“My older sister, Beth (Pastor Kearny), tells the story that on long trips in the back of the car, I would name all my fingers and they would talk to each other,” shared Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn. “I don’t actually remember that, so, I think I have been a storyteller for longer than I can remember.”
Pastor Mary, our 2022 South Carolina Synod Assembly Storyteller, does remember her mother, an English teacher, memorizing poems and reciting them for the family. In her mother’s last year, on Thanksgiving, she expected everyone at the table to have a memorized poem to share with family and friends.
While story has always been a part of Pastor Mary’s life, it was at Fortune Lake Camp, as a summer counselor, that she began to see the power telling stories could have on others. “Our camp only went until Friday, and then on Sunday as counselors, we visited churches to help promote camp. I told a Creation story poem I heard my mother tell. It was the sermon for 12 straight weeks. When you tell a story that many times, it begins to be a part of you.”
Pastor Mary also started telling stories to her campers. “I learned how to tell when listeners are hooked. People get quiet and you just know that it is holy. You just know that people are part of the story.” It was at Fortune Lake that Pastor Mary became hooked on telling stories, but she still didn’t understand what was happening for the listener.
After a couple summers at Fortune Lake learning stories, she found herself working in an adolescent boys lock down facility in Milwaukee. She was part of a grant funded project to help improve their reading scores. “Research shoes that when a child or person can visualize being in the story, which doesn’t come easily for everyone, their reading takes off. When they can begin to see the pictures in their head the stories come alive for them.”
Pastor Mary describes this as co-creating. “The power of it is that I am speaking, but you are creating the pictures. I am telling the same story, so we are all going along on the adventure, but we are all creating our own world and all engaged in this story in a powerful way.”
Stories meet people where they are. The audience can be intergenerational, and listeners will find their place in the story. As listeners grow, people find themselves at a new place in the story.
“When my youngest son, Nathan, was 3 when we moved to camp. I was able to begin telling more stories, but also repeating them for a new group each week. I remember sharing the Tale of Three Trees a number of times. One tree becomes a manager, and a child is laid in it. Another a boat that carries a man. Finally, a cross where a man dies. One Sunday night after camp vespers, when Nathan was about 7, he ran up to me afterward and said, ‘MOM! It’s Jesus!’” The story had lived inside him for 4 years and it meant something to him all along the way, but at that moment he was fully ready for the power of the story.
“One of the most powerful things about stories is that they live inside you until you are ready for them – until you need them. That is partly why scripture is so powerful. I tell people, even if you don’t understand the story when you read it, just learn them and then at some point that story will become real for you. The Epiphany will happen.”