Every Story Matters

April 21, 2017

On the desktop of my computer, I have a folder entitled “Stories from the Field.” It is a journal of sorts: a means for me to hold onto the stories of the people I have met. Not all interactions are recorded, but every so often I sit down to a new document. I create some sort of descriptive title to remind me of the conversation or story in the future: “The Citizen,” “The Boy Who Was a Man: Silent and Solid,” “The Girl with the Beautiful Smile,” “The Boy Who Made Me Laugh… So Hard I Cried.” Sometimes, all I record is the title. Other times, I jot down a few notes. Occasionally, the details swell up within me and suddenly transform into pages.

I am detail-oriented, so I might describe the way that a shelter I visited was tucked behind the trees and how the couch I sat on was stiff and looked like it belonged in a furniture catalogue specializing in furnishing college dorms in the 1970s. I might write about her delicate voice or his wide, toothless, dimpled grin. How he spoke with fiery passion about moving from foster home to foster home for three years, or that she does not remember a time when her mother was not angry and tired.

Yes, I am detail-oriented, but there are never names in these stories – at least, not real names or other identifying information. At most, I will record the season and year. Oftentimes, these are the details that are irrelevant anyway, because I hear the same stories repeatedly:

“My dad kicked me out – quite literally – when I told him I was gay.”

“You have to know, we had good paying jobs until the recession. I have a degree. But we never recovered.”

“I thought he was different.”

“Everyone wants something from you, and if it’s not cash, it’s sex.”

My work is grounded in the experiences of people who are hurting and most vulnerable. I’ve never heard a story that was insignificant or met a person who was undeserving of my time. While this might be one of the hardest pieces of my work, it is also one of my favorites.

I get to see people in the context of their inherent worth, regardless of our differences. I am welcomed into people’s lives, and I am constantly being taught how to better love and serve others. I get to show up for people when no one else does. I get to sit down and listen as people share the chapters of their lives that no one else wants to hear.

Are you listening?

I think you should be.

On a daily basis, I am reminded of the world’s depravity as I am inserted into our community’s darkest places. I am also a witness to its restoration. Some days, I have to search harder than others, but it’s always there. In the midst of the world’s deep brokenness, there is a profound strength. This acknowledgment is not an excuse to be passive in the midst of injustice, but a reminder of our calling to step into the places of hurt and brokenness with open hearts.

About the Author
  • Chelsea Maxwell is Program Associate for the Center for Public Justice Families Valued initiative, an initiative promoting policies that support and honor God's call to both work and family life. Chelsea holds a Bachelor's of Social Work from Dordt and Master's of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is a former intern of CPJ's Christians Investing in Education initiative and was a Shared Justice Policy Fellow for What Justice Requires: Paid Family Leave. A native of Iowa, she now lives in the District of Columbia.

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  1. Chelsea,

    Thanks for placing listening at the center of your work. Your piece fits with the theme of the International Listening Association convention in Omaha in June, 2017. The theme is “Listening for Healing.” I think your work proves that theme.

  2. Cheslea, I resonate so deeply with this. Thank you for reminding us all of the power of sharing stories. I pray that you always see this work as a privilege and feel fueled by the rewards of transformation (in ourselves and in those we serve). Keep writing!

  3. Chelsea, thank you for so beautifully reminding us of the power of stories. I pray that you always see this work as a privilege and feel energized by the beauty and redemption in those dark places. Keep writing!