By: Carol Wehrheim
“I was driving on a very, very, snowy, icy, visibility-zero highway.” With these words, the congregation quieted waited for the next line. A congregational member was telling the story, the testimony, of another member, anonymous to the teller and the congregation. For two years, the congregation of Nassau Presbyterian Church heard these stories in the worship service. The stories were rich with meaning and filled with faith. They brought tears and laughter. Listening, we marveled at the stories of faith sitting around us on Sunday mornings and in other settings. This is how it happened.
The Worship and Arts Committee had for several years brought an Artist in Residence to the church for a year’s worth of interaction with the congregation. The range of talents was broad. But for 2014–2015 the Artist in Residence was Adam Immerwahr, who was then associated with McCarter Theater in Princeton. Adam had worked with senior adult groups, helping them tell their stories so they could be told by others in the group. The premise was that he could help us tell stories of faith to one another. In a large congregation, these testimonies could help us know more about the membership.
Adam began his year in residence that summer by leading an adult education class where he explained about his program. He invited people to sign up to be interviewers, interviewees, and storytellers. Then he trained the interviewers in their task and provided them with a list of interview questions. Adam prepared the questions to focus on transformation. For example, an opening question might be “When was a time you struggled to live your faith outside the church’s walls?” or “Can you tell me about a time when you have doubted or questioned?” Each interview was recorded and interviewers were also encouraged to take notes so they could ask additional or follow-up questions. Adam stressed the importance of follow-up questions so the interview would be free of references to undefined people or organizations and assumed shared knowledge.
Interviewees were identified via the sign-up sheet at the class, but interviewers were urged to search out people whose story they wanted to hear, and not just people who were well-known in the congregation. Interviewers looked for those quiet faithful folk sitting in the pews, people of all ages. They were instructed to listen for stories when people made decisions and acted on them, stories of healing and reconciliation, stories of discovery and growth, and to listen for humor. The length of the story was not important, but there was a two-minute limit for the final product, the story that would be told in worship.
The recordings were transcribed and Adam used the transcription to prepare the script for the storyteller. Only words from the recording transcript were used, aside from an additional “the” or “and.” This preserved the integrity of the story. It did not become Adam’s story or the storyteller’s story. It was still the story of the anonymous interviewee.
A storyteller was identified, but not matched to the statistics of the interviewee. The storyteller memorized the story and rehearsed with Adam or an assistant director who was a church member. The interviewee was notified that her or his story would be told at a specific service of worship. This allowed the person to be present or not. I suspect most wanted to hear their story and were in worship that day.
The first year of Adam’s residency was powerful and there were more stories to be told. He was invited to stay for a second year. The same process continued. At the end of the second year, an evening of testimonies was held. Many of those told in worship were repeated, and just as powerfully.
Oh yes, the last line of the testimony that began this article is: “I’ve got you. You’re okay. I’m right here with you.” I’ll leave you to imagine what happened in between.
For more information about this program, email Marshall McKnight at [email protected] . To view the video produced by Dave Tevani about the program, click below.
Carol Wehrheim is a member of Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton, NJ, and was honored to have two of her stories told in worship.