Connected to Storytellers

Working on a story for our website goes beyond sitting down for an hour or two interview.  Much background research goes into the choice of the candidate, into arranging the logistics, and to allowing for some preparation time. 

During the interview both parties must gain a level of trust; we begin with simple conversation before delving into heavier more sensitive topics. Emotions may pop out, and we need to sense how far to push or when to pull back. On the one hand, revealing personal details about a person’s life to total strangers can be a terrifying experience or a liberating one on the other hand. Sometimes we schedule a second interview or follow-up with further questions at a later date.

Our interviews are intimate moments.  We have connected in ways the person perhaps has not felt comfortable doing with others.  Maybe a neutral person/pair is easier to talk with than someone close, such as a relative. 

This is only speculation on my part, so take it for what its worth. I do know that there is a great deal of jealousy among the poor who live in proximity. Therefore, I have to wonder if poor people living in community tend not to share every personal detail of their lives with one another who are so inter-connected. Perhaps it is somehow easier to share those details with a total stranger who is neutral and non-judgmental, someone with no expectations of them.

When talking with people, you learn about yourself.”  This was the concluding statement of a recent interviewee who had never really stopped to self-reflect on all the events of his complicated life until he sat down for this extensive interview.  At that point he began to recognize the coincidentalmoments that he had previously taken for granted were maybe not so coincidental. 

I hadnt really thought about it that way before” or Gosh, I havent thought about that for a long timeare common phrases we hear as individuals share their lives for the first time, or years later suddenly see themselves in a different way.

No one has ever asked me to tell about myselfwas another startling comment from a middle-aged woman who suddenly felt valued. For years she had been carrying burdens of deep emotion within her which no one ever asked her to share. After she did, she felt deeply cleansed.

Another young man had very unsettled, conflicting feelings stirring inside him. He was trying to decide whether to migrate to the U.S. He thought he could make a better living for his family if he did so.  However, what was conflicting for him was that at the same time he had been given a responsible full-time position by his present employer. It was while we were engaged in dialogue during our interview that he came to realize that migrating to the U.S. was not in his familys or his own best long-term interests. Talking out loud helped him think through and solidify his decision.

A young mom felt guilt over her daughters serious illness, thinking it was her fault for not consistently worshipping God in a formal church setting.  At the hospital where her child was treated, the other jealous moms ruthlessly admonished her saying her child was improving only due to her familys higher socio-economic situation.  Even though this mother knew deep down inside that neither of these cases was accurate information, by verbally sharing it—as well as receiving our encouragement—she was able to let that guilt go.

A young man enrolled in seminary had been unable to make that big step of what to do with his education.  In El Salvador, Lutheran pastors receive little if any pay and he is talented in so many areas; also, he could use the background to go into another field or to another country.  It was a privilege to be sitting alone with him one day in quiet dialogue when he made his life decision to pursue ordained ministry.  It was as though the weight of the world had been lifted from his mind.

This same storyteller, an artist and seminary student who also serves as one of our primary translators for our project discovered that three of the wooden crosses he paints have been gifted to some prominent clergy worldwide.  In one weeks time the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Orthodox Church of Lebanon, and Pope Francis received crosses made by our artist. He was surprised and honored and will be interviewed by a magazine. In preparation for that he asked if I would write something up to share about him as a way of introduction. I sent him an abbreviated excerpt of the full-length story on him referencing the readers to his entire story and pictures to be posted on our website in one month.

The survivors and witnesses of the atrocious civil war atrocities that we have interviewed were never given therapy or treatment. They do tell us, however, that as painful as it is to repeat the grim details, doing so helps them move forward with their lives and honor their loved ones. This was even true of massacre survivors.

We try to remain as neutral as possible during the interviews to allow the interviewee latitude to share and reflect. However, there are times we do find ourselves asking, Had you considered  . . . . . .?” or Did you ever think perhaps . . . . . .?”  to further probe an idea beyond the surface being presented. Sometimes those questions help the interviewee think more introspectively. It is when we feel we have established a level of trust with that individual, that we can probe beyond his or her own comfort level. But the results can be worth it to that individual especially.

We wont publish anything about our interviewees they are uncomfortable with, but they perhaps learned something about themselves in the process that is worthwhile. There are sometimes those cases that we are asked not to publish.  “It was so comfortable sharing with the two of you and I learned much about myself in doing so but reading it all in print was just too revealing and Im not ready to go public yetone individual with a dynamic story told us. We certainly respect her decision.

We feel connected with our storytellers and try to stay in touch with many of them.  The last time we visited El Salvador I asked some follow-up questions of one to a couple of issues that had been left unresolved during our previous interview. She must have been touched that I remembered those things because next thing I knew, she left the room for a moment and returned with a gift of four watercolor prints she had painted years ago. What an unexpected and wonderful treasure now framed on our walls!

We dont print everything that is shared in the interviews lest too

 much information become exposed.  Our Salvadoran friends often live in fear, off the grid in the shadows just trying to survive one day at a time. Our covenant with any storyteller is to not print anything that may endanger them or be uncomfortable. Once in a while a storyteller has second thoughts about sharing his/her story with our readers. That is fine.

In one or two cases we were asked to remove the storytellersstories from our website. In each case it was a total surprise. But we respected their decisions and did so.

I remember each and every detail that has been shared.  I often reflect about each person we have interviewed.  One time my partner must have been feeling the same way and said, Wouldnt it be an interesting trip to return to El Salvador with the sole purpose being to revisit each person we interviewed?”  My response was, Do you know how long that would take?But I know where he was going and what he was thinking wouldnt it be nice to get an update on each persons life?

Yes, it certainly would. It would take more than one trip, but that ship has sailed. But oh, what a journey it has been!


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.