Challenge the Single Story Narrative

A story can be a powerful thing. Like water running deep below the surface of the earth, a story can cut hidden channels through our hearts. Our sense of personhood, family, and community are built upon the many layers of stories that have shaped us. We would likely find it hard to distill our complex and rich personhood down to one single story and yet we often do this with others. 

I recently watched a poignant TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. She says, “Show people as one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become.” This “single-story-ism”, as she calls it, is what happens when complex human beings and places are reduced to a single narrative. For example, when Africans are depicted solely as pitiable, poor victims of starvation. Or when Muslims are relegated to the one story of extremist or terrorist. Or when “that” part of town is forever labeled as “unsafe”, “blighted” or “hopeless.” 

We are more than the one story people might see at first glance --our religion, our career, where we live, our ethnicity, our failures, our successes, our possessions. When we reduce all those stories down to just one, we diminish the fullness of the humanity of the person. 

The stories we tell about ourselves and each other not only retell our lives, but they also  shape them. 

Growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City, I heard a single story about Troost Avenue, for example. The single story I heard again and again about Troost was, “Don’t go over there. It’s not safe.” 

Without being fully conscious of it, this single story shaped my physical boundaries, sense of safety, and people I associated with. Often, news articles and hearsay fed into and reinforced this single story of “that part of town.” 

The Troost story was shared as if it were “common sense.” Sometimes stereotypes are not altogether untrue. However, they are usually woefully incomplete. The single story I had heard about Troost didn’t begin to consider the history of Troost, desperation of those trapped in poverty, or the effects of multi-generational trauma on families. It left out all the resiliency and strength, hopes and strivings of the east side of our city.

The 200 year history of Troost Avenue is made up of many stories, from the Osage Indians on trail to the Missouri River and Rev. Porter’s slave plantation, to Walt Disney’s studio and Jim Crow segregation. The single story stereotype of Troost I heard collapsed all of this history of struggle and strength into a flat, hopeless fragment. Troost became known as the racial and economic dividing line of Kansas City and the single story narrative we told reinforced the distance between us.

Working and living in the Troost corridor and building relationships with our neighbors reveals there is much more than a single story narrative of this place. Each month in our “Venerate” e-newsletter we tell stories of courage that reveal the strengths of those we serve, striving to challenge the single story narrative many still have of Troost. (Subscribe to “Venerate” here

We recently featured a video with Deron in which he shared how difficult it has been to find work after he got out of jail. He’s worked hard to move beyond the mistakes he had made, but overcoming the single story many have of him is hard. Eventually Deron came to RS and was able to find employment through our social venture, Resolve KC. As we’ve come to know Deron, he has shared his dreams of opening his own restaurant, the lessons he wants to pass on to his children, and the appreciation he has for a community that supported him through adversity. 

The single story approach doesn’t see with the eyes of God, who in the Scriptures continually deconstructed the crowd’s single story narrative of prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors, fishermen, pharisees and rich men. We are all more than a single story in the eyes of God.  

Let’s challenge ourselves this week to question a single story narrative that we have of someone else. Ask that person to tell you more about themselves. Take time to listen more deeply than normal. Hear each other’s stories without interruption, redaction or reduction. Don’t buy into the single story you may have heard about certain people or places. Remember, a story can be a powerful thing. 

By Father Justin Mathews, Executive Director

Your Giving Has Changed the lives of Thousands in 2016!

Each year I am amazed at what our staff, generous donors and dedicated volunteers accomplish in partnership with our clients and neighbors on Troost. It is no small thing day in and day out to walk alongside our most vulnerable community members to reveal their strengths. And yet, each morning our doors open and people come in for help, for warmth, and for hope.

You have made a difference in the lives of so many by enabling RS to care for over 5,150 unduplicated individuals this year!

This year also brought new staff, a newly remodeled RS Cafe and commercial kitchen, an improved Troost Jazz and Soul Experience fundraiser, and renewed vision for our work.


Hospitality Services
The RS Cafe is where neighbors first receive hospitality like hot, nutritious food at our Friday Night Meal, and enjoy coffee in our Internet Cafe. Now, with our remodeled RS Cafe space, we have a more uplifting and safe environment to complement our work. Upgrading our kitchen and pantry to meet commercial standards further supports our efforts to grow the RS Internet Café into a “Pay What You Can” RS Cafe at 31st and Troost, opening in 2017.

