By Cleo Lampos
I lived in the rural areas of Iowa and Wisconsin, where I attended one-room school houses. The sparse collection of books on the tiny wooden shelf included a series with orange covers called Childhoods of Famous People. I read every volume from cover to cover. I faced the dangers of the underground railroad with Harriet Tubman, dreamt of freedom with Sun Yat Sen, and bandaged animal paws with Clara Barton.
The bookmobile brought two crates of books biweekly: Seven Wonders of the Ancient World transported this farm kid across oceans, expanding my horizons. Black Beauty and Charlotte’s Web developed my compassion for animals. It was a sad day when Beth died in Little Women, but the sharing of sorrow made me know that pain and loss are universal. Books by Lois Lenski showed me ordinary kids who faced real-life problems.
The home in which I lived was filled with violence. School was my only safe place. It was through books that a vision of normalcy emerged.
The Power of Story in the Classroom
After surviving a childhood filled with instability and a stint in foster care, I graduated with a degree in education and taught in an urban school. My classrooms were in the special education wing with behavior disordered and emotionally disturbed boys. All morning these students squirmed through assignments, read several years below grade placement, and tried to intimidate each other. The only time of the day when they settled down was after lunch when I read a chapter or two from books.
Damaged youth carrying huge chips on their shoulders squeezed out tears of empathy when the dog died in Where the Red Fern Grows. They laughed at the everyday antics of Henry Huggins from Beverly Cleary books. The brave actions of the Norwegian children under Nazi occupation in Treasures of the Snow inspired these boys, who sometimes slept in their bathtubs when gangs were shooting in the neighborhood, to write essays on “What is courage?” One of the boys in the class, Ramon Turner, spoke for the group when he wrote that “courage is doing something even when you are afraid.”
One year, there were two girls in this special education class. At great risk, I read the American Girl series about Addy Walker. The boys leaned in to hear the Walker family’s persistence while escaping slavery and emerging in the freedom of Philadelphia. The Civil War, emancipation, and the challenges of urban living revealed laughter and fortitude as necessary qualities for the family. At the class’s suggestion, we wrote fan mail to the author, Connie Porter, who answered with an inspiring letter to the students.
I discovered that a story does not have to be overly Christian in its message in order to project biblical values and touch the heart of the reader. When an author writes a story that presents reality in a healing manner to those who travel broken roads, then the heart is stretched open to welcome light into the soul. If children cannot read books for themselves, we need to read aloud to them.
The Power of Story in Ministry
Storytelling defines me. For decades my contribution to the children’s service at our church was the missionary story. Week by week, the accounts of ordinary Christians living extraordinary lives unfolded. I rewrote biographies into the language of children and persuaded local artists to create illustrations. Patti Lyons recalled the story of Amy Carmichael, an Irish missionary who rescued temple children in India. Patti stated, “I remember her untiring passion for the call that God gave her and her perseverance when the road was difficult no matter how long it lasted.” These biographies prepared Patti for similar challenges she has faced as a minister’s wife.
Annette Bartl’s life was influenced by the story of Mary Slessor, missionary to Africa. “Mary inspired me to put God first and strengthened my faith seeing how faithful God was to her. I saw her rich and meaningful life, and now, as an adult, I have experienced that for myself.”
Niko Lampos listened attentively to the weekly installments of David Wilkerson and his work with New York City gangs. I had attended a Wilkerson Rally as a college student and owned the book, The Cross and the Switchblade. Now 100 children on Chicago’s South Side, including Niko, leaned in to hear how the Holy Spirit convicted gang members of their need for Christ. Years later, Niko entered Teen Challenge, a drug rehab program started by David Wilkerson. “I knew that this was the best place for me.” Niko solemnly spoke. “I believed that God changed those homeboy’s lives and he could change mine.” At night, as he lay on his bed in rehab, Niko listened to the gunfire in the neighborhood, and in his head he recounted the Bible stories from his youth. The stories of protection, like the three men in the furnace, or Daniel in the lion’s den, helped Niko to know that God watched over him. I am thankful for the true stories that became the keys to unlock Niko’s prison, because Niko is my son.
Recently my storytelling has been directed toward seniors, who enjoy good stories. A local Christian college has a program designed for retired persons. Coupling PowerPoint illustrations with my scripts, I have taken these audiences to China as Gladys Aylward rescues more than one hundred homeless orphans from the Japanese forces of WWII. Our class has followed the heart-wrenching challenges faced by the agents watching over young lives on the orphan trains or Dr. Thomas Barnardo creating homes for poor children or Bertha Bracey rescuing Jewish children from Germany on the Kindertransport. Grown men shed tears in these classes, and women showed anger over the injustices. As Jody Hart expressed, “Hearing how God provided for these people, I know he will meet my needs. I am challenged to volunteer in my community to help agencies that are reaching out to the poor.”
It is difficult to watch an audience weep and sing, but a series of presentations to the seniors produced such a reaction. Joining with pianist Tom Lyons, I told the story of a hymn’s origin, then Tom sang the stanzas with the group. Sitting in the second row was Maralyn Dettmann, who has not attended church in many years. Her sister persuaded Maralyn to attend the college class on the history of the hymns. Maralyn’s testimony relates how stories communicate to deep needs. “The words of the songs touched a part of my soul that has lain dormant for such a long time. Learning that the most memorable hymns from my youth were written from the depths of desperation has made the message even more precious. Nowadays, I find myself humming a hymn as I do housework and reflecting on the composer’s walk with God.” Introducing music with a well-crafted story cultivates the heart into which the love of God may grow.
The Power of Personal Story
Our lives are lived in the rushing action of the present. It is not possible to fast forward to the ending or flip pages to see how the crisis turns out. We exist in real time, whether in mundane circumstances or teeth-gnashing anxiety. It is impossible to see around the corner, so we must believe that some great plot is being woven beneath the surface and that our own tale is worth telling.
This type of faith is garnered from a backlog of reading biblical accounts of people whose lives were messy, full of confusion, but eventually resolved with meaning and completeness. A story is not only about people and places, but also about ideas and concepts. Biblically based stories tell where we come from and where we are going.
What is your personal story? The scars you accumulate through life are meant to be shared as part of your story. They become lighthouses to others headed for dangerous rocks. Let God’s love shine through you with transformational power.
A right story at the right time helps us to escape calamity and heal. It is about our connection to each other and how to make meaning out of life.
Cleo Lampos is the author of five books and loves to speak to audiences about the orphan train, hymns, and the Dust Bowl.