“Let me start the Mexican way.”
Liz Muñoz speaks softly, but with a firm conviction, and it’s easy to imagine her quieting classrooms full of children as the elementary school teacher she used to be, or to picture her now, preaching to her multicultural, multilingual faith community.
Liz has been a storyteller all her life, beginning with the oral traditions that were deeply important to her Mexican American family. Her mother’s stories were rich with meaning and conveyed with love and humor. They helped Liz find her place in the greater narratives of history, family, and religion.
“I have a great respect for story,” she said.
This understanding of the power of stories led her to join the Hearth’s Storytelling Certificate Cohort. To her, the program was transformative and gave her the opportunity to build connections with others who sought the same understanding. “I was so grateful to find that community,” she said.
One of the most valuable lessons she took from the program was an understanding of how to dig deeper into a story, to move past a superficial retelling of facts to get to a place where, as she says, the heart and the spirit are leading, not the mind. She uses this knowledge and her own experience with stories to help others find and share their own stories.
“The story we think is the story is not always the story.”
As an Episcopal Priest, she tells a story every week, tying the timeless tales of the Bible to very immediate and real matters in her congregation’s everyday lives. She approaches the Bible passages as stories of actual people who struggle, fail, triumph, and are by turns broken and joyful, and invites her parishioners to fill the open spaces in scripture with their own stories.
On a recent Pentecost Sunday, Liz put her faith in the power of story. Instead of a full length sermon, she invited members of the community to share their stories of “being set afire.” An immigrant woman spoke of her journey from El Salvador to California and her experience of motherhood, sharing with the congregation how she felt accompanied by the spirit of God throughout. Another storyteller added an improv jazz riff and shared a spoken word poem. Stories were told in Spanish, in English, or bilingually, depending on the storyteller.
Immigrant journeys, such as the one shared on that Pentecost Sunday, resonate strongly with Liz. Her eyes light with a deep, sincere joy when she speaks of how she’s been inspired by these tales of suffering and resilience, narratives of what people have endured and how they have chosen to flourish and care for others. These stories of growth and joy sustain communities and help them take root.
“People choose to make a different meaning out of tragedy,” she said.
Liz wants to liberate our untold stories, particularly the narratives of shame and trauma that are carried silently, sometimes for generations. From forgotten, repressed histories like the Tulsa
Massacre and the interment camps Japanese Americans were forced into during World War II to deeply personal accounts of sexual assault and rape, these stories need to be told, “over and over,” she said.
“There are so many stories we carry that we can’t share because of shame, because we were made to feel like it was our fault.”
But the act of storytelling, she says, can help people lift that shame. She wants to teach people to tell their stories in a way that is empowering, speaking from a place of power rather than of victimization. She’s inspired by the stories of struggle and resilience told at the Hearth, where she’s never made to feel pity, but rather solidarity and respect for the storyteller. The stories don’t always have happy endings, but they come from a place of strength, even when they chronicle suffering.
“Fear and bitterness don’t have the last word.”
Sometimes people are reluctant to share their stories publicly, or even with friends or in a one on one setting. At times, Liz has to coax or even gently push people before they feel able to speak about their experiences. But she sees the value in the very act of telling, the importance of being vulnerable in community. “Once you start to share that secret, it loses its power over you,” she said.
Liz’s work is deeply rooted in compassion and empathy. “When you tell people your story like that, they know you understand their pain,” she tells her parishioners. It is one way we are called to carry the cross, to create a shared understanding of suffering and find a place for a personal story within the larger narratives of history, culture, and religion.
“I would love to let people know how valuable their stories are. We don’t know how much stories matter.”
The COVID pandemic changed the way she speaks to her congregation—relying on technology to reach people through a screen—and she had to dig deep and be creative to maintain the connection and faith that have carried her community forward. Storytelling has helped her maintain those vital connections, both individually and with the community as a whole.
One of the things she wants to bring back, once COVID restrictions are lifted and people can be in community again, is the breaking of bread together. To Liz, food is a deeply meaningful way to connect, whether it’s sharing stories around a laden table or cooking together before a storytelling session, as she did with students from a nearby community college and members of her faith community, bringing the two disparate groups together in the kitchen and over the dinner table to find they had a remarkable amount of common ground.
Her church in Oakland is located at an intersection of cultures and communities—a Latinx neighborhood to the south while the north is gentrifying, an Asian community to the east and a Black community to the west. The congregation Liz serves reflects the diverse area, and she wants to bring people together through storytelling, whether it’s by giving people a voice on
Pentecost Sunday, working with them one on one to draw out their stories, or coming together in a kitchen to prepare food and sharing with one and other over the meal.
“That gift is what I’d like to give to my community—the power of story.”
Learn more about The Hearth’s Certificate in Community Storytelling Program here.
Learn more about The Hearth’s one day Art and Craft of Personal Storytelling Workshop here.