Your gifts to RS in support of our Hospitality Services

  • helped feed over 3,000 individuals and 1,700 households through our pantry, including 600 children
  • served over 12,500 meals through Friday night meal program
  • provided free gigabit speed internet and the only public computers on Troost

Emergency Social Services
Our work to reveal the strengths of those we serve often begins with some form of emergency social services, whether people are in need of an ID and birth certificate, rent and utilities assistance, medicine or medical supplies, urgent dental or vision care, or in-depth case management. Triaging immediate needs helps lower barriers to self-sufficiency and connects clients with trained caseworkers.

Your gifts to RS in support of our Emergency Social Services

  • provided medical assistance to over 1,000 totalling over $200,000 in care
  • helped launch our I’D BE Campaign to raise awareness about the many reasons people need an ID
  • helped us secure over 1,200 IDs, birth certificates and work permits to help people get jobs, housing, education and other public services.

Therapeutic Services
Beyond working to address immediate challenges our neighbors face every day, is the ongoing, deep healing from trauma that must happen. Through our Therapeutic Services, we have adopted what we call our “stealth mental health” program that uses group and individual therapy as well as intensive case management to create a supportive and encouraging network of people to promote healing and reconciliation for themselves.

Your gifts to RS in support of our Therapeutic Services

  • gave 75 men and women suffering from trauma access to our caring therapists and case managers
  • provided 800 hours of group therapy and 500 hours of individual therapy to those who would have gone untreated otherwise
  • helped bring these neighbors together to support each other in creating an ecosystem of healing in Kansas City’s most challenging neighborhoods.

Economic Community Building Services
Finding sustainable income and meaningful work is critical for revealing the community’s strength and stopping the cycle of poverty. Our Economic Community Building Services are aimed at creating opportunities for growth and stability by offering digital survival classes, self-sufficiency workshops, deepening community involvement for our seniors, and creating jobs.

Your gifts in support of the RS Economic Community Building Services

  • helped 106 low-income senior citizens share their hearts and wisdom with over 350 children in 31 schools, hospitals and civic agencies across Jackson, Clay and Platte Counties
  • provided jobs for over 285 people through Resolve Staffing, an RS Social Ventures company
  • created 31,000+ billable hours, paying $9-$12.50/hr to neighbors (mostly east of Troost) in various food service, hospitality, packaging and maintenance jobs in KC

With your very generous support in 2016 RS walked alongside our most vulnerable neighbors and provided social, therapeutic and economic community building services to more people than ever before. We are deepening our collaboration with the 12+ neighborhoods east of Troost and their resident leaders. We are even reaching further east and south in KCMO to places where help is harder to find. Thank you!

You helped us take the next steps in our vision of transforming Troost from a dividing line to a gathering place of hope and reconciliation. Please join with us in making 2017 a year of reconciliation and hope again by continuing to support RS generously at year-end.  

For those we serve
Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services

Blessed Are Those Who Reconcile

When my family moved to the urban core of KC over three years ago, friends and family cautioned us, “It is more dangerous over there!” Some said, “It isn’t safe!” The narrative of our part of the City had been told in terms of its crime and instability.

The neighborhood alerts on our community boards do sometimes reach a fever pitch, announcing another suspicious person, another break in, or worse. But it’s the city. We expect that, right?

Violent acts and violent rhetoric seem to dominate our landscape. From suicide bombings in far off places to murderous rampages and vehement speech closer to home, violence presses in on us. We turn on the news or browse the headlines expecting it, even looking for it. It seems inevitable to us that certain places or certain people would be violent.

But violence is as close as our own hearts.

I have cringed at the sound of a mother berating her child at the bus stop. I have called the police when the argument heard coming from a nearby house sounded like it was turning dangerous or if I heard gun shots closer than I’d like. I have taken an alternate route on my walk when I encountered two women shouting and degrading one another. Yes, violence is pressing in, but it is also pressing out.

In 1 John 3:15 it says that, “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” That isn’t some flowery metaphor or shocking image. It is fact. An act of hate is murder.

So what makes me different from the mother berating her child at the bus stop? Nothing, really. I despise her behavior. I despise what she represents. I despise how she treats her child. Therefore, I despise her, hate her, murder her in my heart.

In the end I put myself in the place of judgement over these violent “others” and assume that they are just degenerates and perpetrators, forgetting that their story is most definitely one of victimhood as well, with complicated and traumatic stories that have played out time and time again.

So how do we battle violence?


Gentleness, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are the weapons we must use.

We see examples not only in the Bible but in Christian saints, modern day activists, and mystical teachers—of how peace can disarm violence. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian saint entreated, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” We see in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:9 in the Bible, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Peace is this thing that we must acquire, hunt down, work for, struggle to maintain. We are urged to close the gap between ourselves and others in peace and reconciliation. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who reconcile.

