“So, tell me about yourself.”
It was a simple enough question. I was talking with a woman I had just met the week before at church. In an effort to get to know each other better, we had joined up for a playdate with our babies and were now sitting on the floor amidst toys and a good deal of noise. Being a church planter and pastor’s wife, I was used to conversations that focus on other people’s lives. In truth, I assumed most of this hangout would be spent getting to know this lady, so I quickly rambled off a few facts about my life in Austin and our church before trying to place the proverbial ball back in her court.
But my new friend wanted to know more. Instead of answering my question, she continued, “You know, I’d really love to hear your story. Could you tell me more about your culture and what it means for you to be Indian?”
I was stunned.
No one really asks me that. But here was this woman I’d barely met wanting to know the real me. Not just Michelle, the church planter, or Michelle, the mom. She wanted more than a polite answer about my professional life and which Netflix show I was currently watching. Instead, it felt like she was passing me the mic and saying, “It’s your turn. Speak up.”
To my utter amazement, we spent much of our time together talking about the parts of me that I rarely express openly. We talked about cultural identity, my struggles as a woman of color, but also the things I take pride in as an Indian-American. We talked about how my faith and my culture intersect. She shared parts of her story too, but she mostly listened.
I had never felt more known or more seen from someone outside my own ethnic group.
In the midst of fraught racial relations in our country, asking someone to share their story is the first step toward healing. People tell me all the time, “I want to make friends of different cultures, but I don’t know where to start. What would we talk about? What if I say something wrong?” I truly believe that we need to start by first handing them the mic. We need to show people we want to hear their stories. Just as important, we need to show them we can also be silent while they speak.
At our core, we all want to be seen. We want people to understand our story, to believe that our experiences are true, to empathize with our pain, and to celebrate the beauty in our lives. This is particularly true when it comes to cross-cultural relationships, which are fraught with a pain-filled history, with power, oppression and marginalization. Stories alone can’t bring healing, but healing can’t happen without every person’s story being heard.
There are so many stories in Scripture where someone was abused, assaulted, or oppressed, and justice was given by allowing their story to be heard. God has always cared about our stories. This is the point of the book of Judges. It’s story after story of pain, including the assault, rape, and murder of an unnamed woman in Judges 19. What has always stood out to me is the fact that God says this woman’s story will never be forgotten. God challenges Israel, and by extension us, to be better listeners and give people the dignity of hearing their story.
Storytelling is a God-given right. Everyone has the right to talk about their experiences, their struggles, and their joys in their own words. Everyone has the right for their life to be understood in the context of what they’ve been through and in the context of their relationships with others, and even more so, everyone has the right for their experiences to be believed.
Healing, justice, and storytelling are all connected. That day, a relatively unknown woman gave me an incredible gift. She showed me my right in speaking about my life, and she conveyed such dignity and worth to me in the way she heard, empathized, and acknowledged my experiences. Though different from her own, she took my storytelling rights seriously and honored me as she listened. It’s perhaps unsurprising that she is one of my closest friends now today.
Do you want to build relationships across cultures? Do you feel passionate about pursuing racial solidarity? Is God calling you to break cycles of injustice? It is time for us, as sisters and believers, to pass the mic. We need to hear new voices. We need to hear all the voices so that we can begin creating a new narrative together as we move forward.
In the midst of fraught racial relations in our country, asking someone to share their story is the first step toward healing. -@dr_reyes2: Click To Tweet