Letting Faith Speak For Itself

In an interview, Paul Elie discusses a fascinating venture he’s leading, the American Pilgrimage Project, a joint effort between Georgetown University and the oral history non-profit StoryCorps that records the stories ordinary people tell about “the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives.” How Elie describes the undertaking’s origins:

At a certain point in the sexual abuse crisis, which is ongoing, I thought to myself: “There must be a way for Catholics to tell some of their untold stories outside of the courtroom.” What the sexual abuse crisis made clear is that there are areas that American Catholics are unaccustomed to talk about: sexuality, of course, but also other aspects of our experience. The only place we were hearing these stories publicly was in news reports about sex abuse lawsuits. It called to my attention how many stories are going untold. So I met with Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, and reached out to Georgetown’s president, John DeGioia—and now, some years later, the project is ready to begin in earnest.

Time and reflection have given us a better sense of what we want the project to be.

It quickly became clear that there was no good reason for us to focus on just Catholic stories, in part because those stories often involve other religions anyway. So we decided that we needed to take in religious experience in the broader sense. Another thing that became clear was the sheer breadth and variety of people’s stories that touch on belief in one way or another—stories of families, stories of neighborhoods, stories of encounters with people of other faith traditions, for example.  We hope to gather stories told by people in religiously “mixed” marriages, where interfaith dialogue takes the form of domestic encounter.

Why these stories matter:

In American society today, we hear a great deal about the religious habits of Americans from statisticians and demographers. You know how it goes: a study comes out reporting that 90 percent of people believe in this or that, or that the number of Americans with no religion has tripled, or whatever. We also hear American leaders making broad assertions about religious doctrines and their bearing on public life. But the actual experience of ordinary people is scanted or overlooked. I hope the American Pilgrimage Project will help in some small way to correct that. What do people actually believe? How do their beliefs bear on their daily lives? Those are perennial questions, needless to say. Typically to answer them we look to literature, we look to history, we look to journalism and we look to the mass media. Now the hope is that we’ll be able to turn to the American Pilgrimage Project archive as well. It will help to broaden and complicate the narrative.

You can listen to one of the stories here, in which a woman who survived a plane crash talks about discovering how precious life is.