Since I was a kid I’ve collected and told stories. As a Boy Scout we sat around the fire and learned the craft of a well told story. Often the stories were of the horror genre intended to keep our friends awake at night, listening for muffled footsteps outside the tent. Other stories made us laugh and sometimes served to educate and inspire.
For the last thirty years as a pastor, I’ve told stories through weekly sermons and more recently a weekly blog. I’ve dialogued with ancient stories in the Bible and found in many a reflection of my own story. Like Thomas I too doubt and like Peter I too struggle for courage. At times like Isaiah, I too say to God with a measure of sincerity, ‘Here am I’.
As a pastor I’ve listened to and been moved by the stories of the people I walk with. I’ve been invited to hear stories of shame, anger, resentment, strength, wisdom and hope. In their stories I’ve seen a reflection of my own. By sharing our stories, no matter how varied, we find the common ground upon which we all stand.
A few days ago I was having coffee with a new friend, also a pastor. She asked: ‘What is one of your favorite stories?’ I told her:
“When I was a boy in elementary school in Rhode Island, a new boy came to school. His name was Eddie Fitz. Eddie was a large boy, with rumpled, old clothes and hair that was ‘fire engine red’. My friends and I made fun of Eddie. He wasn’t one of us. He didn’t look like us. With the other children I participated in the humiliating of this outsider, this stranger…One day, Eddie didn’t show up to school. We heard that his family had moved, yet again. No one asked where he had gone, Eddie wasn’t one of us.
Over the years I’ve been haunted by the memory of that little boy who came to our school and was so unwelcome. I’ve reflected on my complicity in this process of humiliation and exclusion. I’ve longed to apologize and have always wondered what happened to him.
….Fast forward twenty years and I am serving as a youth pastor in Vallejo, California. The church is located across from the bus depot. Being a town with a high crime rate it was not uncommon for people being paroled from Folsom or San Quentin prison, to be released to Vallejo, the town where they had committed their crime. At that time they were released with $100 and with that paltry sum were expected to find a place to live, with first and last months rent deposit and find a job. Word was out that paroles could walk across the street to the church and receive some modest assistance. My job was to do the intake, to listen to their story and offer some limited support.
One day a man walked into my office and said he’d just been released from Folsom. Without looking up (I’d become somewhat jaded by this time), I asked for identification. Before me was a picture identification with the name ‘Edward Fitz’. I looked up and saw that this man was about my age. His clothing was rumpled from his time on the bus. His hair was fire engine red…My breathing became short and my hands clammy. I asked: ‘Did you ever live in Rhode Island?’ He looked at me oddly and said, ‘No’. I looked more closely at his ID and saw that he was a few years older than me. He wasn’t my Eddie Fitz…yet he was.
Rest assured, that this Eddie Fitz got everything he asked for, and more: First and last months rent for an apartment. I helped him find and move in furniture and celebrated with Eddie when he found a job.”
My new friend sipped her coffee as she listened to my story. I’d told this story before and was surprised that tears had come. I said: ” I think this story of Eddie Fitz has defined my professional and personal life. I’ve tried to make amends for what I did and didn’t do for that little boy so long ago, I’ve tried to stand up for and stand with the Eddies who are always with us.”
Such is the power of a story. What stories define you? What story do you offer to others?