How Uncensored Storytelling Helped Cincinnati Churchgoers to See Their Real Neighbors

What started as a pastor's unorthodox 'community outreach' is now bringing strangers together in the name of narrative.
How Uncensored Storytelling Helped Cincinnati Churchgoers to See Their Real Neighbors
Image: Tom Sodoge / Unsplash

CINCINNATI What do a middle-aged transvestite cabaret performer, a millennial adoptee from South Korea, a former prison inmate, and a city councilmember all have in common?

It may sound like the beginning of an off-color joke, but it’s a serious question that the co-founders of Cincy Stories can answer, because they’ve met each of them.

Executive Director Shawn Braley and Creative Director Chris Ashwell know that these people—with such diverse interests and backgrounds—share geographical space in central Cincinnati. That’s not where their connections end, however: They all have stories to tell and much to learn from one another.

The idea of a storytelling event series began in November 2014, when Braley, a non-denominational pastor, was brainstorming about connecting with his unchurched or “de-churched” neighbors. He knew they wouldn’t be interested in any religious activities hosted by Sanctuary Over the Rhine, a church plant Braley co-leads. He would have to find another way, and it might not look like anything he’d ever seen a church do.

Braley said listening to StoryCorps and The Moth podcasts—hearing strangers’ stories that caused him to empathize with those whose lives looked much different from his—inspired him to consider another approach to community building and outreach. Braley and Greg Knake, a fellow leader at Sanctuary OTR, hosted the first Cincy Stories live event at a nearby pub on February 3, 2015. That night, Knake and Braley saw potential in recording and sharing the stories from the stage. That’s how Ashwell got involved.

At the time, Braley worked at a restaurant with Ashwell, but they didn’t spend time together outside ...

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