In our town of Bedford, Virginia, this is tryout week for the spring play, “Bye Bye Birdie.” My daughter, Cate, is telling me the story of Conrad Birdie, a 1950’s popstar with a striking similarity to Elvis Presley who goes to small town Sweet Apple, Ohio, for a promotional gig. Of course, the play is really about the stories of a cast of less famous characters. And my favorite part is hearing my 14-year-old girl sing “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” a song that the 16-year-old character Kim McAfee sings.
Beyond the plot, I’m also learning that story is powerful for this group of high schoolers. That’s because of the community they build as kids who love theater. They do it together. Story becomes influential amidst community.
I know this to be true from my own family, who are the inheritors of great stories. My grandparents’ home was a simple, lovely double-wide trailer full of stories. We’d gather in the family room in the fall and winter or on lawn chairs by the creek in the summer and spring and tell and listen to family stories. Papaw repeated the wild tales about mica mining and fishing, stories that included my uncles, my great-grandfather Hosea, and mountain neighbors. Mamaw told the stories of kin long since passed before my arrival. There were stories about dogs, and snakes, and Hosea’s pulley contraption that he used to get branch water to the house. But there was also the story about the church fire and the story about Cecil who was shot and killed in his small cinder block mountain grocery story.
We would sit and laugh and interrupt and become respectfully silent depending upon the story. But it was always a group effort and anyone could have repeated these stories that had been told a hundred times before. I desperately wanted my children to know these stories and began telling them when they were barely old enough to listen. It didn’t work, however. They were family stories and not just my stories. My oldest sister, Frankie, became the storyteller for my kids, and they could not get enough of them from her. She has driven them all over the mountains where these things happened and shown them the sacred places and the cemetery where these saints rest. The stories still rattle around my maturing kids’ heads, and they often ask me questions, filling in the details about places and people. They are the family inheritance providing a wealth of resources for answering questions about who we are and what we want to be.
Family is one form of human community that passes along stories as resources for making meaning. There are many other forms. Churches are story-telling communities, and the rural congregations that I have served function in very similar patterns to my mountain family. But there are also theater groups, sports teams, quilter clubs, veteran’s associations, and the list is long. Stories thrive in small-scale human community where people are adopted into membership and given a place to belong. Amidst the well-known face-to-face relationships of these small communities, a person comes to feel a part of a story bigger than themselves. It takes a village to tell a good story.
Let me contrast this small-scale storytelling strategy with the largest, best-funded storytelling machine in the world – the Cineplex. Think about what a strange way the mass-market cinema is for telling stories. Now, I confess that we go to see movies all the time. It’s great entertainment, and I do not plan to give it up. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” comes out December 15, and I can’t wait. But here’s how it goes. We drive 45 minutes from home to the suburban theater in Roanoke, get out of the car and wait in line to pay $44 for tickets. Then we get in line to pay $50 for sodas and popcorn. We walk the long-carpeted hallways to room #6 and find seats near the aisle. We do not know a single soul in the massive, high ceilinged room. As we await the story, the lights are turned off leaving us in the dark of our individual cocoons to passively absorb the amazing display of sight and sound.
I can quote most lines from “A River Runs Through It,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Waking Ned Devine,” but Brad Pitt, Jimmy Stewart, and Ian Bannen have not been the people who have significantly shaped my life. Family like Hosea, Ed, Mae, and Betty and church folks like Charles, Dave, Marjorie, John, Bonnie, and a host of others are the people whose voices and faces rattle around in my mind, putting together the pieces of a story of which I am merely a part.
Elie Wiesel closes a traditional Hasidic story with a proverb in The Gates of the Forest. Wiesel writes, “God made man because He loves stories.” We are awash in stories during the holidays of December. There are so many stories in the air that it is silly to insist on the exclusive priority of any one narrative. The great opportunity of this season is to find renewed meaning amidst community. If you are fortunate enough to be a part of a community whose story has become integral to your own story, then nurture and support that community this time of year. Give thanks for your neighbor who has found these connections in a very different kind of community from yours. And show hospitality to the neighbor who feels alone in the world.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.