Inclining our ear to stories from below

There’s power in personal narratives, says intercultural transformation workshop speaker

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. W. Tali Hairston is director of community organizing, advocacy and development for Seattle Presbytery. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Presbytery)

LOUISVILLE — Intercultural leadership, according to the Rev. W. Tali Hairston, is about the power of leadership that takes to heart the stories from below.

Hairston, director of community organizing, advocacy and development for Seattle Presbytery, offered one of nine workshops for the Transformational Intercultural Workshops, which concluded last week.

To illustrate his point about the power of personal narrative and leading from below, Hairston had workshop participants introduce themselves by briefly telling their story, “a cultural narrative full of rich symbols and valuable meanings,” he said. Narrative is key to our identity because our story helps us make sense of the oftentimes unrelated events of life, he noted.

“We see Jesus using stories constantly to interpret and dismantle the powers that divided people,” Hairston said. One example is the time Jesus asked the Samaritan woman at the well to give him a cup of water. He wasn’t supposed to be talking to her, nor she to him, Hairston said. “But he talks to her until he gets her story from below,” Hairston said. “I hear the struggle from being a woman in a society that objectifies who you are as a woman trying to survive without a husband. This story is instructive of what the heart of the gospel really is.”

Hairston said leaders and members of Seattle Presbytery have learned the value of becoming and being held accountable. “Places of power must locate relationships that hold them accountable for persisting in their work, because it’s difficult work,” he said. “We don’t measure what we don’t value.”

One strategy is to place intercultural work at the forefront of meeting agendas, to “be attentive to building intercultural capacity,” he said. “It’s too easy to slip out of this stream and work into ‘the real work’ of the presbytery.” Group members don’t necessarily need to hold themselves accountable, he said: a consultant or outside body can do the work instead.

“I believe intercultural leadership grows when we seek transformational, not transactional, outcomes,” Hairston said. “We look for changes in relationships and social arrangements, but our world is so transactional.”

Practices like pulpit exchanges “are a great starting point,” Hairston said. “It’s a good way to start leaning into transformation.”

According to Hairston, for many years churches have been evolving “into places of power and charity, where we control the budget, decision-making — and the sermon,” he said. “Giving to needs in any community is important and ongoing work. But we often fail to see the systems that create the need for urgent charity. People “not proximate to the needs are making the decisions about that urgent charity,” Hairston said.

The author of the book “Just Mercy,” attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, “talks about the need for all of us to become more proximate to the system of incarceration,” Hairston said. “Proximity is effective for transforming hearts. Is this not how Jesus moved in intercultural spaces? Jesus wanted to get proximate to the problem. Intercultural spaces build on transformational outcomes and engagement.”

“I cannot help who I have not listened to,” Hairston said. There’s no substitute for “spending time with one another so the real story from below can surface.” It’s an intercultural leadership practice, he said, to “become proximate to the intercultural spaces and situations of the community,” or, as he put it, “listening through engagement with, not deciding for.”

He left workshop participants with five questions for their consideration and follow-up:

  • What are the stories from below you can gather around?
  • Can you spend more time leaning into the stories that make up intercultural spaces?
  • What does accountability look like in your context and position of influence?
  • Can you pursue accountability in places of power?
  • What does it mean for you to be a transformational leader in your context?

The Presbyterian Intercultural Network, Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the presbyteries of Sacramento and Stockton and Charlotte put on the Intercultural Transformation Workshops. View one of the plenary sessions here.

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.


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