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Learning from Living History

Posted by Canaan Community Church on June 7, 2014 at 3:10 PM

LEARNING FROM LIVING HISTORY                                                                            By Pastor Jonathan Brooks aka Pastah J


Pastor John Auer former Pastor of Julia Gay Memorial UMC and Pastah J of Canaan 



My mom often told me asa young man that there are always three sides to a story.  Your side, my side and the truth!  I have found this to be absolutely true over my lifetime and I have decided to be mindful of it as I listen and learn.  The number one place I have put this principle into practice is during my study of history because historical “facts” are often presented from the perspective of the writer.  This is why so often history really becomes "their" story and not "our" story!


I spent some time looking into the history of our denomination, congregation and church building and found some very interesting information. As I searched online and through historical records I often found, what I considered, sanitized versions of many of the stories.  This led me to step outside of the written histories of these various entities and search for those who were first-hand participants in much of the history.  Here is where the stories came to life! When you speak to someone who has personal involvement in a historical event you not only receive the information but you also receive the emotions attached to the event. 


Earlier this year I had the privilege to meet the former pastor of Julia Gay Memorial Methodist Church, the original owners of our church building.  I was initially not sure what to expect from this interaction and was worried it would be awkward.  Would the history of this majority white church in, what was then, a predominantly German and Swedish community be relevant to me now?  Besides, I had read all about the church and when it began so I was not sure this conversation would be helpful. I introduced myself and shared a little about Canaan. As I shared my heart for the community I saw a single tear come from his right eye.  From this point forward we went on a rollercoaster of emotions as he shared story after story about the church, community and building.  I learned more history in that two-hour conversation than I had in the previous two weeks of research! 

Overall what I have learned from this journey is that it is imperative to not only study history but to connect with those who are “living history” around you.  I am not under any illusion that I am receiving objective historical information from those who were personally involved in historical events, but are we ever really sure?  I am aware that their information will be full of personal bias and has also been tainted by the distance of the events. However, in my opinion, I would much rather have their biased version of history that is based on first hand experience and emotion, than a sanitized book version  from a historian in an ivory tower.  I know as an academic I should receive my information from research and scholarly writing but I guess the pastor and community activist in me has a special affinity for personal stories!


I never really cared much for history it just never really seemed beneficial.  However, after this experience I have gained a new appreciation for oral history.  I have learned that history is important because it keeps me from making the same mistakes as those who have gone before, and it also helps me to evaluate their successes!  I read a quote by the late, great John Wooden, the incredible head coach of the UCLA Men’s Basketball team which says,  “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” This is why I have decided to make history a priority, and I am hoping you will too.  It does not matter if you choose family history, racial history, religious history, or any other history just make sure you understand the importance of learning from those who have gone before you. However, I encourage you to not limit your study of history to the pages of a book or the links of the internet go speak to someone who has been around longer than you.  Not only will you gain historical information but also you may just gain a friend!  It is when we experience the events of the past, through relationship and emotions, rather than just reading them that genuine learning happens.

One of my favorite poets as well as my fraternity brother, Langston Hughes, wrote a wonderful piece which sums up my learning style and chosen approach to history.  If you are honest with yourself, he is probably describing yours as well.


by Langston Hughes

I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.

I’d rather one walk with me than just to show the way.

The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.

Advice may be misleading but examples are always clear.

And the very best of teachers are the ones who live their creed,

for to see good put into action is what everybody needs.

I can soon learn to do it if you let me see it done.

I can watch your hand in motion but your tongue too fast may run

and the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true

but I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.

For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give

but there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.


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