On the first day of summer when I was a little girl, my next-door neighbor would gather all the kids from our block and take us to the library. She’d sign us up for the summer reading program—charts and suggestions and prizes, and mostly all the wonder of books. For the rest of the summer, she would take us back once a week to get new books and check in with the librarian about our progress. The dusty cool shelves provided respite from the hot Houston humidity, and the new friends we met between the book covers became permanent additions to the language of our neighborhood group—Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold with his purple crayon, Alexander with his terrible horrible no good very bad day, and so many other memorable characters.
Last summer, many decades later, when the Cathedral began Cathedral Reads, it brought back all that summer reading joy. Our dean, Barkley Thompson, chose Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as the book for kids and adults. We set dates at the end of the summer for a congregation-wide conversation, a movie night, and a deeper dive into the book with the dean.
On a hot August morning, well-over two-hundred people gathered between services to discuss the book. The dean gave an overview, and then at tables of ten with a facilitator and five questions, over coffee and cake, we brought our widely different perspectives on the book to the table. The following week, we ate popcorn and pizza as we watched Gregory Peck’s 1962 Academy Award-winning version of the movie. Afterward, the dean lead popcorn theology, and we compared the messages of the book and the film. The program wrapped up at a special version of the Dean’s Book Club.
The shared experience of the book created new friends, engaged old friends, and gave everyone an entry to conversation. Differing viewpoints were presented and heard respectfully, and we all came away understanding ourselves—individually and as a group—a little better.
Throughout this past year, people kept coming into the bookstore asking what the next Cathedral Reads book would be. The dean took suggestions, considered many titles, and finally chose two books: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving for adults, and Wonder, by R.J. Palacio for kids, youth and adults who may not have read it yet. The books are linked by the concept “What Does Brave Look Like” and the discussions will focus on identity, courage, and faith. Both books will have Zoom reading groups throughout the summer to discuss questions regarding the reading to date, and the Dean will facilitate two larger Zoom conversations on Owen Meany. Then, circumstances permitting, we’ll meet up for a larger discussion and to watch the movie Wonder together, before the program wraps up again with the Dean’s Book Club.
We’re none of us sure when we’ll be able to gather, but we are finding creative ways to connect. And having the shared experience of books to read in the cool of the air-conditioning will introduce us to people different than ourselves, and show us their hearts. It will help us to understand ourselves—individually and as a group—a little better. It will give us new friends and make us more thoughtful people. Just like the library’s summer reading program used to do way back when.
Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.
~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie