The Rev. Elaine Blanchard

The Rev. Elaine Blanchard

Writer, storyteller, actor
in Memphis, TN

  1. What is the most exciting book or film you have read in the last year? What about it captured your imagination?

    The most exciting book I have read in the last year is Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, written by Margaret Wheatley. She reminds us that our capacity to look at each other and listen to each other is the foundation for our human evolution. We develop our potential as individuals and as communities by engaging in respectful conversations. We can diminish our fears by choosing to listen to those who disagree with us. This is not about sitting in front of a television or computer screen. It is not about exchanging e-mail messages. It is not about talk radio. This is an invitation to be transformed by the simple act of conversation.  She says, “When we don’t talk with each other, we give up our humanity.” 

  2. What in your view is the greatest challenge facing people of faith today?

    The greatest challenge facing people of faith today is accepting life’s opportunities to rediscover the joy of curiosity.  We fail to have fun, to make things up and to enjoy playing with love and life. We have fallen into an unimaginative approach to things of the spirit, thinking that the questions have already been answered and we need only to memorize what has already been discovered and decided. The written text in the Bible is given more authority than it warrants for our time and our experience. I believe that God is in partnership with each one of us urging us to ask questions and to look for answers and authority in our own particular reality. If our faith is to be meaningful during the living of our lives, then, we do not have to be afraid of our own curiosity and imagination. They belong to us, just as much as our nose and eyes belong to our faces.  

  3. Of all the figures in the Bible, with whom would you wish to spend a day, and what would you hope to learn?

    If I could spend a day with someone from the Bible stories I would choose to spend a day with the child who was taken up on Jesus’ lap when the adult disciples were arguing about who might be the greatest in the reign of God. (Matt 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48) I choose to imagine the child as a girl and I would like to know how life turned out for her. I love family stories. I am intrigued by family dynamics. I wonder if that child had previously been recognized as a person of value or if Jesus’ choice to acknowledge her was the first time she had been noticed in a way that set her apart. I am curious about how she lived into that incident in her childhood and as she grew older. Jesus’ teaching that we must all become imaginative and trusting like a small child is radical. It must have been a priority with him since three gospel writers record this incident.  I wonder if the girl lived into a radical faith. I would like to spend a day with her so I could know the rest of the story.

  4. You have worked with women in prison to help them find their own voices in their own stories. From these stories emerge dramatic performances called “Prison Stories.” What was your inspiration for this work, and how have you been changed by these encounters?

    My inspiration for doing the work of “Prison Stories” originally came from performing my own story, “For Goodness Sake,” on stage. In therapeutic settings I have told and retold the FGS story from my childhood about the black boy in the field being beaten by my brother and a church member. I have done my best to find meaning in that senseless act of racist violence and to find redemption for the victim, for me and my family. Therapy has been helpful and allowed my shame to be diminished. Writing and performing the story as art for live audiences has been healing and empowering for me.  My willingness to be open and vulnerable creates safe space and opportunity for audience members to be open and vulnerable during the talk-back session. There is healing in every place where the performance is staged. Because of these amazing experiences with making art from my own life story, I wondered who else might benefit from creating something out of their confusion, pain and shame. I went to the county jail and described a story sharing and performance process to the people in the administrative offices. They granted permission for me to come inside and listen to the stories of 12 women at a time over a four-month period and to make theater from their shared stories.  

    My continued inspiration and commitment for doing the work of “Prison Stories” come from the sincere gratitude that the class participants express at the close of each session. The women in the class choose, at some point along the way in our four months of telling our stories and listening to stories, to trust the process and to intentionally be vulnerable.  I can see the light of Love’s transforming power in their eyes when I hand each of them their certificate of completion. My own transformation has been profound. I have learned from my time with women in the jail that I fear being trapped more than I fear anything else. I long for freedom at almost any cost. Going inside the jail twice each week allows me to outgrow my fear and grow into my courage and faith. I have discovered a bright light within myself.  By choosing to share this light, I can help others to discover the light that they have been given. I am consistently amazed at the willingness of the theater community in Memphis to make the performance happen over and over again. Actors, directors, stage managers, musicians, producers and sponsors come through each time and share their time and talent by bringing stories to the stage. I have been changed by an evolving process of living into radical trust. I am responding to God’s invitation to trust Her and to share the gifts I have been given.  I see that my response opens the door for others to trust God and share their gifts too. It is a partnership inspired by God’s calling and my desire to know the freedom of living into God’s call. 

  5. How did you become a story teller, and what are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?

    Sometimes I tell stories that I have read in books. Sometimes I tell stories that I develop from Bible characters. I most enjoy telling stories about my life experiences and my relationships. My art as a storyteller has grown from hours spent sitting on couches or chairs in therapy sessions. I have told and retold and rehearsed my life stories so many times that I have boiled them down to the bitters and the sweets. I have found the places where my stories connect with the stories of others. My life stories are relevant for the lives of my neighbors and friends. I have found the universal within the particulars of my life. I tell my stories and I speak for all of us, our joys and our sorrows. When I am telling a story I feel like the listeners and I are held gently in the palm of God’s hand.  

  6. What question do you wish we would ask you?

    I wish you would ask me how on earth I can afford to give so much time to this work in the jail. How is it that I am free to write, preach for various congregations, lead retreats, market my work, engage in public relations, fight for justice, read books, and travel to listen to other storytellers as a way to improve my own art and inspire my own work?  My answer to that question would allow me to sing the praises of my life partner, Anna Neal. She values the work that I do and she steadfastly supports my determination to continue on the path of freedom. We share a rich and joy-filled life. We are an amazing team and we know we are fortunate. I know that I could not respond to God’s call on my life without the loving support of my partner.