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Neighborhoods Are Storied Places

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

We live storied lives.

Think about it.

Right where you are; look around. I’d like to suggest to you, as was suggested to me by the work of Mary Alice Arthur, that everything you see as you look around has a story associated with it…but often it is a story you may not readily think about. For example,

  • The desk that I am sitting at was once a kitchen table in the first home that I bought with my husband over 30 years ago. It is rich with stories about how I came to possess it, the years we lived in our first home, and even why I am using it today (which includes the story of our world’s recent shift to Zoom.)

  • Out my office window, I see a tree beginning to bloom in my neighbor’s yard. The tree evokes memories of my former neighbor who would give me cuttings of the blooms, my current neighbors, and that cold snap that caused the tree not to bloom one year. In those memories, lie the stories.

Take a moment and try it. Look at something near you and see if it does not connect to a story in your mind…a story from your life.

Our neighborhoods and towns are storied places.

Isolated stories that we know about a place combine to form the overarching narrative that we have about that place. The narrative is sort of like the headline on the front page of the newspaper in which you may find multiple articles (or stories) that shape that headline.

What is the headline you have for your neighborhood? Do you worship in a neighborhood different from where you live? What’s your headline for your church’s neighborhood?

North of where I live in Memphis, there is a neighborhood called Frayser. Frayser has a reputation for being an undesirable place to live…no jobs, bad schools, poor housing, crime…This narrative about Frayser is shaped by the limited number of stories that people outside of Frayser have heard about the place…stories often limited to what has been seen on the evening news.

However, if you ask the people living in Frayser to share their perspective (or narrative) about their community you get statements such as:

  • It’s a beautiful place with lots of rolling hills and green space.

  • It’s a very collaborative community. People work together.

  • It’s an affordable place to live with a strong sense of family.

Recently, I was invited by Agape Child and Family Services, an organization that serves people in Frayser and connects churches across Memphis, to facilitate a tour of Frayser. To ensure authenticity in the tour and activities around it, a design team of Frayser residents was engaged to plan the tour and curate the stories that they wanted to share with tour participants – stories that might reshape the narrative that outsiders hold about their place to more closely resemble the narrative Frayser residents hold.

The first two tours have achieved nearly 100% shift– shifting the perspectives of non-Frayser residents from negative to positive. It has been so noteworthy that Agape is sponsoring the development of tours for additional neighborhoods they serve, and one of the county commissioners is interested in replicating this throughout the county. The belief is that as the dominant narrative shifts from a place full of problems to a place of great potential that more people across our city will want to collaborate and invest in Frayser, partnering with it to become even more vibrant.

What stories are being told about your neighborhood? What stories are being told about your church’s neighborhood? Who tells them…the media, outsiders, or the people who live there?

What role might you or your church play in amplifying the voices and stories of your community in a way that is generative, hope-filled, and life-giving?

Frayser design team and neighborhood tour participants.

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