This summer I’ve had the joyful chance to help out with the children’s ministry at our church, New Hope Covenant Oakland, and under the direction and partnership of Pastor Kara Groth to tell stories of saints’ lives to preschoolers and early elementary students. They’re not my usual age of students, having been a high school teacher and youth group leader, so it was a learning experience from me. Fortunately, friends at the church set an example of thoughtful teaching and storytelling for kids at that tender age, the age of my daughter, which provided a tremendous example for me. Some of the ways they teach stories are inspired by the books and materials of Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education approach developed by Jerome Berryman and others. Some of the ways they teach are also just born from experience with the groups of kids they have taught, adorable and precocious and curious and unique kids.
Focusing on the lives of saints has been fun and fascinating. We’ve told them stories of St. Paul and Ruth from Scripture, Dorothy Day and Fannie Lou Hamer, St. Clare and St. Francis, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Bishop Efraim Tendero of the World Evangelical Alliance, Desmond Tutu and Sojourner Truth, St. Paul Miki and the 26 Companions (Japanese martyrs), and others. Those saints that I had a chance to tell stories about, I was inspired by the process of reading and research, composing stories simple enough for five year olds but spiritually meaningful. Or maybe spiritually meaningful precisely because they are simple enough for five year olds, and still profound enough to inspire prideful old farts. I revisited Endo’s Silence, came to appreciate the extensive catalogue and hagiography of saints that Catholics cultivate on the internet, and repeatedly reflected on the contrast between my goals and the purposeful lives of those saints the church remembers.
Communicating this to small children has been a different thing. Godly Play involves stories played out with figures and materials, and our Sunday School room is stocked with wooden human statues, temples that can be assembled and disassembled, sand in boxes and felt underlays. It’s tangible, beside which the spiritual is unfolded. Christ in the flesh, God in the world, the Spirit inhabiting human lives and the material world: these are to be seen and lived by kids. I realize how much I rely on abstractions on one hand and images on the other, and it’s taken an adjustment to think about stories differently. Characters moving slowly across sand, in spatial relationship to each other. Symbols that we can hold and touch.
Appropriately, the theme that Pastor Kara introduced, aligned to the church’s discipleship model, was introducing how these saints heard God’s call and saw the world through God’s eyes. We tried to tell stories about people being sensory and perceptive about the spiritual enfleshed in the concrete. I found that kind of thinking really necessary for me, the kind of person who has a way of intellectualizing my faith and compartmentalizing arenas of life. No, Paul, you can’t just rely on a bunch of rhetoric and philosophy, phrasings and stories– these stories have to get down to the visible and mundane, the grounded, the kind of stuff small kids can see and understand. Dorothy Day’s ragged coat, Paul Miki’s long trail of snow towards crucifixion, St. Clare’s bed for the sick. How does God’s call invite us along a story that moves our feet and hearts, and how does God’s vision recast the reality around us?
Studying and telling stories about this cloud of witnesses, I also thought a lot about the daily lives of these kids and their families. Establishing habits and experiencing disruptions. Forming curiosities and discovering mysteries. Lunches and movies and tan bark and scary cars. Unbridled joy and depths of mourning. I thought about how these stories might re-narrate help them hear God’s call and see God’s world. It’s hard to expect immediate evidence. My kid didn’t go home from one of our stories and radically reinterpret her life. I don’t think it happens quite that way, quite that fast. But i did think a lot about the stories i regularly read with her, ones with heroes who vanquish enemies and lovable losers who navigate and negotiate their way through existence. Yes, those are the substance of life too. But I’m so glad that alongside those stories, she has stories of a dawning revelation of things outside the hero’s journey that matter and last, of a larger adventure that begins before and extends well beyond an individual life, of a communion of saints who, remembered or forgotten, are known and loved by God.