It’s pouring down rain on Friday morning as we turn off Highway 31 and wind behind Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church, but the weather hasn’t deterred a long line of cars from parking outside Robyn Kown’s house. We walk inside to find women all over her kitchen chatting or starting to find a seat in one of the many chairs squeezed around the perimeter of the living room whose picture windows overlook Vestavia Lake.
They’ve all come here for one purpose: to hear a story. Not a fairy tale where prince charming arrives and everything works out perfectly, but a real life story of pain and of hope, told by a woman they likely pass at the grocery store or the carpool line. This is StoryTellers.
If you come to one of their events, you’ll likely meet Sarah Beth Hagler, whose story was the first to make it on the StoryTellers podcast. A widow with young children, she had moved to Vestavia from Auburn to marry Vestavia native Clay Hagler in 2016. She knew people in the community had heard bits and pieces of her story, but one Friday morning she put it all together for anyone who wanted to hear, with hopes of connecting with women on a deeper level.
“There is this real freedom that comes when you just lay it out there, in being real vulnerable and letting people get to know me and all of me,” she says of the experience. “There is so much power in remembering how good God has been and how faithful he has been in bringing us to today, even if the story is still being written.”
And indeed her story has continued from the day she shared as she has connected with other widows and now gets to “love on and pray for and support” other women walking through hard times in life through StoryTellers. “I got in touch with many widows after that to meet with them for lunch or coffee to say I have been in their shoes,” Sarah Beth says. “It’s so powerful to be connect with people whose stories are very similar.”
The story of StoryTellers started a few years ago with an idea Robyn had to have a different person in her church small group tell their story each week when they met. “These were friends that I knew, not strangers, but every single week the stories people told (revealed) totally different things that we didn’t know about people,” Robyn recalls. “I was like, ‘How did we not know that?’“
From there the concept grew from small group to a community-wide point of connection and beyond. “We had the idea of a woman sharing her story, being vulnerable and being real and open, and for other women to go, ‘Me too!’ or if they have been through something like that (to say), ‘I can deal with what I am going through,’” Robyn says.
The vision was for it to be a Christian faith-based time of sharing, but not take place in a church. Instead, it would be somewhere in the community where all people would be free to come hear “stories of God’s goodness and his love.” From there one friend after another caught Robyn’s vision and began to spread the word to come to Robyn’s house to hear a story starting in the fall of 2017.
The first week 75 women showed up. “Well that’s not a small group,” Robyn thought. But she still had no idea of what was to come as women gathered at her home each Friday morning. Her friend Kelley Brown had bought a $20 microphone off of Amazon and taught herself how to edit podcasts of the stories, and they posted them on SoundCloud so people’s friends could listen in. From there it picked up even more steam. Some weeks 20 women would show up, and others 100 would somehow squeeze into her home.
Today a team of six is behind the weekly storytelling sessions, and countless more women than they have met have listened in to the podcast on iTunes. “It kind of blows our minds that people want to listen,” Robyn says. But one thing is certain: women are drawn to this form of storytelling, so much so that they have helped launch StoryTellers groups in Auburn and now one on Highway 280. They have also heard interest in men’s groups starting.
“This thing went way farther than we thought it would, and there’s still room to grow,” Robyn says. “Often it’s women we see everywhere and we’ve always wondered what their story is or what they are about. We have found it really builds community and breaks down walls, and people walk away knowing they are loved.”
The stories don’t end with Friday mornings and podcasts either. Everyone who shares later gets calls from others going through what they are going through and want to talk about it, be it chronic pain or loss of a parent or perfectionism or everyday life stress. “That’s what my house feels like all the time, and now I don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed,” they often say. “It’s a real deal and now I have someone I can talk to about it.”
Even the preparation process is meaningful for the storyteller herself. Robyn meets with each woman a few weeks before she shares and encourages her to write a timeline of her life to help gain better perspective on it. “A lot of people know what their turning point is, but some people don’t know, even if you do know your story,” she says. “A lot of times people have never sat down and thought through what God has done in their story. A large majority of the people knew all these instances, but they didn’t see how God loved them through it.”
And so that’s what Robyn coaches women to share. “We are not TED talks, you are not a professional,” she will tell them. “We just care that you know your story and know it well. It’s not about presentation or how many times you say ‘mmm’ or if you read it. We just care that your heart comes across.”
And each time Robyn is blown away. “People are so brave to share their stories of their husband’s addiction of the loss of a child or ADHD or losing your parents or alopecia. People are brave to tell you how they feel,” she says. “One friend’s husband walked through addiction, and she tells a story about throwing a laundry basket at his head. When you tell people you were crazy and this situation made you insane, people relate because then they don’t feel so bad about their own crazy. And then they say look at what God did to redeem the crazy and the marriage, and other people feel safe.”
Today that friend and her husband are counseling couples who are walking through addiction. And support groups have started out of other stories too, for women who have lost a child, for moms of children with orthopedic medical needs, for women who have gone through a divorce. “You want the community and someone to walk beside you who knows what you are going through,” Robyn says.
As StoryTellers has grown, the team behind it has thought about expanding it to be a Birmingham-wide event, but ultimately decided that would lose their local, casual tone—and the power of hearing stories of people you see everyday. Instead they hope that similar groups continue to form in neighboring communities.
So Friday mornings at Robyn’s house will continue to focus on connecting Vestavia women. Even for Robyn, who grew up in Vestavia and went to Vestavia Elementary East just like both her mom and her kids, it’s made the people living around her take on new meaning. “I have never loved living in this community more than I do now because I feel so connected to so many people,” she says.
Here’s how to engage with the stories of StoryTellers:
Attend on Friday Mornings
StoryTellers meets on Friday mornings at 2113 Vestavia Lake Drive in the spring and fall semesters. Doors open at 9:15 a.m., and the program starts at 9:30 and ends by 10:30 a.m. Find a full schedule at storytellerslive.org.
Attend in the Summer
In the summer StoryTellers holds a few couples events in the evenings. Find more information on those at storytellerslive.org.
Listen to the Podcast
Search for “StoryTellers Live” on iTunes or visit storytellerslive.org.
You can follow StoryTellers for updates on social media at @storytellerslive.