Wrestling with our Stories by Amber Naylor

In February, I was honored to have the opportunity to give the sermon at Lake Street Church of Evanston on AOA's work in Panama. Acting Out Awareness is a secular organization, but we are committed to helping people tell their whole stories- which means we cannot ignore the religious identities and faith traditions we live and work in. Our spirituality and beliefs influence our stories. Below is the message I shared that morning, speaking about our work in Panama and how it relates to my own personal Christian identity:

I am excited to be in worship with you this morning and to have the opportunity to share a little about my life and work beyond Lake Street. I founded the organization Acting Out Awareness, and our mission is to empower individuals and communities to make change through performance. We make storytellers. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Psychologists rank human needs as follows: first, food & water, second, shelter, and third, someone to listen to our stories. If you would like to know more about AOA after my sermon today please find me during coffee hour or pick up a flyer with our website on it- actingoutawareness.org

We know storytelling is an integral part of who we are. It is a uniquely human need to tell our stories and be understood. The most important moments of my Peace Corps service in Panama happened in hammock, telling stories around a bowl of rice and a glass of kool-aid.

For an AOA camp, we train our facilitators to focus on listening to the stories of our participants. We hope they learn how to treat their drinking water with chlorine and use protection to prevent HIV, but more importantly, we hope they learn how to find their voice. You can’t advocate for a community water project from a prejudiced government unless you can speak out about racism. You can’t set boundaries in an intimate relationship unless you have the confidence to say no. You can’t build trusting relationships and unite communities unless you can find the place where our individual stories intersect. Over the course of 5 long days, we provide a safe space for teens to reflect on their personal goals and values and wrestle with community issues, cumulating in a community meal and night of performance. It is inspiring, frustrating, exciting, and exhausting work.

AOA hosted two of these camps this past January on the Ngäbe-Bugle reservation in Panama. Preparation for these specific camps started last April. After months of networking and interviewing, AOA found 9 Chicago playwrights. We partnered each playwright with an indigenous community to develop a ten-minute play about either handwashing or HIV prevention in culturally relevant ways.

I was rather concerned about one playwright, Tim, at the playwright orientation when he suggested including an interpretative dance with silk ribbons in his play. Not wanting to stifle creative expression, I didn’t say anything, but I was pretty sure that was just not going to translate across cultures.

As November came, playwrights and volunteers made revisions and edits to their final plays, and I was nervous. There were several scripts I hadn’t seen yet. It felt like the cultural chasm between Chicago and the Ngäbes- a rural indigenous population in a tropical country- just couldn’t be bigger. We had never done cross-cultural playwrighting before, I wasn’t sure it would work.

Tim’s final script was good, even though the silk ribbons didn’t make the final cut. He took the name of the town, La Gloria, and made it into a prophetic character, somewhere between an apparition and an oracle. She sweeps into town in the midst of a water crisis. The water systems of the town are in disrepair and are producing less water than in the past. It doesn’t seem to be raining as much as it used to. The older generation is dismissive and critical of the younger generation, motivating them to disengage and move away. La Gloria arrives as a stranger, a foreign figure to this community. She encourages them to heed her advice and protect their water sources, to promote conservation, and to organize themselves as an intergenerational community to maintain the system. As she leaves, they ask her who she is. She replies, am I not you? Are these not your ideas? The final picture is a newly formed water committee setting out to plan a work day.

It’s a good plot, but I was still not convinced this oracle character was going to make any sense to my Ngäbe audience.

Fast forward to the final day of the second camp. This is the 9th day wrangling 40 teenagers. Friday, January 20th. The youth had been awake and rowdy the night before, full of excited energy about the community performance that was now upon us. 6am, with sunrise, cooking chores, and a hike to the river to bathe came way too early. Fortified for the day with fry bread and sugary coffee, final rehearsals started at 8am. While the acting troupes played warm up games and made decorative posters, the rest of the facilitators and I hung stage curtains made of bedsheets, taped up the hand painted backdrop, and raided neighboring homes for props- mostly pots, pans, and five gallon buckets.

Our stage was the main hallway of the school, filling the basketball court with wooden benches from the church and old fashioned wooden desks for the audience. It would be the perfect location by sunset for the performance, but at 10am the uncovered basketball court showed no mercy from the sun. I struggled through tech rehearsal, trying to convey the concept of scene changes and curtain calls while holding a banana leaf over my head in an effort to minimize sunburn. I roasted.

By the afternoon dress rehearsal, the facilitators learned the hard way the paradox that the more tired kids get the more squirrely they are. Everyone was relieved to make it to break time.

By 5, community members had begun to arrive for the performance, bowls and spoons in hand, expectantly awaiting the rice and soup. If you have never made rice for 200 people before, the first thing you need to know is that you need at least a couple giant pailas- an aluminum pot big enough to bathe a toddler in. They easily cook 30 pounds of rice at once. With the rice was a hearty, hot soup of root vegetables and chicken. Perfect for a hot, humid day.

