A Bible storytelling workshop in the Kingdom of Tonga. This story is published on wycliffe.net
Bible storytelling is gaining popularity around the world as a unique way of communicating God’s message. All cultures tell stories to convey information in a memorable way. In societies with a strong oral tradition Bible storytelling is having an enormous impact.
“I love God’s word and I want everyone to have the joy of a real friendship with God,” says Robert Love. “That’s what it boils down to.” Robert and his wife Margaret facilitate Bible storytelling workshops for small communities in the Pacific.
In April 2012 Robert and Margaret were invited by the Bible Translation Organisation of Tonga to run a workshop on the small Tongan island of ‘Eua.
Twenty-year-old Suliana Mau had already received some training and so took the lead during this workshop. “Suliana is a great presenter because she is so vivacious!” shares Robert.
Bible storytelling is much more than just reciting Bible passages. Storytellers learn how to take on the character of the story, using voices and gestures to aid imagination, and add humour, all the while being true to the original message.
This takes practice. The two dozen participants learnt how to understand, interpret, craft, internalise and perform a Bible story. They discussed, practiced, refined and re-told their stories many times over the four day workshop.
Sinita Vakauta, one of the participants and a leader in her church, admits that she attended the workshop at her pastor’s encouragement but expected it to be, “Sunday school stuff.” She says, “I didn’t get the whole idea.” By the end she realised that it is about bringing the Bible stories to life.
“I really enjoyed learning how to stand in front of people,” Lopeti Aholahi comments. Lopeti is a subsistence farmer and hopes to one day become a missionary. He considers, “Storytelling is a good way to touch people’s lives.”
Lopeti practiced by telling Bible stories to his children each night. “They want to listen! They want to know! They want to do more!”
“I am really happy to be able to come to the workshop,” says Ongo Tuivai. “It has encouraged me to move out of my comfort zone and tell stories to people in a way that they can understand the Bible.”
Nico used to be a drug dealer in the suburbs of Los Angeles before being imprisoned and deported back to Tonga. He crafted the story of when Saul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Having experienced a radical change himself, he considers that Saul’s story, “…is really about us. There is a Saul in all of us.”
“I really enjoy it,” Suliana says of running the workshop. “My heart is for the people. My heart is for them to understand what God wants them to know – from the word. When they listen to Bible stories – straight away they know what to do – they apply something to their lives. I really enjoy seeing people’s response to God.”
Sifa Tuivai, the jovial chef, cooked a mountain of food each day to feed the participants and watched the storytelling training sessions as he was able.
Sifa says that as he listened he realised, “Every story is about God and about God’s love. I am just a cook, an observer, but I am also here cooking to feed people so that they can know more about God. Everyone here is working towards God, with God’s help.”
Thirteen-year-old Finau begged to be able to attend saying, “At school they tell bad stories, but I want to learn to tell good stories.” Robert says that Finau is one of the youngest storytellers they have ever trained. “We were amazed at how attentive he was. He worked very hard during the course.”
Mele Veaila (left) and Lupe Mokena (right), two young Tongan women were also being trained and assisted to facilitate the workshop.
One night the group attended a feast at a church in a nearby village. Mele passionately told the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Tears rolled down her face as she shared how she missed her mother who died four years earlier.
Mele says, “I would love to help people understand the Bible more. If I wasn’t a believer, I wouldn’t understand all that religious jargon. Even in sermons at church I tend to fall asleep because it gets boring. But when you tell stories, it’s amazing how you can catch people’s attention.”
Sinita encourages people during the discussion time to remember that this is not just about telling the story, but also about living it. “You can’t just tell a story and not obey what it says.” She insists.
Robert recorded the final performance of the Bible stories and gave out CDs of the recordings to the participants. They could then listen to the whole collection to learn more stories to share with others. It also helps to maintain accuracy of the stories.
On the last day of the workshop the participants set out in small groups to share Bible stories with anyone in the community who would listen.
They went to the marketplace and into people’s homes.
Lupe reported that she planned to tell a certain story, but when she arrived at the house of an elderly woman she felt led to tell the story about the paralysed man instead. Lupe didn’t know that the woman had very sore feet. The woman cried and thanked them for the blessing of hearing the story of healing.
As the week was coming to an end, Hefa, a pastor at a nearby church commented, “I love that everyone worked together as a team. I could learn from other people’s point of view and not only think that what I think is the right answer.”
Ongo is looking forward to joining the fellowship group of Bible storytellers, and she is going to try to find more ways to share stories: at church, at the local schools and with friends in the community.
Sinita reflects, “We worked on the stories and the stories worked in us and transformed us.”
Robert comments, “For me, the very encouraging thing is that the participants come from a number of different denominations.” Inter-denominational cooperation is rare in Tonga. “It seems that the stories have brought people together in a wonderful way.”
In countries where there is a lot of formal religion the feedback we get is, ‘Oh this is so good because it is so alive! We feel close to God here and it is stirring our hearts!’” shares Robert.“ I think that is the real joy that we have in sharing storytelling.”
“Ordinary Christians are then empowered to tell Bible stories to others and bring the gospel to others in a friendly way,” Robert says.
This group on ‘Eua, “…want to continue crafting stories, meeting together and encouraging one another,” Robert shares with excitement. “I think that is quite remarkable.”
Words & Photography: Elyse Patten