Brook van der Linde: The Storyteller
| By Amy Manikowski |
On the western edge of downtown Asheville, away from the businesses and restaurants and crowds, there is a hundred-year-old church that doesn’t stand out among the bare lots and littered sidewalks. If you are driving behind the church on I-240 you probably wouldn’t notice the chickens, or the two goats, or see the bee box, although you might notice the bright wall encompassing the new garden – a vibrant blue background dotted with white doves flying toward Mt. Pisgah – and think that it was the project of a local elementary school; that’s the story you may tell yourself.But the real stories of this church are so important, there is actually a professional to document them: Brook van der Linde. As the lead storyteller at Haywood Street Congregation, she collects the stories of the people who attend worship, come for a meal, volunteer as Companions, stay at the Respite, or just stop by to shop at ‘God’s Outfitters.’
Brook was told about the job of Lead Storyteller from Leah Shapiro, who had previously worked as Brook’s editor at the Laurel of Asheville. Leah thought about Brook the moment she heard of the job opening, knowing that Brook “approached stories with kindness, humility, and curiosity… People feel that they can really open up to her; she passes no judgment on where they are or where they’re going. I had a gut feeling that she’d be able to cultivate meaningful relationships with others on behalf of Haywood Street and that she would bring energy and love to every impact stories she wrote.”
But when Brook first learned of the job she had never been to Haywood Street. “My initial interview was the first time I had ever stepped into Haywood Street. I had driven by this old church hundreds of times, but I didn’t even know for sure if they were ‘open for biz.’ Between my first and second interviews, I tried to absorb the place as much as I could. I had a meal at the Downtown Welcome Table, I went to Worship a couple of times. I knew I had found a home, whether they hired me or not. But they hired me.”Wednesdays are the busiest days at Haywood Street, with hundreds of people attending free lunch at the Downtown Welcome Table. Whether provided by one of Asheville’s finest restaurants or in-house, the meals are prepared and served by Haywood Street companions and led by Haywood Street Banquet Stewart, Dave Holland, just like they would be at a restaurant. Everyone is served their meals seated at tables with real flatware and flowers, and volunteers pour sweet tea and ask if you want the vegetarian option or dessert. Multiple seating times accommodate the crowds, and free services such as haircuts and acupuncture are offered before the meal. At 12:30 everyone is welcome, but not required, to attend church services.
“At the end of the day, Haywood Street is a Reconciling Methodist Ministry. The profound programs, events, and everyday blessings that exist because of Haywood Street are all made possible by the vision created by Reverend Combs, the collective support of that vision, and our belief in and praise of a God that is abundant,” Brook says. “All this to say, Worship, in its many forms, is our foundation and we all know the value of a solid foundation.”
Because everyone at Haywood is treated with dignity and respect no matter their condition or circumstance, it is hard to tell who is there to help or to be helped; qualifiers like ‘poor,’ or ‘hopeless,’ and even ‘successful’ and ‘lucky’ that help us define people become irrelevant. These terms, like ‘homeless,’ or ‘addict,’ can erase a whole life story – without an address or ID it is easy to become nameless, and complications of mental illness and addiction can further erase a tenuous identity.
But in the midst of their self-proclaimed ‘Holy Chaos’ one truth remains at Haywood Street – everyone is God’s Child, and everyone is Welcome as they are – not cleaned up and filtered, but exactly where they are – the housed and unhoused, sober and addicted, rich and poor. At first this crashing down of boundaries can make things intimidating, but for Brook, “The world has always felt too big, and at the same time, too confining to me. Stories have been the way out and the way in; they give me a framework, a place to start.”
And at Haywood Street, “There’s no lack of stories,” Brook says, “but there is a craft to collecting them. I probably am too cautious, I probably overthink it, but stories are the most personal, precious things we own and I don’t take my responsibility, of collecting them and holding them, lightly. In most cases, the folks at Haywood Street are ready and willing to share them.”
Finding a way to show interest in a person opens up a conversation that would otherwise seem impossible to start. To Brook, the important part about hearing others’ stories is how, as humans, we all can connect. “There’s a lot of hope in every story,” she says. And in everyone’s story there are “plot twists and saving graces. Sharing your story is a reflective process and it can be ‘hella’ hopeful.”
Brook points out the importance of letting people tell their own story, when and how they want, in one of her latest Faces and Stories of our Congregation. Angel, an upbeat and motivated man who has been homeless for years, is involved in many community initiatives to end homelessness in the area, along with being trained in emergency medicine to help treat people in the streets. Brook doesn’t try to explain or interpret Angel’s backstory to explain his homelessness – Angel’s story is about all the good he is doing now in the community and how he’s working to make his and others’ lives better.
Since she was a child Brook’s mother said her storytelling was “honest with a heavy lean towards big imagination and a mastery of the half-truth.” These qualities help her understanding of what people at Haywood have to say about their lives; it isn’t investigative reporting – it’s telling a story to validate a life and an experience, to show the good and the hope in the world, brought about by the housed and the unhoused that spend their time at Haywood Street.Storytelling has become a popular way to express the needs and accomplishments of a non-profit, leading people to help causes they may have overlooked after gaining better insight into the lives touched by the organization.
Brook explains, “The role of storytelling in the non-profit sector is a fast-growing movement. It’s become clear that numbers and statistics show us only a fraction of what’s going on. Investors, partners and volunteers want a personal connection to the organizations they’re investing in. These stories are being shared via Instagram, video, print and a number of other forms. Highlighting the voices from within not only honors those voices, it also gets straight to the heart of the non-profit’s mission and vision.”
And if we stop collecting and listening to others stories? “The gaps widen,” Brook says definitively. “The ties that bind, break. I’m pretty sure the world goes down in flames (not to be dramatic or anything).
Check out the Faces and Stories of our Congregation, and all the other amazing things going on at www.haywoodstreet.org.