayer-less activism.
So began my summer long journey into a set of spiritual practices suggested by Adele Calhoun’s phenomenal Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. For several weeks, in my morning hours, I spent more time in silence, lingering over smaller portions of Scripture. Then, I tried to find a one sentence prayer that I prayed repeatedly not only in the morning but, God willing, throughout the day. Prayers like “Father, you have given me all I need for life and godliness” from 2 Peter, or “Jesus wake me up to your presence among your people” from Revelation kept my heart just a bit more aware of this absurd reality we proclaim on a regular basis: that the Spirit of God has made his home in our hearts, that, to use the words of C.S. Lewis, “The world is crowded with God,” who “walks everywhere incognito.” And at the end of each day, I tried to spend 10 minutes walking through the day in the presence of Jesus, asking the simple questions: “Where did I sense God’s presence today? Where did I feel that He was absent?”
Each day of this experiment was different. Often I slept through scheduled devotions or found myself “meditating” on how big of a jerk somebody had been or on some scheme to make myself feel more important rather than on Christ. Other times, though, were breathtaking. Snuggling Isaiah to sleep and practicing my evening prayer and suddenly having this mental image that God was holding both my son and me in His own arms. Realizing at 4:30 p.m. that I was looking forward to my evening prayers, not out of duty or with any hopes of accomplishing anything but simply being before God. Taking the pain and struggle of my neighbors in the Jobs for Life class to Christ in prayer rather than burying them in my heart or processing them to death with a co-worker. Encountering temptation and finding that simple breath prayer “Father, you have given me all I need for life and godliness” spring unbidden to my mind and drowning out the voice of temptation. And maybe most powerfully, making me just a little less insecure, slightly less likely to let an offense kindle an inner rage, a tad quicker to forgive or extend the benefit of the doubt.
Class is basically over now, and faithful praying can no longer earn me an A. Honestly, I find myself wondering how to sustain, more, grow into the sort of praying that listens to God’s voice and invites Him to speak throughout the day, through His Word, through our hearts, and even through our neighbors. I am worried, if I’m honest, that as soon as I head down from the top of this spiritual mountain top, I’ll not only forget the views, but also the paths that got me there.
And yet, perhaps the deepest lesson I feel the Teacher teaching me in this classroom of prayer is simply this: the prayer-less road is the road to death. How many of us, I wonder, have lived much of our lives attempting to love others and do good, to bear much fruit, without spending any time attending to the love, the work, and the way of the vine Himself? According to Jesus, our efforts at flourishing apart from him lead only to fruitlessness, and eventually, destruction. As Nouwen says, in speaking about the connection between activism and prayer:
“Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only hunger to be alleviated, injustice to be addressed, violence to be overcome, wars to be stopped, and loneliness to be removed . . . when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel an oppressive weight.”
Neighbor love, according to Dean and Foster in The God-Bearing Life, happens when the cup of our lives has been so filled up with the Spirit of Christ’s presence that we overflow into the lives of those around us. But I have so often simply been a cup-half-full half-poured out and then empty, not because Christ has been absent, but simply because I have refused to take heed of Christ’s words: “take, eat; take, drink. This is my body, this is my blood, broken and poured out for you.” It is a matter of life and death for us, then. For only when we “discover the suffering of the world in the heart of Jesus,” rather than in our own efforts, can we face that suffering and live, “leading every sorrow to the source of all healing” (Nouwen).
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death (Prov 14:12). For me, and I fear for many of us, that way has been to try to pursue Christ’s work without pursuing Christ’s heart. And the result is not only fruitlessness, but emptiness, pain, burnout, even death. May Christ call all of us, not least those of us who desire justice for our neighbors, back to the place of prayer, the place where Christ so fills us with His love that we flood His world with it.