'We're not good at this in the church'
Writer and community activist Mark Yaconelli on the benefits of listening to each other's stories, as well as refugees in the UK, and the future of Christian youth work. Interview by Alex Baker
What inspired you to write The Gift of Hard Things and what are your hopes for the book?
I wrote the book because, as I get older, I recognise that struggles, failures, frustrations griefs, have been the greatest gift to my own spiritual growth - which is kind of damning considering that I’ve spent much of my spiritual life seeking perfection, holiness, to live a moral life, get rid of things…
... and yet, what I realise more and more, is that God has mostly shown up in these humbling experiences, or these moments of confusion, chaos; moments when I don’t know who I am or where I am headed. That has been when God has been the most available.
So, I wanted to explore that and for me the best way to do that was through story. The chapters in the book are all story based, because I’ve found that story is a way in which I can share the experience. If I write it well, you can live it with me and maybe in reliving it, it might awaken parts of your own life that have been rough, troubled, moments when you’ve been helpless, uncertain. That’s what I wanted to explore.
We're not good at this in the church, we mostly hide the unfinished parts of ourselves, which is very strange considering the stories which we form ourselves around. So I’m hoping that this helps us to talk a bit more about how frail and fragile we are, how confused and alone we are, and how much we need each other and need God.
What is the benefit for a community in sharing stories? Having been raised in South Africa, I’ve seen the benefit of the Truth and Reconciliation process, where perpetrators and victims got together to share what happened. I saw what this could do.
Yes, sharing stories together is a kind of community and neuroscience is showing more and more how this works. So if I tell a story to you well: I’m up in the woods with my daughter, we’re camping at night, I heard a sound in the bush and I could tell that it was a large animal and I realised that I’d left food out…
I start to tell a story like that, and the same parts of your brain start to light up that are lit up in mine. Your brain starts thinking, adrenaline starts flowing - how would I escape? What would I do? How would I protect my daughter? All that stuff starts to show up in you the way it is showing up in me. So we begin to share the experience together.
And this has been the Christian way - we have a story, that if it is told well, if we see the pictures and images well, if we do the rituals right, we all sort of fall into that story and have the same ‘a-ha’ moment the disciples had, or that the haemorrhaging woman had, or that the demoniac had. We live these experiences.
One of the great tragedies is that our seminaries, academic schools and theologies have become so abstract that we have forgotten the art of story telling, which really is our treasure.
Do you think we have, as a society, come full circle in that we traditionally used to do story telling around the fire and we have now lost that ability?
Yes, we have become more abstract, more educated, more of our words are less connected to the flesh and blood of how we actually live, so that we have these abstract conversations about, for example, should we let refugees into the UK or not? And there is all this political discourse surrounding that.
I’ve just held a storytelling event in North Wales. We had refugees and people who work with refugees just tell their stories. They didn’t use any political language at all – they just talked about what it was like to be a refugee, or what it was like to be among them, working. I had people there who were strongly Brexit; UKIP supporters who came just because they were a friend of mine or lived next door to us.
At the end of that night, they wanted to go and volunteer at one of these refugee organisations… because, when we tell a story, a story is not about right or wrong, true or false. A story is just what is, what someone has lived.
And I am more vulnerable to that, I’m more willing to listen to it, more willing to accept what you’ve been through. My compassion is more likely to come to the forefront through a story than through a political discourse, a sermon, or a lecture.
The Baptist Times has covered the situation in Calais, I know you have recently been there yourself. What are your thoughts on the situation there?
One of my biggest worries is this: the Olympics had a refugee team, which I thought was very radical and beautiful and moving.
But then I thought: if they keep doing this, we are going to normalise it. Where this becomes like ‘Oh, okay, well there has always been a refugee team, we don’t need to do anything about it. There will always be refugees, the poor will always be us, we don’t need to change anything.
That’s what it feels like in Calais. The truth is that there has been a refugee camp there for 15 years, and we’re not doing anything. Now my own shame as an American is that most of those people are there because of American military presence, and my taxes and lifestyle are directly connected to the destruction of many of those people’s towns, lives and ways of living, and I bear deep responsibility for why they’re there.
What we do about that, I think, begins in listening to the stories of these people and allowing our hearts to be moved.
What do you believe is the future for a refugee or immigrant coming into the UK, especially in a post-Brexit society?
Well, I think it’s very low– just as it is in the United States. I believe we are trying to take the same number of refugees as the UK. We are terrified, and that terror is used to manipulate us – ever since 9/11, it has been used to manipulate us, to keep military budgets high, to keep corporations that provide military equipment well funded, and to take money out of the hands of the poor, working families.
So, it’s the same thing human beings have always had to deal with, which is the tyranny of fear and terror and an unwillingness to go to the margins like Jesus did, and listen to those who are the least among us, and allow that to draw out the angels of our better nature, to bring out our generosity, our kindness, our creativity in a way that brings us to life, in a way that, I think, deeply terrifies us because it makes us vulnerable - it makes us alive, but porous and vulnerable to the suffering in the world.
I know you have a heart for youth ministry. How do you feel about the future of youth ministry in terms of preparing the next generations of Christians in light of the things we have talked about here?
My dad was a youth minister and ran a youth ministry organisation, and all the youth ministry projects for the last 50 years are dying - and they need to die.
What we really need are just adults who are in love with life, who have allowed God to open them to life in a way that allows all their gifts to be accessible to the world.
And then we just need to live that way among our children, our young people in our neighbourhood, the schools - unashamedly vulnerable to life. That’s all Jesus asks us to do. It’s a beautiful world and if we would be open to that beauty, we would discover the treasures of it within us.
Mark Yaconelli is a writer, speaker, retreat leader, spiritual director, community activist, youth worker, storyteller, disco dancer, husband, and father. His latest book is The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places.
The interview took place at Greenbelt 2016, where Mark was a speaker.
Alex Baker is the former sub-editor and movie reviewer of The Baptist Times who now works as a photographer www.alexbakerphotography.com