“… hearing another person’s story, even a part of their story, changes the way we see them.”
December 20, 1951, St. John’s, N.L.—Ed “Kip” Malone was 12 years old and on his way to buy a pound of butter from McGraw’s store on Central Street. As he approached the store, he saw smoke coming from a nearby house. Then he heard a woman screaming from the third floor, “Save the children! Save the children!” Young Kip ran into the smoking building, located two girls, aged five and three, and rushed them out of the house.
The house, home to eight children and their parents, was destroyed. The grandmother who had been calling from the third floor perished in the fire.
Malone never heard anything more about the two little girls he’d saved that day. He grew up and eventually moved to Ontario, where he lived and worked until he retired. When he decided to move back to his island home in the fall of 2016, Kip bought a house in Conception Bay South, a town 30 km west of St. John’s. Shortly after moving in, he was chatting with his new neighbour, Margaret Fowler, and in the course of their conversation he told her his story of rescuing two little girls from a burning house in St. John’s.
“She just looked at me and nearly fainted,” Malone recalls. “She says, ‘I’m the little girl.’ ”1
Margaret Fowler and her sister, Barbara Earle, knew very little about the fire, and they knew nothing about a brave young boy who had saved their lives—until he moved in next door. Kip Malone believes it was God who told him where to look for little Barbara that day. And the sisters have no doubt that it was God who directed him back into their lives 65 years later.
Now that’s a heartwarming story! But I haven’t remembered this story because it warmed my heart. I’ve remembered it because two sentences rose like octopus tentacles, wrapped themselves around me, and wouldn’t let go. About two-thirds of the way through the article, the CBC reporter wrote these words: “Neither of the neighbours recognized each other at first. It was only when they got to telling stories that the connection was made.”2
Now that’s a profound truth! And I’ve been wrestling with it ever since it grabbed me. It is only when we get to “telling stories” that connections are made. Until we learn to listen to each other’s stories, we will never recognize our neighbour—the person we are commanded to love. Hearing another person’s story, even a part of their story, changes the way I see them. They can no longer be the thing I’ve labelled them as. The box I’ve used to put them in—immigrant, refugee, drug addict, disabled, gay, transgender, Muslim, redneck, liberal, socialist, black, white, prostitute, homeless—can no longer hold them. Not once I’ve listened to their story.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk is listed as one of the 25 most popular TED Talks of all time. Using her own story of growing up in Nigeria and then moving to the United States, she illustrates what happens when we only know one story about a particular place or people group. She calls it the danger of the single story.
“The single story creates stereotypes,” she explains, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”3
Every time I believe a single story about any race, religion or social class, I am treating those people as less than human. I am settling for a stereotype. Why would I do that? The only reason I can think of is fear. I resist hearing certain people’s stories because I’m afraid I will discover that they are like me in more ways than they are different.
There’s a judge in Virginia who understands this truth.
In September 2016, five teenagers spray-painted the side of a 19th-century historic building with swastikas, sexual images, dinosaurs, and the words “white power” and “brown power.” The Ashburn Colored School was a one-room schoolhouse used by black children during segregation in Northern Virginia. In her sentencing of the juveniles, the judge endorsed the prosecutor’s proposal that—among other things—the teenagers read and write a report on one book each month for the next 12 months.4 The list of 35 books the teenagers had to choose from included titles such as Night by Elie Wiesel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Each book selection was designed to expose these five youths to “other” people’s stories. Did it work? Time will tell, but here is how one of the teenagers summed up what he had learned: “Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” he wrote in his essay. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”5
When we choose to believe a single story about any group of people, we are deciding to live in ignorance and in wilful disobedience to Christ. If Christians started genuinely listening to the stories of the people we have stereotyped, it just might be the first step toward shattering the stereotypes they have of us. And, like Ed “Kip” Malone, we might discover that our stories are connected in ways we could never imagine.
3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story,” TED Ideas worth spreading, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
4. Christine Hauser, “Teenagers Who Vandalized Historic Black Schoolhouse Are Ordered to Read Books,” New York Times, February 8, 2017, accessed April 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/us/black-school-racist-sexist-graffiti.html?action