It seems an overwhelming proposition to me to take on a violent culture, the vehement rhetoric of today’s warmongers, the institutions and religions that perpetrate violence. That is why I must make my most strategic battlefield my own heart. This is where I begin my struggle to overcome violence. From there, who knows what may come!


Article by Jodi Mathews

Practicing the Art of Thanksgiving

Last Friday I wiped tears and a bit of drool from the unshaven chin of Stevie, an elderly African American Korean war Veteran leaning against his walker as he sobbed and said, “I still love you…” He wavered as he watched a much younger woman wearing a blonde wig get on the bus in front of RS at 31st and Troost. I wasn’t sure of their connection but I was sure of my role in that moment: to help him begin to give thanks in the midst of his circumstances to overcome his sadness. Stevie and I went inside and sat down to eat a hot meal together.

Thanksgiving is a powerful weapon against sadness when practiced well. It is a way of life and a worldview. Some even say it is what we were created to do - to give thanks. But I will be the first to admit that giving thanks takes practice. I see much around me that I am not thankful for - violence, drugs, poverty, apathy, trauma, abuse, and neglect. If I were not careful to daily practice thanksgiving I know I would be overwhelmed.

I believe every person can find strength in difficult circumstances by practicing the art of thanksgiving. Here are four of my practices that you may find helpful:

1. Look for things worthy of thanks. I’m learning to look for things worthy of thanksgiving everywhere. Sometimes giving thanks can be hard because my eyes are not trained to see thankfully, so to speak. There is so much negativity in this world that glimmers for my attention. It is easy to squander time on unworthy things but all around me, even in blighted neighborhoods, war zones and crumbling circumstances, there are things worthy of thanks and praise. I just have to refocus to see them. This means slowing down, becoming more aware and paying attention to the beauty that is actually there - everywhere present and filling all things. I have walked Troost since 2008 and I have seen the purple chicory that pushes through cracks in the sidewalk concrete, I have heard the laughter of friends at the bus stop, I have gazed at artful old building cornices and celebrated the diversity of people living in the city. When I refocus, thankfully all is transformed!

2. Get to know the people in your neighborhood. I’m learning that the more I build relationships with people the more I am thankful for them. I call this living like Mr. Rogers: “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” I’m an extrovert so talking to new people is easy for me. But building relationships can be hard for others. I’ve seen this especially at our Friday night meals where some volunteers find it difficult to come out of the kitchen. It can be hard to bridge the gap, but more often than not it’s worth the hard work. Without relationship and connection, people can become viewed as only stereotypes - black, white, lazy, rich, poor, powerful, weak, etc. What I’ve learned is that once I take time to get to know someone’s story the stereotypes fade and it’s easier to find common ground. Then, I can give thanks for them. An added benefit is I get to share my own story too.

3. Let the history around you infuse the present. I began studying the 200 year history of Troost Avenue when I began volunteering with RS in 2008 - I was amazed. I found out I work near to where famous people used to live at the turn of the century. Geographically, this was one of the the highest points in KC (years before the skyscrapers were constructed) on land that was once a 165 acre plantation with forty slaves. Across the street stood the old Majestic Theater where jazz legends played. All of a sudden the floor tiles of the old department store in the building RS now calls home, echoed with the heels of shoppers and vacant lots came alive. I’ve learned that the way things are now can make more sense by understanding the way things were then. I value the history of Troost and its people more by understanding how Troost got where it is today. By reading about the history of the place in which I find myself, I venerate it and give thanks for it.

4. Give thanks with others. I love sharing songs and stories. In doing so I am practicing the art of giving thanks by giving thanks with others. Without this sharing aspect my thanksgiving is somehow incomplete. I’ve found that people who share their thankful thoughts are contagious. Their thanksgiving can brighten my day or de-escalate a tense conversation. When I feel overwhelmed by my own circumstances giving thanks is a quick way to gain perspective again. Sometimes I even keep a journal of thanks and return to it when I need encouragement.

Every Thanksgiving holiday I recite at the dinner table Thank you, O Lord, the last sermon given by Father Alexander Schmemann given on Thanksgiving day 1983. These powerful words were uttered in the church at St. Vladimir’s seminary, where he was ordained just two weeks before he lost his swift battle with cancer. He begins his sermon by saying, “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation!”

As we seek to practice a life of thanksgiving may it become salvific for each one of us. May thanksgiving help us discover joy in unexpected places and people and may this joy be contagious to those around us.

As you seek to practice the art of thanksgiving, what often overlooked things are you thankful for? Leave your comments below.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.