A Discussion Group of the National Storytelling Network

Story Circles
Children at the Well

One God: Many Different Tales

A shorter version of this essay appeared in The Evangelist: official weekly newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, N.Y. December 10, 2009

Photo of CATW Interns and staff, Fall 2009 I have journeyed through life as a Catholic. My upbringing, my higher education, even my thirty year career-all Catholic. The important moments in my life have been celebrated and graced with the sacraments, rituals and prayers of my tradition. My closest companions on the journey have been Catholic.

So you might be surprised to learn that some of the people who have become an important influence on my spiritual life in recent years are young people from the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim as well as the Christian tradition. They are students involved in “Children at the Well”, the youth interfaith storytelling project I co-direct. Their influence has come by way of their witness to their faith and the stories they choose to tell.

Ritam loves to tell the story of Mundababa , a devout Hindu , stranded in a flood, refusing help from people in a car, a boat and a helicopter, insisting that God will save him. When he dies, arrives in heaven and asks God why he didn’t help him, he learns that it was God who sent the car, the boat and the helicopter. “Mundababa,” God says, “Do you not know that when people on earth help each other, they are doing my work through their hands?” Whenever I think of this story, I wonder: What work am I doing for God?

Adah’s story about the Princess of Light speaks of finding God’s presence between the lines of the Holy Scriptures. Adah told this story five years ago at the time of her Bat Mitzvah (age 13) but I remember it like it was yesterday, along with all the theological discussions we had as she shaped it and made it her own. Sometimes this story calls me back to attention when my mind wanders during the readings at mass.

Sara finishes one of her favorite Nasrudin tales and quietly tells me that she needs to find a space, to take a ten minute break for prayer. I know she does this five times daily. I am deeply moved by her faithfulness to this Islamic ritual. It leads me to examine my own prayer life; how many times a day do I turn to God in prayer?

Khalafalla shares his story of beginning high school during the month of Ramadan; of going to the library instead of the cafeteria during lunchtime. As he tells, I picture him going through his day, with nothing to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. I am amazed by his commitment and self discipline. I tell him a story of breaking fast at the end of Lent when I was young and then find myself making resolutions for the next Lenten season.

Matt, a Catholic eighth grader, tells the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the polish priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger (a married man with children) in Auschwitz. Matt’s story is an instant lesson in sainthood for his interfaith friends. They are left in awe of Maximilian’s incredible faith and courage. I am left thinking, “For what, for whom would I offer my life?

Photo of Gert Johnson There are so many other examples. Each one of the students in Children at the Well touches and inspires me in his or her own special way. They are gifts for my spirit, constant reminders that there are great riches to be found in diversity; that although we walk on many different paths, we can share the journey.

Come meet and be inspired by young people such as these at Children at the Well’s annual event on Sun. Dec. 13thth at 2p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady. Stories, Israeli dancers, homemade treats and an interfaith mixer will be yours to enjoy. For more information, go to www.ChildrenAtThe Well.org.

Gert Johnson is a retired teacher of religious studies (Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School), the facilitator of the Interfaith Story Circle of the Tri-City Area and Co-Director of Children at the Well, a youth interfaith storytelling venture.