The funny thing about Greenbelt is that wherever it is, whatever new site it’s on, it still feels like Greenbelt. And when a new venue pops up, one that’s never been conceived of before, it can still feel so much like a Greenbelt space that you can’t imagine how the festival existed without it.
From the moment I stepped into the cosy, carpeted brand new venue that is the Story Yurt, hosted by the Christian Aid Collective, I could almost smell the Greenbelt vibe. In fact, it’s more likely to have been the homely scent of their real wood burner and the colourful rugs that cover the floor. With the single circular wall adorned with striking portraits of South Sudanese refugees and their own words beneath, it’s clear this place is going to live up to its name. Over the weekend, it will be filled with stories written and spoken, and everything that they bring: the life, the laughter, the moments of sadness and poignancy.
But why stories? As the youth branch of a major international development charity, shouldn’t the Collective team be spending their weekend trying to persuade teenagers and students to give all their cash to Christian Aid? Why create this beautiful space just to sit around telling each other stories?
Hannah Henderson, part of the Collective team, says the vision is much broader than simply extracting money from potential supporters. “We don’t just want to present another face on a charity poster, we want real people’s voices to be heard.
“Stories are what makes us human. When we tell each other stories, and listen to each other’s stories, we become more connected. And it’s only when we’re more connected that we can change the world.”
It’s an idea with a deep resonance in our faith, built on stories told from generation to generation, friend to friend, in books and from pulpits and over a quiet coffee. It’s only because of a great tradition of storytelling that we can ground ourselves in the history of the people of Israel, in God’s great redemption plan, in the wisdom of prophets and the tales of a servant-king.
It strikes me though that our relationship with story in the evangelical Church can be a little more sceptical. Of course, we welcome some – testimonies about lives changed by being born again are an important part of how we share the gospel and encourage one another. When a person’s story fits the gospel narrative, we welcome it and use it gladly.
But what about the more uncomfortable stories? What do we do when a person’s Christian journey hasn’t been filled with transformation and hope, but difficulty, pain and despair? What do we do when a friend wants to tell us their story of finding God through a different religion? What do we do with the joyful story of a relationship blossoming into love, when we don’t think God approves of that relationship? The temptation is to shut our ears. It’s easy to turn inwards, to reassure each other with the stories we know, the stories we like, the stories that affirm what we think we know.
Instead, the challenge of Greenbelt, and especially the Story Yurt, is to simply listen. Even when the stories are uncomfortable. Even when we don’t know what to do with them next. Even when they force us to think differently, or change our lives in future.
And the Collective’s Chris Mead reminded me how important it is to not only listen, but roll up our sleeves and get involved in one another’s stories: “We all know as we grow up how a story should go, we’re told that they should end happily, for all to be well in the end. But in real life, they don’t always. From a gospel point of view, the story of Jesus has the ultimate happy ending – so as we bring about better endings for the stories around us, we join in his story and mirror his life.”
Come and discover the Story Yurt, with porridge at 9.30am each day, hot chocolate from 9pm, and of course, a whole lot of stories in between.