From left: parish life director Debbie Ledoux, McKenna, Rev. Graham Hill, CSsR, parish elder Gayle Weenie, and Deacon Paul Labelle (Photo by Kiply Yaworski)
SASKATOON — “Handing on Tradition, Sharing Faith” was the theme of a weekend facilitated in Saskatoon by storytelling theologian and Scripture scholar Megan McKenna March 31 - April 2.
Presented by Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish — which serves First Nations, Métis, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods — the three-day focus on storytelling included an Elders’ storytelling circle, a session on handing on traditions to the young, a session for the young on “creating your own story,” as well as an introduction to the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the message contained in her miraculous image that appeared on the tilma of the indigenous man, St. Juan Diego.
“For indigenous peoples, cultural identity is the foundation of who we are,” said promotional material prepared by Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish about the storytelling workshop. “For years the Canadian government has tried to separate our people from our heritage, to separate us from our customs and languages. The end result has been a generation separated from our culture and from our beliefs, both traditional and Christian.”
Rediscovering the power of story to renew and transform communities was the theme of McKenna’s introductory evening of storytelling March 31 at St. Mary’s Parish hall. With flair and humour, weaving ancient indigenous stories with discussion and with Scripture, McKenna explored how stories tell us who we are and what life means, imparting truths, information and values from generation to generation.
“Every group passes on what is most crucial through storytelling,” said McKenna. “That is true all over the world.” However, in modern western societies, many have lost the ability to share through the tradition of oral storytelling.
McKenna asserted that “all stories are true, and some of them actually happened,” and “when I say ‘once upon a time,’ the story happens again for us.”
Stories cross borders and languages much more easily than people do, and all stories create communities, McKenna said.
“Families have stories, religious communities have stories, parishes have stories, nations have stories. You are known by the stories you tell,” she said.
“For people who believe in Jesus, who are Catholics, we are supposed to be telling stories of resurrection, stories of hope, stories of life that’s stronger than death, stories of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Although some are no longer telling stories, we still find stories all around us, including in our liturgy, noted McKenna. “Most of liturgy, the first half, is storytelling, and then the second half is acting out the story of the Last Supper,” she said.
“You are known by the stories you tell. They tell us all the important things we need to know: who we are, who came before us, who we belong to, and they also remind us of the things we can do without, and (that we must) make sure we don’t do again.”
Stories remind us of our greatest weaknesses and our greatest gifts, and have the power to bring healing, formation and transformation.
Upon hearing a story, our reaction is either to love and embrace the story or to hate and reject the story, said McKenna.
“Take Jesus: you either loved his stories and you’d follow him anywhere and decide to make his stories come true, or the other (reaction) is: I don’t like that story, and I don’t like you either.”
In some times and places, when people have not liked the stories that someone is telling, they kill the storyteller, she added.
“Even still, around the world today, whenever there is some kind of uprising or revolution, the military or the dominant culture goes after the storytellers, the singers, the drummers, the musicians and the artists first, because they carry the hopes and the dreams and the history and the identity of the people,” she said.
“If you lose your stories, you have lost something core and crucial to who you are.”
Beginning with a First Nations tale about a storytelling stone and the creation of a storyteller who helps his community survive and thrive, McKenna summarized: “You must tell the stories; they are as important as food.”
Stories are also a gift, and for many cultures were the usual way of passing on crucial information for survival, she added. Oral storytelling traditions bring a person into community and connection, as opposed to the use of technology, which tends to isolate, McKenna suggested. Telling a story to a group of more than one person means the story takes on a life of its own in the life of that community.
“Stories are the heart of people. It’s the glue that holds a community together,” she said, urging her listeners to go and look for the stories of their community, research the tales, record the stories of elders, make them your own and share them with others. “This is a way to reclaim culture; the stories are never gone.”
McKenna continued sharing stories to the group, inviting reaction and discussion — including the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, breaking open its imagery and its message — “you are my child, you are my servant, you are my beloved . . . and I take great delight in you.”
“All good stories are told to change us, to transform us, to change things,” she said, stressing that the richness of the indigenous stories and worldview are desperately needed in the world today. “We need stories that tell the truth. That tell us how to stay alive, how to stop the destruction.”
A native of New York City, McKenna presently lives in New Mexico. She works with indigenous groups, in base Christian communities and with justice and peace groups as well as parishes, dioceses and religious communities.
An internationally known author, theologian, storyteller and lecturer, she teaches at several colleges and universities and offers retreats, workshops and parish missions. She has graduate degrees in Scripture, adult education and literacy from the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley, and a master‘s degree in systematic theology from Catholic University, Washington, D.C. She is the author of some 50 books.