British Methodist minister builds bridges with stories

By Mark Woods, Special Contributor…

Max Bygraves, a British comedian, singer and actor who died recently, had a catchphrase that he used for the entire six decades of his career in the entertainment business: “I wanna tell you a story.”

Storytelling, though, is as old as humanity. Cave paintings from 40,000 years ago depicting successful hunts arose from the same creative urges as Eastenders or Doctor Who. The genres might be different, but the instinct is the same. We are as a race, according to Jonathan Gottschall in his recent book The Storytelling Animal, “homo fictus”—“fiction man.”

That’s the principle behind the work of the Rev. Linda Bandelier, a minister of the Methodist Church in Britain.

Linda Bandelier

Look in the Scottish Synod directory and you’ll see her listed as “Storyteller”; Ms. Bandelier serves in the Edinburgh & Forth circuit charge, though she travels constantly in her wider ministry and is rarely in the city.

Born and raised in the U.S.—the Montana Rockies, to be exact— she’s worked as a performer, teacher and writer of songs and stories since 1987. Ms. Bandelier sees what she does as a way of connecting with people at the deepest levels of human experience—and so as a way of growing in faith and wisdom.

“Stories touch the imagination and the emotions,” she said. “We discover more about ourselves as we live with them.”

Stories also help us discover more about other people. Ms. Bandelier set up the Bridges of Friendship project in 2010 in conjunction with the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with which she’s had a long relationship. The project was inspired by two things: celebrations in Edinburgh that marked the centenary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference, and the famous words of Anglican Bishop V.S. Azariah of India, “Give us friends.”

Ms. Bandelier collected accounts of people who went out as missionaries from Scotland around the world, and returned with music and stories from the people they met.

“One woman worked in India at the turn of the last century and collected a lot of music and songs, and introduced them to the churches when she returned. That was quite rare at the time,” said Ms. Bandelier.

“You get the sense of a medley of people and cultures. They may have started out with a conversion agenda, but became a genuine meeting of people. We shared these stories and people said, ‘We need more of these.’”

‘Across boundaries’

The tagline of Bridges of Friendship is “eye to eye, mind to mind, heart to heart.” According to the project’s website, its aim is “resourcing people with the tools and confidence to hear and respond to an on-going call for friendship, be it across the street or around the globe.”

The website offers the opportunity for people to tell their own stories of building friendship bridges between different communities, religions and cultures, in the hope that this will “inspire and motivate people of the 21st century to become bridge builders and offer friendship across boundaries.”

Stories are powerful bridge-builders. In a seemingly modest assessment of their value, Ms. Bandelier says: “When we know another person’s stories, we are not going to harm them.”

But her words contain a rich insight into how human beings relate to each other, whether it’s on the superficial level of appearance and assumption which allows “the other” to be demonized and rejected, or on the deeper level of understanding and encounter which forces us to see them as they are.

As a minister, Ms. Bandelier has thought deeply about stories in the context of church. They suggest truth rather than spelling it out; they make people do the work themselves, using imagination and creativity in their interpretations.

“I imagine Jesus telling stories and people saying, ‘That’s really good—now, what was it about?’ You grow into them. Sometimes a story which at first means nothing comes to mean a great deal. Stories are a great vehicle for growing in faith.

“A lot of things are not reducible to story—but if you want to understand what it means, you have to put it into a story. If it’s just rules and ideas, it won’t connect. If you’re talking about forgiveness or the resurrection, for instance, you have to tell stories or you won’t find a place to connect.”

Stories in Scripture are fundamental to the faith, and are a resource in evangelism and discipleship which we neglect at our peril. And Ms. Bandelier believes we do neglect them.

“We should tell stories and use stories more,” she said. “As Christians, we don’t know our own faith stories well enough to share them. The stories of the Bible are so poorly known among Christians and in the culture more widely. But for a faith to be vibrant and growing, these stories need to be common currency.”

A century ago, for instance, there would be frequent allusions to Bible stories in the everyday discourse of the time. Today that strand of reference is largely gone, and the old stories can sound new again—perhaps even an advantage to the Christian storyteller.

“Some Bible stories you can tell in secular settings. It’s a question of listening to where people are,” Ms. Bandelier said.

The plot of her personal story is about to take a new turn. Currently staying with family in Montana, she is planning the purchase with a friend of a 54-foot yacht which she will sail across the Atlantic back to Scotland.

“It’s changed hands a few times, but my friend and I are both from a boating and sailing background,” she said. “I realized I wanted to travel more, and I thought it would be great to have a boat that would be big enough to run storytelling workshops inside. It would be a home and a floating venue, but primarily a home, big enough to have people in.”

It sounds exciting—and it might almost be a metaphor: The storyteller invites people into her world, taking them on a journey with her.

For more information, visit www.bridgesoffriendship.com.

Mr. Woods is consulting editor of the Methodist Recorder (www.methodistrecorder.co.uk), the independent British Methodist newspaper.

Liz Applegate

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