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Sharing Stories, Not Dogmas

Interfaith Circle Helps Bring Area’s Diverse Religious Populations Together

The Daily Gazette, January 20, 2014
BY JOHN ENGER Gazette Reporter

Centuries ago, a perennially abused old man lived in a small hut in a small village by a river in northern India — at least that’s how the story goes.

"He wasn’t what you might call handsome," said Bill Cliff. “He had a big forehead. He was actually pretty homely, and the villagers mistreated him.”

That's how Cliff kicked off his story — a tale he called "The Saint on the Boat." He plucked his mountain dulcimer and told how this ugly saint spent his time praying and bearing the brunt of mockery without ever raising a hand in his own defense.

Cliff was the first of a number of storytellers to speak from the Capital District Islamic Center stage Sunday afternoon during the Tri-City Interfaith Story Circle Winter Lights Festival.

Cliff's said his story came from an old friend immersed in the Hindu traditions of India, but the event also featured stories mined from other major religions. According to Gert Johnson, that’s sort of the point of story circle events.

Two decades ago Johnson started the Interfaith Story Circle as a way to bring the area’s diverse religious populations together.

"I was student teaching at the time," she said. "I realized how the narrative form brings people together. Not just young and old, but people from different cultures."

Many years later, her plan seems to be working. The group is expanding and now there’s a special children’s learning program, called "Children at the Well."

The group meets every month to tell their own stories and the stories of their religion, holding public events like the Winter Light's Festival every so often.

A large second-floor room in the Islamic Center filled with roughly 200 people of widely varied backgrounds Sunday. There were women in head coverings, men in large beards and youths in hoodie sweatshirts. There was even a group of Schenectady high school choir singers in Renaissance costumes.

"I don’t mind the tights," said 17-year-old Cody Logan. He's a tenor and said every singer in the choir had to try out. Basically they all signed up to wear tights and funny hats.

"I didn’t get it at first," he said. "The teacher said we were singing at some story time thing. Now I think I get it. It's cultural."


For Sharifa Din, a member of the Story Circle board, such events are about more than culture.

"A lot of religion is based on stories," she said.

Through history, differences in religious stories brought on strife and holy war, but Din said the same stories can bring peace.

"People get together at these story circles," she said. "They tell their stories, make some friends and realize how much they really have in common. Some of these old religious folk tales are really similar."

Niskayuna senior Macaela Rourke once told a folk tale she found in a book in her synagogue basement about a man who thought his house was too small. In the story, the man's rabbi tells him to bring animal after animal into his already tiny house. At the end, the guy releases all his farm animals and behold :

"He says 'Wow ! Look at all this room,' " Rourke laughed.

As it turned out, a Muslim storyteller told the same story the same day. With a few minor tweaks, both cultures had the same story.

There are sizable Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Christian populations in the Capital Region. Johnson said she’s seen all of them bond over stories.

"We don’t talk about our religious dogmas," she said. "We tell stories."

As for Cliff’s homely saint — the guy nearly ended his days cornered on a ferry boat by some angry villagers. Cliff told how an angry mob kicked the saint so vigorously, God himself was angered. He spoke to the saint, threatening to send a storm to drown the villagers, but the saint prayed for mercy. So instead of drowning the villagers, God opened their eyes to the saint's love for them.

In the end, the homely saint is teaching a message of peace to some reformed villagers under a shade tree.