Not the same old interfaith story

Not the same old interfaith story

Novel program unifies members of Summit synagogue and church

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The storytellers at the culminating event of a joint project held by Congregation Beth Hatikvah and Fountain Baptist Church in Summit.
The storytellers at the culminating event of a joint project held by Congregation Beth Hatikvah and Fountain Baptist Church in Summit.

It was the slow reveal in glorious details that hooked the listener on Yana Kane Esrig’s adventures restoring a Wisconsin section of the Ice Age Trail.

Esrig spoke about the quiet solitude of her campsite, feeling reverence for the spruce trees and deep blue lake nearby. The majesty broken by two men from the forestry department who wanted to fell the trees rather than allow the trail to be repaired. The aggrieved men later returned to check on the group’s safety after tornadoes blew through the site. They shared coffee and granola bars, and as the pair departed Esrig said she realized that her journey was not the one she had chosen, but one of discovering shared humanity with political foes.

Esrig’s was one of 13 stories told by female congregants of Congregation Beth Hatikvah (CBH), a Reconstructionist synagogue, and Fountain Baptist Church, both in Summit, at the church on Nov. 2.

It was the second time the two congregations worked together on this particular project, which they have dubbed, in a tweaked merger of their names, Fountains of Hope. (Beth Hatikvah means House of Hope.) 

The event marked the culmination of hours of honing, crafting, and practicing their tales. While the goal was learning a new art form, the process led to creating deep ties among congregants who participated.

“I love the idea that we were two churches — or two religious organizations — coming together,” said Bregette Bryant, a church member who told a story about her clothing addiction. “What we find is that we are the same.”

CBH and Fountain Baptist Church have a history of collaboration and community-building that dates back to Rabbi Hannah Orden’s arrival in 2014 when she met Rev. Vernon Williams, assistant to the pastor at Fountain Baptist Church, through the Summit Interfaith Council. They worked together on a variety of anti-racism programs and created a joint liberation seder that’s been running for four years, and often speak at each other’s congregations or participate in each other’s programs. There is discussion underway to hold a joint Bible study.

About 75 people from both congregations came to the event on Nov. 2 at Fountain Baptist Church in Summit.

On this November evening, the stories were about growth — realizing an alcoholic father was more present than previously realized, finding an intimidating grandmother loveable, meeting a newly discovered father for the first time, and more, as an audience of about 75 people from both congregations sat in the pews and listened. 

Afterward there were hugs and congratulations, and a call for more men to participate next year.

This particular project was sparked when CBH member Stephanie Tran got into a conversation at a CBH event about the power of storytelling with the church’s associate minister Dr. Betty Livingston Adams, who is also a history professor at Rutgers University. 

Within a few months of that initial conversation, Tran was applying for grants to cover the cost of a two-day workshop led by staff of The Moth Radio Hour’s community program, which was ultimately held in the fall of 2018 with 16 participants, eight from each congregation. The Moth Radio Hour, which began airing in 2009 on National Public Radio, records the public telling of true stories from people’s lives.

“Stories are universal,” said Bryant. “Life is universal. And so that’s what this helped me to see.”

This year, the two congregations adapted the workshop to their own needs and ran it themselves, with 13 participants.

“Doing the Moth workshop gave us a lot of confidence,” said Tran. “And it helped us feel like, yeah, we can do this.” She said their focus was as much about creating and strengthening community ties as it was about storytelling.

Storytellers turned friends, Yana Kane Esrig, at left, from Congregation Beth Hatikvah, and Brenda Perry from Fountain Baptist Church. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

For Esrig, her participation was about making connections. She saw storytelling as a deeper way to talk with others than the usual chit chat allows. “As adults, in some sense, we often forget to talk about things that really matter to us,” she said. But the workshop provided a different kind of space.

“Our mission was to actually speak about some transformative moments — to open up,” Esrig said. “And that’s really wonderful. That’s how I want to interact with people.”

She views storytelling as the ideal medium. “When you hear a person tell a story, they become a person to you,” she said.

Adams agreed with Esrig’s comment, saying, “That is what we’re really trying to foster in this storytelling.” She wants to grow the two groups into a larger community. “We want to use our stories to find the commonalities or find the things that are not common and say, ‘OK, but I know that person.’”

She added, “We can change things when we get people to share their stories.”

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