Lessons in Stories

Stories: the tales of our lives. How powerful they can be. How amazing is their ability to animate a historical event and paint a vivid, dream-like picture. Their recollection of the past possesses the ability to inspire, to celebrate, and even to mourn. They enable us to see friends and enemies in a new light. Stories promote understanding and compassion, revealing our human interconnectedness in their raw emotion. This week, they have made me cry, laugh and ponder in silence. Even amidst the monotony of daily work here at the office, I have had the privilege of hearing, reading, and experiencing powerful stories of triumph, sorrow and adventure.

This week I have been working on a comparative study of the Loudoun Literacy Council (LLC) adult literacy program and our own Nuestras Esperanzas in Nicaragua. I have been studying the LLC curriculum, observing classes, and interviewing teachers and administrators in order to find commonalities and learn from LLC’s successes. While academically I have picked up a lot of valuable information about how to implement a literacy program, what has been the most impactful for me has been hearing the stories of students and teachers.

This past Tuesday, I walked into a classroom to observe a beginner adult literacy session and I beheld a beautiful thing. A small group of people from a variety of countries, ages and socioeconomic positions were learning to speak, read and write English together. Though their skin color and native languages were different, they acted as a small family unit, helping each other to learn. Beth, a board member of Loudoun Literacy Council described the environment as being “like a mini U.N.” She explains, “we all learn from each other’s experiences and cultures and it creates a sense of empathy and camaraderie.” Beth has taught many literacy classes such as the one I observed and she often asks her students to come up in front of the class and talk about their own story and the country they grew up in. Presenting gives them practice, confidence and helps the students to learn from each other. Once or twice she has had refugees or immigrants in her class who come from countries in conflict with one another. By the end of the class season, their political tension is replaced with a new understanding of their peers. Beth says she has been blessed to hear some of their stories and to become a close friend. A refugee named Selamawi Asgedom and his family hold a special place in her heart. Selamawi or “Mawi” has an incredible story that he recounts in his book Of Beetles and Angels: A Boys Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard. As the title alludes to, Mawi came to America as an Ethiopian refugee and through his hard work and angelic disposition, he is now a Harvard alum, a world famous speaker, and has even appeared on Oprah. His story is one of triumph, loss, faith and legacy. Beth had the privilege of being a part of this amazing journey as she taught members of his family to speak English through her ESL program many years back.

Another beautiful thing to behold is people of all faiths working alongside of each other to make dreams such as Mawi’s come true. Both Christians, such as Beth, and non-Christians volunteer for this program. Though Beth wholeheartedly points to her faith in God as her number one motivation for serving in this area, she sees many others serving out a pure love for humankind and a passion for the international community. I believe that regardless of religion, we are all designed in such a way that when we help others we find ourselves with that delightful, “warm and fuzzy feeling” in the pit of our stomachs.

However, sometimes we only help people or are compassionate towards them after we have heard their story. I have noticed that I am more likely to take action or feel pity for someone when I am aware of their personal journey. Stories can be powerful for sure, but I don’t believe they should be necessary in order to motivate us to help. In his book Mawi writes,

“… our father told us about strangers. We should always treat them kindly, he said, because they could have been sent by God. He told us stories of how back home in Adi, God’s angels would descend out of mountains and mingle among people. People always mistreated the angels, my father said, because the angels never looked like angels. They were always disguised as the lowliest of beetles: beggars, vagrants and misfits” (29).

Regardless of their pasts, Mawi and his family always cared for these strangers. They acted in the spirit of Matthew 25, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in… ” Jesus essentially says to treat everyone as if they were Him in disguise. As cliché as this may sound, the world would be a much better place if we simply envisioned the strangers around us as Jesus himself or an undercover angel. In turn, we would see our own stories evolve and the pages become filled with new friends and powerful memories.