After bathing and eating dinner, we gathered up all of the solar powered lights and lamps we could muster to illuminate our stage. The audience grew to nearly 70 people, more than half of the town. By 7pm, our actors were in places and we were ready to start the show under a blanket of cloudless, starry sky.

Among the many plays, skits, songs, dances, and poetry, La Gloria stole the show. The actors took ownership of the script, adding in cultural phrases and their own indigenous language. Most importantly, they had a blast presenting it. The audience was enthralled, laughing and clapping throughout.

The next morning, when I asked a community member why La Gloria was obviously the audience favorite, she told me, “Because it’s about who we are. We’re Ngäbe. Our land and our water is our culture. It is our home. The town is named after its water source. La Gloria is the name of our fuente de agua- our spring. The actors were playing our people. We know them. And they are right. We have to take ownership of our own water and community.”

Turns out, connecting the script to an identity is far more engaging, meaningful, and enjoyable than any slapstick bit would be. La Gloria was successful not because of any theatrical conventions, but because it simply reflected back to its audience the very essence of who they are and what they care about.

Our stories matter when they point us to our values. During camp, we spent a lot of time encouraging the youth to talk about the various facets of their identity. Like any other indigenous group in the Americas, the Ngäbes face many stereotypes and prejudices. Many of these stereotypes have been internalized- alcoholism, teen pregnancy, lack of education. They seem to blur the line between stereotype and cultural norm. When poverty came up, one boy said, “To be Ngäbe is to be poor. All Ngäbes are poor; if I was rich I am not sure I would be a Ngäbe anymore.”

586 BCE is the assumed date of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire. The northern kingdom had been raided and destroyed years earlier, now the southern kingdom was assaulted, crushing buildings, looting the wealth and resources, and carrying off all but the very poor to serve as slaves elsewhere in the empire. Up to this point, the Israelite identity was defined by their one God, who bestowed upon them a king to rule the Promised land, to worship in one grand temple. One God, one king, one temple. But when the king and temple proved to be fallible, when 2/3 of their cultural identity was lost in a violent siege and genocide, what’s left? Who are you? Who is your God? What do you do with that story?

This was the faith crisis of the writers and editors when it is believed that the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was being assembled. They wrote down their oral traditions, they compared scrolls between the northern and southern kingdoms, they literally copy and pasted things together. Faced with chaos, confusion, and trauma, they sought to find meaning by rewriting their story. 482 times in the Old Testament we find the phrase “your God”. I decided to spare you and chose just 2 of the 480 to share this morning. "I will take you as my people and I will be your God." (Exodus 6:5-7) "On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to them saying, I will be your God." (Ezekiel 20:5) The first thing they teach you in seminary is that if someone in the Bible is stressing how true something is, it probably means a lot of people in that time period were saying it wasn’t.

Storytelling is what the ancient Israelites used to keep their culture and faith alive during Babylonian exile, and it is how they rebuilt their identity upon return to their city. We can’t prove many of the stories ever happened, but historicity wasn’t their purpose. Our stories ground us in an identity and community. The gives us boundaries to hold us together and values to aspire to. They are tangible, physical manifestations of abstract forces like faith, hope, and love.

But stories themselves are not inherently good, it is the values we imbed in them that carry power. For the Ngäbe, limiting an identity to poverty instead of humility can be deadly, when poverty means lack of health care. Building an identity around being the chosen people of God can lead to terrible decisions when that story is told without love and compassion. Today is the Day of Remembrance. It is the 75th anniversary of the passing of executive order 9066 creating the Japanese internment camps of World War 2. FDR signed it, hundreds of government officials carried it out and thousands of US citizens let it happen.

We can’t ignore the ugly parts of our stories; we have to face them and engage with them. Social science researcher Dr. Brené Brown explains, “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” Challenging our stories is how we learn and grow.

One of my goals not just for Acting Out Awareness but for me personally is to seek out the stories that are not being told, and hand over the stage. My undergraduate degrees taught me how to produce theatre, but my life experience has taught me sometimes I am most powerful sitting in the audience listening.

Recently, it seems like we are living in a scary story and I do not like the plot devices. It is exhausting to keep up with all the news and acts of resistance happening in our country right now. Activism has a reputation for being tough, gritty, angry, and exhausting. Yes, there is tough, gritty, angry, and exhausting work to be done, and many of us are steeped in it all day long. But it’s not the only work. At no point on January 20th 2017 did the news events of my home country cross my mind. I didn’t think, hear, or talk about it. I didn’t have time; I was too busy listening to other people’s stories. Art, listening, compassion- even self-compassion- are equally valid and vital forms of social justice.

To close, I just have two questions for us to consider as we move forward to a new chapter in the life of Lake Street, in our country, and in our world.

What stories among us affirm our identity as beloved and resilient people of God?

What stories do we need to be hearing to challenge us to be better role models of divine compassion, justice, and grace?