Common Threads Finds Ties in Suffering
The creators of Common Threads are two faculty members at Hesston College in Kansas: Tony Brown, an artist in residence, and John Sharp, a history writer and instructor.
Almost a year and a half ago, they drew the inspiration for the program while traveling together by car. Since then, they have presented the program at Mennonite churches around the country.
Brown, who is also an internationally acclaimed baritone, wants to give creative expression to the suffering of different peoples. Sharp, a former director of the Mennonite Historical Committee in Goshen, loves to tell stories.
“I care deeply and passionately about the African-American experience,” Sharp said. “I want my students to read our history through the eyes of their stories.”
Though Anabaptists and African-Americans have different histories of suffering, Brown and Sharp are interested in pulling “common threads” together. According to Sharp, they do not seek out exact parallels. Instead, the program focuses on understanding and consoling each other in the process of suffering—and hopefully—reconciliation.
One example of a “common thread” used in the presentation is the theme of water in the stories of the Anabaptist leader Felix Manz, who was drowned, and of enslaved Africans who escaped through water. Though the stories are different, both convey suffering and hope.
Sharp retells several narratives using snippets of speeches, pictures and objects. The narratives include those of Frederick Douglas, Feliz Manz, Harriet Tubman and Maeyken Wens.
In between Sharp’s stories, Brown and Ken Rodgers, a music professor at Hesston and pianist for Common Threads, perform traditional Anabaptist hymns and African-American spirituals. They often invite the audience join them in the singing. Brown’s deep baritone voice and Rodger’s piano accompaniment give the stories new life.
Rodgers is passionate about bringing the narratives into musical form. “One of the things that link the histories together is how suffering people express themselves through song,” he said.
The songs reflect the essence of the narrative. For example, one story about a slave killed for teaching his son how to read the Bible is followed by the hymn “The Word of God is Solid Ground.” This shows the audience how music was used as a deep expression of suffering.
For Brown, Rodgers and Sharp, the Common Threads presentation is one way they work for reconciliation. In closing, Sharp spoke of the way suffering can lead to healing in the “common experience of faith and strength.”