Transformed by Shalom Stories
by Dustin Benac, ’11
Story: it is that which captivates us, that which can move us beyond expression, that which speaks to our soul in a language it did not know. In his book, Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah writes, “The power of story is the power to change how we view the world and our place in it.” The mystical intertwining of plot, characters, and events, the rhythmic cadence of a mesmerizing voice around a fire, the whisper of school children, the gentle expression of a mother to her child. It has the power to move men and women to action, elicit the most tender emotions, and alter the trajectory of one’s life. From our youngest memorable moments to our closing hours on earth, story surrounds us.
For the last two years I have had the privilege to listen to and tell the stories of others. Stories of resisting racial injustice during Apartheid South Africa, fighting tirelessly for the abolition of nuclear arms, looking for hope on the streets of New York, running while two students fire on their peers at Columbine High School; these are some of the plot lines and for brief moments I have been the privileged recipient of these stories. Somewhere in this process, I’ve been transformed.
This journey began my junior year at Whitworth when Dr. Terry McGonigal asked me to collaborate with him on his forthcoming book about Shalom Theology. Although I did study Theology, I was an unlikely candidate as my knowledge of shalom did not extend much beyond knowing that it was Hebrew for peace. Yet my task was straightforward: first, to provide “student perspective” on the academic content, and second, to apply the content by means of personal applications and shalom biographies.
The latter seemed safe and uncomplicated—identify, interview, and write biographies about individuals who exemplify a particular theme of shalom. I didn’t realize it would change me.
My first call was a halting conversation with Whitworth Alumnus Jena Lee Nardella about her work with Blood:Water Mission. As she spoke about her experience starting Blood:Water Mission with Jars of Clay, living a life with one foot firmly rooted in Nashville and the other in the Savannahs of Africa, I found myself profoundly humbled and thankful for her story; I began to see differently.
As I listened to their stories, my vision expanded. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson from Two-Futures Project shared about his commitment to nuclear abolition, Kevin Parker who was at Columbine during the Columbine shootings shared about this experience and what later led him to the Washington State House of Representatives, Soong-Chan Rah shared about the joys and challenges of leading an interracial church, Paul-Gordon Chandler shared about serving in Cairo, Egypt during the Egyptian revolution and his wonderful Muslim friends who protected him, Peter Storey shared about his role in the Anti-Apartheid movement in south Africa and his profound encounter with John Wesley. Though these were the stories of men and women who had done great things, they didn’t see it as such. For them, each day was a day of faithfulness and service.
As I listened to their stories, I encountered wonder in both the ordinary and painful. Equally captivating were the stories of men and women whose lives were characterized by everyday gratitude and faithfulness, even amidst incredible suffering. A father shared about losing his daughter, wife, and mother in a single car accident and the decisions he made to love his children even after unbearable loss. A young man shared about how he declined a chance to play pro-football in order to work as a train conductor and take care of his family. A couple shared about losing their 18-year-old son, the grief that followed, and how today they are sustained by a new hope for the resurrection. In everyday places, in everyday neighborhoods, these stories are being written.
As I listened to their stories, I saw Jesus Christ take form. With each story I was struck by a profound sense of the faithfulness, vision, and compassion that animated each of these individuals’ lives. I learned it was not by chance as each shared how their commitment to Jesus informed both their everyday decisions. I realized it was this commitment that enabled them to live with distinct zeal, passion, and faithfulness.
As I listened to their stories, I was transformed. I began to understand my story in relation to theirs. As I encountered similar circumstances I found myself recalling their decisions, their struggles, their faithfulness. In this there was a wonderful security in knowing that I was not alone.
Story: it is the fabric of our lives.
Dustin is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. To learn more about Dustin and the forthcoming book about Shalom Theology, follow Dustin on Twitter @dustindbenac and the book @worldpeace_now.