I went to Colombia to learn how to hear stories. Stories different from the ones I usually hear. Stories about families who are not sure if they have enough money to buy groceries tomorrow, but today they share all of their sancocho stew with sweet yucca and tender meat until it is gone.

Stories about a group of writers, activists and musicians who were kicked out of their church because they didn’t comply with the theological agenda of the American missionaries, and so they formed a group to read the Bible together and imagine God humbly recreating the world in the form of a poor, persecuted Palestinian.

Stories about a tiny congregation that meets in a rented garage and dreams of becoming an axis of the community with spaces to learn music, read literature and critique society.

Stories about people who survive--one way or another--bullets and drug dealers and stolen land and bread dipped in sugarcane water for dinner, and still find something to laugh and dance about.

I arrived in the city of Medellín to work in a Methodist Church with no designated pastor, which used most of its budget for social projects and flew by the seat of the pants to share leadership among busy working-class members. I wanted to learn to facilitate Popular and Communal Bible Reading (in Spanish, Lectura Popular y Comunitaria de la Biblia, or LCPB), an egalitarian method of biblical interpretation that grew in Latin American soil out of the deep need of common people to take possession of God’s word when the government, the Catholic church and the Protestant missionaries had all insisted that they obey a master narrative that ignored their lived reality.

Before long, I started to realize I was practicing a form of LPCB beyond just the Bible study groups I participated in. Facilitating a gender workshop in a poor community that the church supports, I saw displaced women begin to reread society’s gender roles until they discovered other ways of telling the story that allowed them to live more fully and freely as women. Teaching a weekly guitar class, I saw students find a way to help each other learn despite disparate ages and ability levels. Giving a talk on environmental responsibility to a group of 8-year-old boys in a soccer league, we sat down in the dust to try to meditate on what it means to live a story of connection to the earth in a city slum full of families who were pushed off their land.

In all of the spaces and communities in which I moved, I found strange and wonderful narratives of collective meaning. Not all of them were examples to follow, but all of them taught me something new about appreciating the particularity of people’s stories before trying to make them fit into my preconceived notions about God, the world and ministry.

I might not have known at the beginning of my trip that learning how to hear stories was the purpose of my time in Colombia. But as with any good story, the truth is created in the telling. I think that it serves all of us to get away from the stories we’ve always heard for awhile. When we return to what we thought was familiar territory, hopefully we have learned to really hear the particularity of the stories of each community in its need to contextualize the word of God.

We may even be able to hear, at last, the stories of the Bible as reflections of particular communities in their efforts to contextualize the word of God. If we learn to really hear them rather than assuming we already know them, I think we can catch a glimpse of that infinite truth that finds its way to us only through the particulars.