Into the Heart of the Other:
Interfaith Story Circles

By Gert Johnson

I stepped into storytelling thirteen years ago. During my graduate studies in theology I wrote a master’s thesis on the use of storytelling in moral education with adolescents, documenting my work using this approach with my high school religious studies classes. This experience literally transformed my teaching and left me longing for further knowledge and experimentation with story.

Members of the local guild of the National Storytelling Network (NSN) were my first mentors in storytelling. I learned much from attending their circles. However, their emphasis was on telling stories with an eye to professional performance. I dreamed of a circle where the focus would be on stories of faith and spirituality—stories that could be a source of revelation, inspiration, and possible transformation in everyday life. This circle would be composed of peoples of different faiths, bringing the riches of their story traditions to the table, recognizing the value of our diverse truths and those we hold in common.

My dream became a reality in 1993. There were just three of us at that first circle. During the next four years we met at a fixed place, our circle remaining small in size and scope and top-heavy with Christian tellers and listeners. Looking back on that time, I am reminded of the parable of the mustard seed and of the uncommon grace God can give us to have faith and persevere in the face of things “not yet seen.”

This past September, Interfaith Story Circle celebrated its tenth anniversary at an interfaith sanctuary in Albany, New York. We are now a storytelling group made up of people of many faiths, a real mix of professional tellers and those who come simply out of a love for story. Our circles meet monthly from September to June, each hosted by a different faith community and led by a storyteller with expertise in a particular area. The teller spends a bit of time sharing his/her knowledge and a few stories on that month’s theme. Then the circle is open for all to tell. No one need plan or sign up to tell. We simply allow the stories to move and inspire us, to take us where they will.

Each circle begins and ends with prayer and runs for two hours. There is no break. None is needed. One story begets another, catching us up and carrying us along. We are often reluctant to see our time together come to an end. After the circle, we leaf through theme-related books that the teller has brought, pick up the provided list of resources, and linger a bit. As lights are dimmed, doors are closed, and people head home, one can still hear bits of stories being exchanged, floating up into the night sky.

The week before our anniversary circle I spent some time alone in the sanctuary. Sitting beneath the round stained glass windows, their vividly swirling blues portraying the energy of creation and of interfaith dialogue, I scanned a list of our past circles. One after another I drew them up in my mind’s eye, picturing the sacred spaces where we gather: Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches, Jewish synagogues and temples, a local Buddhist center, and the Hindu temple and Muslim mosque that will host us this spring. I reflected on the variety and richness of our times together: evenings of tales from the various faith traditions; circles sharing stories of death and dying, bereavement, suffering, and reconciliation; our yearly gathering of teens telling tales; circles focused on telling our own stories for discernment, prayer, and spiritual enrichment; and those that have explored the use of storytelling in liturgy and ministry.

One after another, I remembered stories that had been told. One after another, I silently thanked the tellers who had led these circles, those who had come to listen, and those who felt prompted to tell in return. They are the people who have helped Interfaith Story Circle grow from the mustard seed it once was into the tree with many branches it is today.

A week later, as we gathered in the sanctuary, circling around our “spiritual fire” to celebrate ten years of telling, many of the same people were present in person, and they spoke readily of what Interfaith Story Circle has meant to them.

Marni, an accomplished teacher/teller/coach and author of books on storytelling, spoke of how she was “shy” at first to speak of her faith in any public way; of how having her stories welcomed and honored in Interfaith Circle has not only enabled her to share her personal journeys of faith but also has spilled over into her work in prison ministry and with troubled teens, helping those people to do the same.

Waynet, a student at a local graduate school of theology and ministry, told of coming to story circle last year to help satisfy the school’s requirement for practical experience in ministry. She spoke enthusiastically of her first time with us, of hearing a minister “storytell Matthew’s dry and boring genealogy of Jesus” in a way that awakened her to “the power story has to bring Scripture and theology to life.”

Anne remembered how she first came to story circle intending to be a listener but soon felt compelled to tell. “Telling in circle has opened me up and given me the courage to share this gift in my faith community,” she said. Anne recently portrayed the biblical character Elizabeth in her storytelling of the angel Gabriel’s visitation. Her fellow parishioners’ enthusiastic response prompted her to consider more tellings of women in Scripture.

Joe, a producer of many story events in our area, reminisced about the more formal Advent, Winter Lights, and Lenten tellings we have held in the broader community. Joe was instrumental in moving us in this direction, encouraging us to include free-will offerings to benefit food pantries and homeless shelters as part of these programs, adding a service dimension to our community tellings. Kate, who is not a member of any faith tradition, shared her own experience at Winter Lights. “I came feeling out of kilter,” she said. “Being welcomed and hearing the stories brought peace to my spirit. And seeing the advent wreath, the menorah, and the lights of the Hindu tradition on the altar, all coexisting, gave me a sense that we are all part of the Light.”

I spoke of a member who could not be with us at the celebration: twelve-year-old Adah, a naturally gifted teller who often comes with her mother to circle and delights us with her stories. With coaching, she has summoned the courage to tell tales from her Jewish tradition at two Winter Lights programs. Adah’s presence is motivating us to work at making our circle truly intergenerational.

Mussarat spoke of having been invited to come to our evening of Muslim tales not long after 9/11. She had hesitated, she explained, because “it was a time when people were suspicious of Muslims”; she was also a bit skeptical because the facilitator had a non-Muslim name. Her feelings changed during the circle, however, as she realized that the people who told that night had worked hard to find very special stories rooted in her tradition.

Her recollection brought that evening back to me. People were gathering in the circle as Mussarat and her three friends entered the sanctuary. We welcomed them, asking them to “come join the circle.” With smiles and nods they took their places, replying “Thank you, but we’ve just come to listen, not to tell.” We assured them that was fine. After prayer, Carol, our facilitator, shared her research on storytelling in the Islamic tradition, then told a tale she had prepared. “Oh, my father told me that story when I was a little girl,” Mussarat remarked. She went on to explain the spiritual significance of the hajj (pilgrimage), which figures in this tale, and gave a wonderfully moving account of her last trip to Mecca. After Carol’s next story, one of Mussarat’s friends said, “I know that story, but my version is a bit different,” and she shared hers with us.

One after another, our storytellers offered Muslim tales, and the Muslim women responded in kind. “Ah, the stories are wielding their power,” I thought—breaking down barriers, opening minds and hearts to share.

Mussarat concluded her anniversary remembrance by saying, “Of all the interfaith activities I have been involved in over the years, this seems to be the one that gets to your heart. You can really feel each others’ spiritualities.”

And on and on the sharing went. We videotaped our anniversary circle, and I will show the tape this summer as part of a presentation at the National Storytelling Conference. Many storytellers around the country—some of them members of NSN’s new interfaith discussion group and listserv—have expressed an interest in forming interfaith circles in their communities. These tellers are sharing and encouraging my current dream: that one day there will be interfaith story circles such as ours scattered throughout our country, perhaps throughout the world.

Gert Johnson, a member of St. John the Baptist Church in Schenectady, New York, is the founder and coordinator of Interfaith Story Circle of the Tri-City Area. She is a retired 30-year teacher of religious studies, a presenter of workshops on the use of storytelling for religious education and creative church ministry at the local and national levels, and a teller of tales in classroom and spiritual settings. Contact her at 518-374-0637 or grsjohnson@aol.com for more information about interfaith storytelling.


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