Ethnography 3: Grave Stone Stories

Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them....(Josh. 4:21)

In Sparks, Sorens, and Freisen’s new book, The New Parish, they use the phrase “above place”.  “’Living above place,’ names the tendency to develop structures that keep cause-and-effect relationships far apart in space and time where you cannot have firsthand experience of them” (Sparks, 2014).  Each place and every place has a story.  The stories of place create subcultures, understandings of the world, and rules with expectations. 

In two of the congregations I served, I was privileged to have some significant mentors.  In my first congregation, I had Louis.  In my second congregation I had John.  Louis and John were storytellers.  They let me know what and who had been in those places long before me and how those stories affected the people who now lived there. 

Nearly every Thursday, I could look forward to his truck driving up to the church office.  He’d enter, wander around the building, as if he were looking for something to fix. I remember once looking at the cemetery log with Louis.  As we looked, he told me stories about the families listed there, he filled in some of the blanks.  The “blanks” were the unnamed in the cemetery log.  A wife and mother had died and was listed as “Mrs. Abraham Schmidt” (not the real names).  Or young children listed as “child of Mr. Abraham Schmidt”.  These individuals were nameless.  As if they had no story of their own.  Louis would tell me as much as he could about these stories and about those days. 

In my second congregation there was John. John was an historian.  We would take walks through the Salford church cemetery, with stones dating back to the mid-18th century.  John spoke of these people as if he had known them personally.  He could see umbilicals connecting his story and the stories of others to larger and larger connected stories.  When I asked him about being a historian he corrected me and said he was a storyteller. 

Discovering the stories beneath surface can give direction, trajectory even.  Once when working with a congregation experiencing rapid ethnic change in its neighborhood, rediscovering their history opened them to the possibility of new mission.  Recognizing the increasing numbers of immigrant families seeking work in the orchards and fields nearby, the church felt detached, too middle-class, too mono-cultural to connect.  However, as they re-told the stories of how their previous generations had left the Dust Bowl of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, they began to understand a deeper story.  Their families, generations before, had come to the region as farm laborers, too.  As these immigrants are now, they as a community once were.  The faith community had stories leading toward connection, empathy, and understanding.    

I recall standing near John’s farm, at the Branch Creek (likely his favorite place on earth) as he told vast stories covering centuries. 

                                                                           The Branch Creek

                                                                           The Branch Creek

He pointed out wildlife trials that became hunting trials for the original inhabitants.  Pointing to hills and roads he would explain which battle had come that far, or what war among which parties had come how far.  The battles between different nations, Iroquois, the Delaware, the French, the British, and the Civil War.  Once with reverence and gratitude while standing on the banks of the creek, he said, “and this place has never known war”.  That was the story of that place.  A story he has given his life to undergird in that community.  A story of peace.

What are the stories told by the stones, the roads, the street names, or the buildings in your community?  How does the community of faith begin to grapple with stories to undergird, to overturn, to reclaim, or add new chapters to? 


Sparks, P. S. (2014). The New Parish: How neighborhood churches and transforming mission, discipleship, and community. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.