A Single Story – 9/12/21

Some of you may have heard a Ted talk given by a Nigerian author by the name of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.  Growing up in Eastern Nigeria, she spoke of how she had only the opportunity to read British and American children’s books.  As she became older and began to write, she wrote stories similar to what she had always read.  Her characters were white and blue eyed, they played in snow, they ate apples, and talked about the weather.  This despite the fact that Adiche had never seen snow, ate mangos instead of apples, and really didn’t talk about the weather since it did not change very much.  She indicated this made her feel vulnerable in the face of a story because it had to be about things with which she could not identify.

Adiche grew up in a Middle class Nigerian home.  Most middle class families in Nigeria had live- in domestic help.  Adiche’s family had an 8 year old boy who lived with them named Feeday.  All Adiche knew of Feeday was that his family was poor.  As a result she felt only pity for him.  When she visited his village, however, she saw that his family made beautiful baskets.  It surprised her that Feeday’s family had such talent.  Poverty was the single story she had been told.

When Adiche came to the United States for college, her roommate was shocked that Adiche could speak English well, although Nigeria’s official language is English.  Her roommate asked if she could listen to Adiche’s tribal music and was surprised when Adiche gave her a Maria Carey CD.  Her roommate had a single story of what a Nigerian was supposed to be.

Adiche learned that many she encountered had a single story of Africa, that of catastrophe.  Americans she encountered saw no possibility that Africans could be similar to them or connect to them as human equals.  Africa was seen as a land of beautiful animals, of people dying of AIDS, a land of senseless wars.  Because of the single story Americans had been told of Africa, Adiche came to be viewed the same way she viewed Feeday and his family.

Adiche described the problem with a single story.  If you show a people as one thing and only one thing, that is what they become.  The problem is that the story is incomplete, it makes one story the only story of a person.  She urged that we must engage with all stories of a person because it through a balance of stories that we receive the fullest picture.

I have shared with you before the importance of story in my spirituality. I believe that stories are sacred.  That like the stories of Scripture many of us are familiar with, our own stories can connect us and reveal the Divine presence.  And that is why Parker Palmer’s courage and renewal work which we are doing in our Geography of Grace groups resonates so much with me.  It is why I ask you to share your stories as part of our worship service.  Story allows us to be seen more fully.  It allows for true community to form, community in which we see each other as whole people, and to be loved in the fullness of who we are.

But as Adiche points out, story not only has incredible power to give us strength and to build a sense of community, story has also the power to diminish community, to undermine another’s strength and possibility. As our book group has been reading Caste, the danger of a single story as it applies to race has been even more clear to me.  What has struck me most are the stories the author shared about her own experiences of racism and how those experiences have impacted her everyday life.  Being seen only for her race, she shares a story of being followed by DEA agents through an airport and onto a bus for no reason other than being African-American.  Being viewed by a single story pervades every aspect of her life, disrupting her ability to live her life as fully as she could otherwise.

In just the past couple of years, we have seen the danger of the single story impact so much of our society.  It is easy to trap ourselves into hearing only one narrative.  Believing false narratives about the vaccine, about wearing masks and refusing to hear alternative views.  We tune into only one perspective of the news and view those on the opposing side under the single story of enemy.  And because of the way those who believe this story impact our lives, we struggle to move past that single story for them.

Sometimes the danger of a single story does not just apply to others.  It applies to ourselves as well.   As we endure the pain of life, we take on a label and become unable to see the fullness of who we are.  Our single story becomes failure, disappointment, loss, pain, hopelessness.  Our single story may be the abuse we suffered at the hands of another, a characteristic which made us the victim of discrimination.  Or we define ourselves by our career and that becomes our single story.  Our story may center on the children we have raised, the partner we have shared our lives with.  And after our children are raised, or if we lose our partner, we no longer have a narrative to follow.  Whatever single story we adopt for ourselves, it acts to limit in its definition, undermining our strength and diminishing our hope.

In our first reading for this morning, we encounter a woman who is defined by a single story which has marginalized her for years.  Not only is she a woman and thus not considered to be of equal status, but she has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years.  This severe bleeding was probably some form of menstrual irregularity.  And according to Jewish law, this constant flow of blood would make her permanently ritually impure.  Her access to conventional society would be cut off.  And this status had a significant impact on her life.  Because of her unclean status, she could not touch or be touched.  And as result she was probably divorced or never married and without a means of financial support.  If this woman touched anyone or anyone’s clothes, that person would be considered unclean for the rest of the day.  Because she made anyone she touched unclean, she should not have even been in this crowd.  Think of the impact this would have on you.  No means of support, unable to even be touched, completely ostracized.

The woman has exhausted all of her options and is desperate.  The text indicates the woman had endured much under many physicians.  She had spent all of the money she had trying to be healed.  But not matter what she tried, she never got better.  And because she has suffered for so long – physically, socially, and emotionally, she has been begun to see herself as only one thing.

But after she encounters Jesus, she is transformed.  And while this story is told in the form of a healing story, the healing that I take from this story is the transformation of her identity.  The transformation of how she views herself.  And that happens when Jesus sees her, truly sees her.  We read that when Jesus addresses her she tells him her story, her whole truth.   And after hearing it, amidst the throng of people seeking his attention, he addresses her directly.  And he calls her daughter.

While we don’t know what happened after this woman is truly seen for her worth beyond the single story which had come to define her life, I believe that being seen for the fullness of who she was transformed her.  That this was the true healing Jesus brought.  No longer was she outcast, no longer was she untouchable, no longer was she defined by her physical ailment.  She could define herself by a new story – daughter, person of worth.  No longer viewed by a single story, she is empowered to move into a new future filled with hope rather than despair.

One of the most beautiful group experiences I have ever seen centered on healing from a single story.  A man shared his story of abuse suffered as a child at the hand of his father and the struggle he had endured over the course of his life to move past that experience.  His experience made him question his own worth, and he had longed to feel valued, to have an experience of a father who acknowledged his worth.   The leader of the group read the story of Jesus’s baptism recorded in the gospels and ended with Jesus hearing the words “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  One by one, members the group then began placing their hands on the man and saying this same thing, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  And as each person placed their hand on him and said these words, you could almost see the single story by which he defined himself melting away.  No longer was he simply a man who was abused by his father and who lacked a sense of his worth.   He was able to begin to see the fullness of who he was, and he was transformed.

As we prepare for our community meeting next week, we must also move beyond a single story for NCC.  This is a community very diverse in its views, and equally diverse in its visions, hopes and expectations moving forward.  It is also a community of intelligent, capable people who hold strong views about what they want.  Next week as we hear and discuss options moving forward, I hope that each of us can move beyond our individual single story we have written for the future, that we may each listen openly to each other and together to weave our stories and our hopes together to create a new vision of what is possible.

Stories can break dignity and hope but also restore it.   Adiche closed her speech by saying, “When we reject the single story we regain a kind of paradise.”  May each of us not only overcome this danger as we experience others, but also give that same power to the stories we tell about ourselves that we may be fully seen, that our hope may be restored.  Amen.


What do you know of the danger of a single story?