From the Archives: Storying to Build an Atmosphere of Trust and Mutual Respect

Al MulderFrom the Archives


In honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, we share this article from our archives, first printed in our quarterly journal in June 2012. How might storying be a part of your ministry today?

Storying is the telling of our stories.

Although “storying” is not in any dictionary, it is part of the vocabulary at Faith Alive Christian Resources. Storying was introduced to Faith Alive by D. John Lee, a psychologist at the Michigan State University Counseling Center. Simply stated, storying is a guided process of people getting together to share their personal stories in relation to ethnicity, race and racism.

It came to pass in this way.

Faith Alive Christian Resources has its roots in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) and, more recently, the Reformed Church in America (RCA). These two denominations, like most denominations with European roots, still consist primarily of predominantly white congregations and dominant culture leadership. For decades Faith Alive has strongly desired to become more diverse and inclusive, ethnically and racially.

In 1990 Faith Alive established an anti-racism team. This was an organizational decision, with the goal of coming to better understand and more effectively dismantle institutional racism. Practices and policies were analyzed, official policies were changed, and efforts to diversify were intensified. But new policies do not translate quickly into new culture. People of color were welcomed into the organization, but on average they cycled out more quickly, and those who remained still often felt out of place.

So, in came storying.

The purpose of storying is, as Lee puts it, “to build an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.” Whereas the anti-racism team focused on organizational and structural issues, storying focuses on creating a more inclusive climate by strengthening cross-cultural relationships. Storying is about building ally relationships.

Originally developed by Lee and others for use with graduate students at Michigan State University, the executive leadership at Faith Alive invited Lee to introduce storying to interested personnel at Faith Alive. Because of his limited availability he also agreed to coach Laura Carpenter and me, a racially diverse team of anti-racism trainers, to serve as storying facilitators.

Round One. Eighteen personnel signed up, six persons of color and 12 white persons. We met for one hour every other week.

  • We opened with prayer and reviewed the ground rules.
  • People were given 30 minutes to tell their stories. Often with the help of photographs and genealogies, they gave windows into the family and ethnicity and culture in which they grew up, and their growing awareness of race, race prejudice, and institutionalized racism.
  • The second 30 minutes consisted of interaction between the ‘story-er’ and the group. First, questions for clarification. “Did I understand…?” “Is it correct that…?” No probing questions allowed. No debate. Second, opportunity for response. “When you said this I felt….” “I am surprised by….” Your story reminded me of….”

This cycle took the better part of a year. In virtually every session, group members expressed deep appreciation to the presenter. Lee described this as movement “from understanding to empathy, from caring to knowing, and from head to heart.” Jolanda Howe, one of the white participants, reflected, “I think the storying process was eye opening for all of us. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. Hearing other people’s stories of growing up and how their culture and race shape and impact their lives made me more aware of the ongoing struggle against racism, and the way white privilege affects my life. It made me eager to find practical ways to make changes in the spheres of influence that I can affect.”

Round Two. With the continued guidance of Lee, the storying participants were invited to continue the work of learning how to be an ally. We resumed meeting every other week, again taking turns sharing with the group. Our assignment was in two parts. The first part was to reflect with the group on my storying experience: What did I feel when telling my story, what did I think? What did I learn about myself as an ethnic and cultural and racialized person? The second part was to give feedback to the group about what I learned from others in the process of experiencing their storying.

Both parts involved risk, but in different ways. The first part involved the risk of exposing my feelings, my thoughts, and my insights. The second part involved practicing how to relate and communicate more deeply cross-culturally: “this is what I learned about you” and “this is what I would like to ask of you.” Our task as facilitators was to help folks dialogue by the rules. Am I being non-judgmental and non-corrective? Am I honestly seeking to understand? Would I be willing to respond to the same question about myself?

Once again, people hung in there while sharing at deep and often painful levels.

Round Three, still in process, Lee calls “post-storying.” Unlike rounds one and two in which we did most of our work in groups, now our work is more individualized. Each participant has developed a “voluntary personal plan comprised of goals to develop cultural competencies and racial responsiveness within one’s Faith Alive job responsibilities and environment.” Each participant shares their progress periodically with one or two co-workers, at other times with Laura and me as facilitators, and at year’s end with all their Faith Alive allies.

Where from here? Faith Alive director Mark Rice is not sure; possibly repeat the cycle for those interested. However, one thing he is sure of: Faith Alive will not quit! Quoting Rice, “This is a hard work, but fighting racism is just that. It doesn’t come easy and even small steps seem to take time. With God’s help, we are committed to the journey, however long that takes.”

(From 2012) – Al Mulder was ordained as a Christian Reformed (CRC) minister in 1960. He served a rural church in Kansas, mission churches in Utah and New Mexico, and–from 1984 to 2003–director of church planting for CRC Home Missions. In retirement, he works part-time as church-planting specialist in the Great Lakes region, and as stated clerk for Classis Grand Rapids East of the CRC. He has authored three books– Happiness Is…., Learning to Count to One: the Joy and Pain of Becoming a Multi-Racial Church, and CHRISTIAN: What It Means, Why It Matters. He is a member of Madison Square Church, and is an anti-racism advocate and trainer.