Art <3 Stories – Jack Porcello – II

Was Jack able to save the library in Mumford with his storytelling?  Let’s find out in this second half of his storyteller’s story.

That week, we got a report back from Jackie that we’d met 200% of our goal in media that was to be taken out. So we continued. Every month I did this presentation and every month afterwords, people took out stuff and people started coming in and taking out stuff more and more. And the library is still open to this day.

In fact, I believe it was the 10th anniversary of that first presentation, they called and asked me if I’d come out and do another. And I did. The kids from the first time where teens and older and some brought their kids. We had a great time. It was a great reunion for everybody. Peg was still clerk. We had such a blast. Just knowing that that library is still in operation … fabulous.

After that I started getting more and more into that. But I also needed to do something to make a living, since my income source had dried up. I decided, after a few forays into different things, I decided to go back to MCC and take some computer classes. All that time I was still trying to finish my graduate degree in divinity, which I’d been working on a little bit at a time for a decade.

Talking to some advisory people at MCC, I got to know some people and one of them asked me if I wanted to be involved in the theatrical arm of peer counseling. So I said: “Sure.” What we’d do, at the time the Assistant Director of the Counseling Department (she went on to become the Vice President of MCC for quite some time), she and I sat down and we wrote a little introductory drama for students that were just coming in. And we would, at all the orientations, we would do this drama, she and I, and we had a couple of people that we wrote parts for that were in the faculty, as well, representing their departments. And it got me again, the bug hit again. I was really enjoying it and wanted to do more.

When I started taking classes at MCC, that was during the time of the alt.net talk groups and one of them was what became BalloonHQ. Larry Moss and I met through this discussion group. At first I didn’t know that he was the one behind it. We realized that we were both from Rochester – hey, let’s get together and get a cup of hot cocoa and talk about stuff.

I had been playing with balloons for a while before that. I had goofed around with them, I used them in church, when I was in the children’s ministry – I made balloon animals and things and I did a few programs where I developed a little gospel theme. I started working with Larry more. We started doing some stuff together out at festivals. But I wanted to do more than just being a “balloon factory” – churning out balloons and handing them to kids for $1 a pop or whatever. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to do something else. So I started developing storytelling with balloons. Not knowing that it was already out there. The first balloon story that I developed on my own was the story of the Stonecutter. I started by trying to make these really elaborate balloon sculptures that took me hours to lay the stage and then the presentation was 25 minutes and it just seemed so pointless. What I did was I toned it down. I made minimalist sculptures that really didn’t do any more than illustrate what I was trying to say. The story allowed the balloons to come to life in the minds of the people that were watching. I got the kids involved and got people involved in the story, had them represent different elements. I ended up publishing in a balloon magazine. I started doing some other stuff. I wrote a few books on balloons and storytelling – a couple of them were religious balloons and storytelling books, one was not.

For a while, I had put off the whole divinity thing completely because this computer thing was very lucrative. I was making a lot of money, but I still kept something going, I always had some sort of little fellowship group happening, much like the group we have now. It was a bit more religious. And after a while, after I’d worked at a couple of different places, I worked at one company and things went poorly – not in as much as I did a bad job there or my work wasn’t recognized as good, but I did not like the direction they were taking. There were a lot of things that I was involved with that, I told the company I was being used as a pawn, in a cutthroat fashion and I had to leave.

I came home and talked to Lorraine. “What are we going to do?” The balloon thing was starting to pick up. I was doing library and school shows. I was working a couple of restaurants. That’s when I put on a lot of weight. I got paid cash, tips, and $50 in food vouchers every night I worked at this one place. I worked every Friday and Saturday. For two people, back then, that was a lot of food. It got to be too much. I got tired of the restaurant thing. I started concentrating more on private shows. I started teaching workshops on balloons and storytelling – across the States and Canada. I did a few every year. I started developing that more.

Then I realized, maybe I need to get back into the divinity thing again. So this is what took me into my present leg of storytelling – which is telling people’s stories in a ministry-type of situation. I still have my ministry credentials, of course. At that time, I was committed to finishing my degree, so I got my graduate degree in divinity and applied pastoral care. Got that done. I was very happy, I had my degree, it was all over with….

I got a call from my sister one evening. “OK, what’s up?”

She said, “You’re going to kill me.”

“What happened?”

“Well, a friend of mine from work came in and she was so upset because she’s Catholic and her fiance is an Atheist and nobody will do their wedding for them. She wants to be married in the church and he’s OK with that, but he’s not going to convert. So nobody will do their wedding. So I told her: ‘Ah, my brother’s a minister. He’ll do it for you.’ – jokingly. And she went: ‘Oooooh, will he? Can I get his number? Could you give him my number?’”

Now my sister’s freaking out. ‘Oh, my gosh. What did I do?’

So she called me. “If you don’t want do this, I understand. BUT, would you consider it?”

I said: “Look. Give me her number. I’ve seen the church piss a lot of people off, turn a lot of people away, not do what it’s supposed to do, so maybe this is an opportunity for me to take ministry in a new direction.”

When I did that wedding, other people – professionals who were working too – said: “That was really great! Can we have your card?” I didn’t have a card. “Well, can we give people your information?”

“Sure. Certainly. OK.” And that started snowballing. At first it was a situation where I was very generic about the way I presented things and I did not like that at all. I thought: ‘How can I make this more personal?’ – Make it less about religion. Ministry should be less about religion and more about the individuals. So I worked very hard to get to know people. At first, it was a lot of effort, because I had to sit and talk with people and take notes. It was fun, too, because I got to know people. Got to know them by sitting and talking with them a lot. And because of that I felt that I was able to present their stories in an adequate fashion.

But because I was doing that and it seemed like something that was unique for the area, more and more wedding professionals started giving my name out. So I figured: ‘OK, I don’t have time to meet with anybody a dozen times before their wedding any more. What do I do?’ I developed other techniques to gather information about them and streamlined getting to know them in that way. To the point where I was doing a LOT of weddings. Quite a few weddings. In fact, the most I ever did in one year was 200.

That was the year that really killed me. But it was the year that Lorraine was finishing up her Master’s degrees, so I needed to be out of the house anyway.

I started to realize that ministry isn’t about giving anybody false hope or fantasy to believe in or hold onto. I also realized that I did not want to be a Pastor. Because I did not want to have sheep for followers. I hated that illustration, even when I was with the established church. I want people to understand what they believe. I didn’t want to present fantasy as reality. I wanted to present fantasy as a powerful tool to help define who you are and who we are as a people – a community, a society, or a tribe, whatever you want to call it. I wanted to see story used in that regard, and there were a lot of opportunities not only in the Christian religion (I did a lot of comparative religious studies.).

So that’s what caused us to take Joining Hands Ministries and Our Fellowship Gatherings in the direction where they currently are. We invite people from all faiths to come and present a respectful environment for them to share what their beliefs are and how they impact upon their lives. And all we ask is that you have the same respect for others that we have for you. That you don’t try to convert others to your way of thinking, but present it – and that you don’t ridicule others’ way of thinking.

Now I want to tell other people’s stories. I try to skate the line between emotionalism and practicality. I believe both are very important to story. You have to have that drive, that push that comes from the emotional element of it. But also the practical side, with a little comedy thrown in.

Every now and then I feel almost disappointed wondering about what would have happened if I had kept a larger congregation. I probably could have made a really good living, but I would not have been able to do it from the point of view of some way that I felt sincere. There would always be a bit of insincerity, a beguiling element. So if we’re 10-12 people for the rest of my life meeting together at a little artist’s studio downtown, I’m okay with that. I’m really happy with the way it is right now.

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