Stories that heal
Storytelling is one of the methods by which
members of Oceanside Lutheran Church are
helped in their healing after Hurricane Sandy.
Almost a year after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the New York tri-state area in the fall of 2012, members of Oceanside Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Oceanside, N.Y., are still trying to rebuild their damaged homes. Still others experienced too much damage to rebuild and have either abandoned their homes, left the area or are living elsewhere.
One-quarter of the congregation members who had homes damaged are still displaced, living in the chaos of repair work or waiting on contractors, according to Danielle Miller, Oceanside’s pastor. And some who are back in their homes suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress from all that they’ve been through.
Danielle feels strongly that people can heal by telling their story and is beginning a pilot program called “The Year of the Story” in September, a ministry that promises to transform the congregation.
The program will include a new way of doing the Sunday readings, along with artwork that tells a story in the sanctuary and a theatrical ministry. “We need to create more opportunity for people to connect their stories,” says Danielle, who has been the pastor here for five years.
Teams of congregation members have spent the summer working on murals, the new lectionary and on storytelling projects.
Danielle says that telling stories is one way to help the people of Oceanside Lutheran heal from the trauma of the storm.
By telling stories, particularly in sharing their own story of how the storm affected them, Danielle says people can realize that we’re all connected. “Out of chaos came the opportunity to help someone else. The Year of the Story is the story of our neighbor.”
“The goal is to empower people to claim their own stories and to process their own narrative in light of Hurricane Sandy, and doing it all in the light of God’s story. It’s claiming God’s story as our own.”
If any one Bible story defines her congregation, Danielle said it would be that of Jonah. “His lament in the belly of the whale,” struck a particular chord with the congregation, where more than 30 percent of people were affected by the storm. “We spent a lot of time with that and with Peter walking on the water.”
Because water was so destructive during Sandy, Danielle says the congregation spent a lot of time understanding that water isn’t something bad, as in the waters of baptism. She says she also has been working with the congregation on understanding that storms like these aren’t caused by God. Some people, she says, are mad at God, and she’s been working to expand their understanding of God.
One of the tools that Danielle is using to help members heal and move on is called a “narrative lectionary.” Unlike the Revised Common Lectionary used by most ELCA congregations, the narrative lectionary is a set of worship readings that moves through the overarching biblical story in a nine-month period, beginning in the fall with Old Testament stories. The concept was launched experimentally at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 2010 and is growing in popularity. It is a story-based approach, and recounts biblical stories chronologically, starting with Genesis in September.
In connection with the new lectionary, the congregation is also launching an acting ministry that will give members an opportunity to proclaim their story theatrically. “We’re talking about Sandy and unpacking some of the struggles and grief that people are feeling.”
The project is being received positively, Danielle says. “We’re very blessed because people are willing to try something new. We’ve had some epic failures and some incredible successes. People are willing to explore. We’re really very excited about it.”
One part of the project is called “The Art of Faith” and consists of creating a growing mural that will wrap around the church. Local artists from the congregation and the community — including poets and writers — are creating canvases that tell stories.
All the parts of the Year of the Story will coordinate, and the lectionary lessons will sync with confirmation, Sunday school and adult Bible studies.
“When we talk about our whole story — of faith, doubt, struggle, joy, celebration — we know that our stories aren’t isolated. When our stories are connected, we’re stronger for it. Until we make our connections with our stories, we don’t’ know how much we need each other. We’re stronger today than we ever thought we could be.”
“Sandy was an incredible equalizer,” Danielle shares. “Whether you were a doctor or a dock worker, you could be in the same spot.”
And as with all things, God is at work through the damage and destruction. Danielle reminds: “The most beautiful flowers grow out of manure.”