Storytelling for Survival: A Morning with Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams

Unusual tactics, unlikely allies. That’s the pattern of survival stories, said Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, our McClendon Scholar last weekend. And these stories, which push back against a traumatic reality and engage our imaginations, can help and inspire us as we navigate our lives today.

The book of Ruth is a story of survival, she said: Naomi and Ruth are unlikely partners who employ unusual tactics that lead them not only to survive, but to thrive and become part of Jesus’ genealogy.

Families tell survival stories too. Fentress-Williams told of her husband’s grandfather, Milton Benjamin Flowers. Having built a good life and land equity for his family, he applied for an educational loan. “Negroes aren’t allowed to get educational loans,” said his banker.  But Milton discovered he did qualify for a property improvement loan. And so he “improved his property” each time a child went to college. When his last child was ready for college, he again went to the bank. “Milton, what are you doing on that farm?” the banker asked. “I use the money to invest in this land for my family,” said Milton.

Milton’s story and the book of Ruth begin with trauma. In both, a short sentence tells a deep story. For Milton, the sentence is “Negroes aren’t allowed to get educational loans.” In Ruth, it’s “there was a famine in the land.” And in both, unlikely partners and unusual tactics, combined with imagination, overcome the impact of the trauma.

The power of these stories is in the telling, she said. Milton Benjamin Flowers was not Judy Fentress-Williams’ ancestor; it is not her family’s story. “But if I tell it enough times, it will eventually become mine.”

Dialogic Interpretation. For Fentress-Williams, to read the bible is to engage in dialog. What we call the bible is a collection of writings collected from different sources over an extended period of time: “The truth that it has to yield to us is a dialogic one.” The bible is in dialog with itself; and we are in dialog with the bible.

And we cannot separate our own experience from our experience with the scriptures. For example, early in the pandemic, the story of Noah’s ark was one of sanctuary for Fentress-Williams. But after George Floyd’s murder, she no longer felt she was safely on the ark. The story told a different truth: Instead of being about safety, it became a story about the need for a larger ark.

Trauma and Survival. These scriptures come to us out of the trauma of the Babylonian exile, and that should have an influence on how we read the text, she added. The exiles collected these texts to help them survive, and when we read stories in the Bible from this perspective, we can find key tips for survival in an uncertain world.

Stories of the Israelites were “told in ways that defied their experience, that pushed against reality,” said Fentress-Williams. They created a safe space for those who needed it, and they engaged the imagination, “perhaps our most important survival skill of all.”

The Gift of Imagination. She then walked us through quick readings of Exodus 1 and 2, showing how these stories push back against trauma, and engage our imaginations with unusual tactics and unlikely allies.

In Exodus 1, the extended introduction detailing  the Israelites’ oppression highlights the trauma of this story. In addition, she noted, the first violence in this story is the act of making the Israelites “other.” This act of othering comes before the enslavement, before the calls for physical violence.

But the story takes a turn, pushing back against the trauma with a short phrase that establishes an alternative reality to Pharoah’s: “But the midwives feared God.” Then the action plays out with unusual tactics and unlikely allies: The midwives align themselves with God’s reality by disobeying Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew babies and lying about it – “the Hebrew women are vigorous and deliver before we arrive” – a lie Pharaoh believes because of his othering of the Hebrew people.

The survival of baby Moses in Exodus 2 also includes unusual tactics and unlikely partnerships, she pointed out. Not only does Moses’ mother put him in a basket, but the partnership of Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter is certainly unlikely! This story also pushes back against Pharaoh’s reality with God’s reality. Pharaoh’s daughter saw, heard, and took pity on baby Moses. These are the same verbs that describe God’s response to the Hebrew’s cry from bondage. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7).

Telling the Story. “So many of us are asking what we can do. One thing all of us can do is to tell the story,” Fentress-Williams concluded.

We can tell how the story of our walk with God pushes up against the realities of our day. “We will find ourselves in unlikely circumstances with unlikely partners,” she said, and we will be able to act, facilitated by our imagination.

The talk concluded with a discussion with Rev. Heather Shortlidge and a Q&A session. A full recording of the talk will be available soon at

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