Why I ask people to tell me their story

Jonny and his Tell Me Your Story sign representing Circle of Hope church in Philadelphia.

Photo taken by Jeremy Zimmerman.

Relationships are at the center of our faith

Every week, at least once, I make my way over to a shady bench on the campus of my beloved alma mater (Temple University) and hold up a worn-out sign that says “Tell Me Your Story.” My friend Howard gave me the idea and it is among the weirdest things I do on the regular. If someone were to photograph me now and send it to me just five years ago, I’d think I was crazy. And some people do! Most people who walk by me ignore me; some are interested, but don’t have time to talk; some laud me for the very idea; and occasionally, someone stops to talk.

They often ask me why I’m doing it. They think there’s a catch. Temple’s campus is a magnet for protesters and recruiters, so I’m not surprised at their skepticism. When they ask me why, I simply say, “I want to get to know people. I want to build relationships. The heart of the work I’m doing as a pastor is relational.” It is incarnational. God came to us in the form of a person, Jesus, to show us his love and help us follow him in his Way. The Spirit fills us up to do his very work on earth. And now we are the Body of Christ with a mission.

I’m looking and listening to people who may be looking for Jesus. Some people are. And some aren’t. I think the relationships are worth it anyway. Last week I met a few people whose stories I want to briefly describe. They are normal stories, but normal is worth sharing. (I changed the names of the folks.)

Steph’s story

Steph is a graduate student at Temple from Kansas City. She’s trying to figure out how to “fit in” at Temple, and at the time she couldn’t find her way around. I offered her directions and we chatted for a bit. Her mom is a pastor and became one later on in her life. Steph kind of got Jesus for a while, but isn’t sure Jesus is the only way or even if he matters. But she wants to develop her faith and has interest in meeting people in community. We’re meeting up this week for a cup of coffee. Maybe we have something she is looking for.

Megan’s story

Megan is also a graduate student. She’s a geology student. She’s a big-time scientist and is not very concerned with metaphysical matters. But she wants to relate. Her course load and her job (which is also in the department) fills up her life. She’s really busy, and barely has time for lunch. Most of her friends in the area are in the program that she’s in, which is nice, but a little limiting. She’s interested in meeting more people, but she isn’t quite ready to participate in a faith community. She said she wanted to talk more before she ran off.

Mustafa’s story

Mustafa is an Iranian on a student visa. He left Iran during a major financial crisis to study religion at Temple. He is working on his PhD. One day, he got heart-breaking news. After he finished his work and his research, his department didn’t think it was good enough to earn him a degree. He appealed to the same body in the department and they gave him the same answers. He thinks it’s at least in part because he’s an immigrant with an access. I can relate.

Discouraged, but still yearning, he applied for another PhD program and got in! He was excited about that, but discouraged that he spent a lot of money (the equivalent of close to a million dollars in Iran), time, and energy without a degree. So then he appealed further up in the bureaucracy (this time to the college) and they accepted his appeal and now he’s preparing to defend his dissertation. He thinks it was an act of God. Mustafa is a Muslim and he knows I’m a Christian, but he said it would be great to come to one of our Sunday meetings some time and is even interested in coming to an About Circle of Hope dinner! Pretty cool.

I think everyone’s got stories like this. I’m very happy to receive them and listen to them. The little time I spend on campus has borne enough fruit for me to keep doing it. I hope this helps explain what I’m doing, and maybe it inspires you to do the same. Everyone’s story counts, and everyone matters. I think that’s one of the main things Jesus came to earth to tell us. And I think that openness, safety, and authenticity are uniquely expressed in Circle of Hope.

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