Episcopal Diocese launches online effort to share stories across divisions of class, race

  • The Rev. Christopher Carlisle, left, speaks with Aric during a Street Stories interview in downtown Northampton. Contributed photo

  • The Rev. Christopher Carlisle, left, speaks with someone during a Street Stories interview. Contributed photo

  • The Rev. Christopher Carlisle browses the Street Stories website on his phone in the Greenfield Elks Lodge. For the Recorder/Andy Castillo

  • The Rev. Christopher Carlisle browses the Street Stories website on his phone in the Greenfield Elks Lodge. For the Recorder/Andy Castillo

For the Recorder
Published: 5/4/2018 4:33:50 PM

Editor’s Note: Last names have been withheld to protect the privacy of those interviewed in this story.

Stories matter. They’re fibers that stitch humanity together and conjure forth empathy from otherwise unconnected people.

Street Stories, an internet media project recently launched by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Visionaries Public Television Series (a nonprofit public documentary organization), is a digital platform for stories from people like Greenfield resident Ron T. Through Street Stories, people like Ron, who overcame addiction, can share their stories across divisions of class and race to combat misperceptions of poverty.

“My second father was a Green Beret in Vietnam — special ops, black out squad — you know, plausible deniability that he didn’t exist,” Ron said in an interview recorded through Street Stories.

In the video, Ron stands on the Greenfield Common. It’s a bright, sunny day, and traffic passes behind him on Main Street. To his left, the Rev. Christopher Carlisle, an Episcopal priest with the diocese (a religious district under the pastoral care of a bishop) and executive producer of Street Stories, listens intently and occasionally asks questions.

Ron takes a breath and continues, “And he was a bastard. He beat me to a pulp every day of my life for a long time. I think I was five the first time he punched out my four front teeth.”

Street Stories “is a platform to give people a voice. What we hope to do is to help transcend class, race, to essentially coalesce across the many divides of our culture, populations who should, and need to be speaking, with one another for the benefit of everyone,” Carlisle explained later.

To that end, stories are captured on iPhones and hosted on Visionaries’ website. Currently, there are four other interviews along with Ron’s. Most of those interviewed share common struggles of addiction, homelessness and poverty.

“You have no place to go at night. You’re bouncing from here to there. You cry at night. Everything you do is to find a place to live — your days are spent finding a place to stay at night,” said Tammy N., a disabled and homeless Greenfield interviewee who said in a video that she’s been sober for three years.

Like Ron, Tammy has also struggled with addiction and homelessness for much of her life. Homelessness is a cycle that keeps people impoverished, she said. Come morning, the search for a place to sleep starts all over again.

“I’m almost 50, and at times it’s really hard and scary. I want my own home,” she said in the video.

With the exception of Ron and Tammy, the remaining videos were filmed outside of Greenfield.

Well received so far

Since its launch in early February, Bill Mosher, executive director of Visionaries, said the project has been well received, attracting thousands more visitors than expected.

“The first four days it was up we got 1,200 views. But the astounding part was the average amount of time people spent on the site was 4½ minutes,” Mosher said. Typically, and taking into account a wide range of internet browsing habits, the average time people spend on a many websites is under a minute.

For more than 20 years, Visionaries has produced a television series for public television annually. Each half-hour episode features a different nonprofit organization. Total time of Street Stories interviews range between 15 and 30 minutes. However, each video is broken up into short, 30-second clips based on topic. Mosher said shorter videos are a good way to reach a new audience.

“The internet represents vast potential, and is occupied by a lot of negativity and bankrupt stuff. And, yet, it’s an untapped resource. It has, for better or for worse, unprecedented access to the population, and the population has unprecedented access to the internet,” said Carlisle. “We felt we had to inhabit that, both for the sake of the stories, and for voices to counteract the negativity and often depression that gets evoked when you go on the web.”

Street Stories evolved from Cathedral in the Night, an outdoor Christian ministry that meets weekly outside of the First Churches in Northampton. Carlisle, a co-founder of the street-side ministry, met Mosher, who had just moved into town, following a service one night about 2½ years ago.

“One of the things we began talking about is how rich human stories are in the context of an outdoor community beyond the stained glass window, where human need is in your face, where there’s both hardship and celebration, and a kind of spontaneity and openness that generates or enables people to tell stories that they wouldn’t tell inside a building,” Carlisle said.

Meeting a spiritual need

Storytelling as a means to facilitate discussion isn’t a new concept, especially among religious circles.

The Bible, for example, is a collection of stories “that has been edited, redacted and evolved into a single tome,” Carlisle said. “Maybe some of the people are remarkable — they may have been kings — but they also may have been shepherds. The scriptures hold power precisely because there are myriad voices that are telling their own stories from diverse points of views, hitting on commonality.”

On a deeper level, Street Stories acts as a ministry tool designed to meet the spiritual needs of people online.

Younger generations don’t associate with religious institutions as much as they once did, but they care deeply about social justice and spiritual matters, Carlisle said. Thus, the questions that Carlisle poses to interviewees are intended to answer the same questions and meet the same needs that someone watching might also have.

Ron became addicted to drugs at 13 years old, and experienced one night of euphoria at a house party.

“That’s my story. I spent the next 30 years chasing that one night of perfection again. And it’s not possible,” Ron said in the video. “Until recently in life I found a spiritual solution. But for the longest time I had this hole in my soul — this disease. It was a horrible way to live.”

Carlisle asks, “What do you think ultimately matters most in life given what you’ve gone through, what you know, and what you want to impart to a world that may not be quite there yet?” Ron responds that a purpose-filled life is built on honesty and contentment.

“I now have true contentment in my life. I’ve allowed God to enter into my soul and to do for me what I can’t do for myself. That is, to be comfortable in my skin, to be happy with what I have today, and not to have expectations for anyone around me,” he said.

Funding for Street Stories comes from private donations, Visionaries, which oversees production, and the Episcopal diocese.

For more information, or to watch the videos, visit:
bit.ly/2FIZG1r.




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