Reflecting on Woolman, Papunehung, and Big Feelings

The power of story.

This morning, I headed over to the Friends school were once a month I spend a morning sharing Faith & Play stories with PreK-5th grade classes. The story this month was about John Woolman visiting the Lenape people at Wyalusing. It’s gone through a recent revision by the Faith & Play creators, and additional suggestions have been shared with me that center both voices in the story — the Lenape leader Papunehung and Friend Woolman. (Seven tellings in a morning is a good way to test possible edits!)

It’s my third month visiting these circles of classes, so the guest/stranger-good-behavior is wearing off and we’re getting more real with each other. Some children tell me they can’t wait for another story, others look bored (fair enough), some want to tell me entirely unrelated things that are important to them, there were several hugs today from the littlest ones and an, “I love you!” I recognize faces and can tell which class it is bounding through the door — today bringing cold air with them. I’m still working on names, and the children who are part of my meeting community on Sunday mornings smile and say, “You know my name!”

All of the classes had amazing things to share during the wondering. Rivers and rattlesnakes were noted; they wondered if Woolman rested on his journey and how much mud there was (from the story: “it rained, and rained, and rained.”) One student said the story was “beautiful” and others were upset at how unfair it was that the Lenape were pushed off their land. There was a lot of appreciation for the welcome and listening between John Woolman and the Munsee Lenape sachem named Papunehung, especially since they did not speak the same language. An older class wondered about “real” history in this story and in another story, about Thanksgiving. A class went deep with a question about “things that were hard but you knew that you had to do” with their own stories about pets and grandparents dying and a quiet voice shared, “parents divorcing.” The child next to them put an arm around their classmate.

In an exchange that happened fast but was deeply moving, a child who is a recent refugee to the US declared in a strong voice where they are from, the name of the country killing people in their home country, and that their people are being “pushed.” Afterward, the teacher told me with emotion in her voice that this was the first time the child has spoken about home in school. I watched the child leave smiling, playing in line with friends, the moment of strong feelings having passed. So it goes with children and their ever-present, but often elusive spiritual lives!

Stories can help children come close to really big things. I know this, I said it repeatedly last weekend at a Godly Play/Faith & Play training, but on the meeting house floor I was in it again WITH the children. I’m grateful for their trust in our circle — their teachers are really the ones building that, every day — and the way this story about something long long ago opened for them today.

Melinda Wenner Bradley is the Director of Communication and Training for Faith & Play Stories, Inc. and a licensed Godly Play Trainer. She is a member of West Chester Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons