The sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church broke into the news around 2000, just as Paul Elie was writing his book “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” His topic was the intertwining friendships of four great Catholic thinkers and writers, some of the best people in his tradition: Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton.
Meanwhile, he was reading, in the news, about the abuse of children.
When Elie published his book, in 2003, news of the abuse and the cover-ups was still coming. A practicing Catholic, and an alumnus of Fordham, a Catholic university, he felt that the only story people heard about his church was an evil one.
“I felt a pain about my tradition,” Elie said in an interview in New York last month. “Something was broken here, and there must be something in the way we tell our stories that could help to make it better. I’m in the story business. So how could I help to heal it, somehow?”
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As it happened, Elie vaguely knew Dave Isay, the MacArthur “genius” grant winner and founder of StoryCorps; as an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Elie had edited a book by Isay’s future wife. StoryCorps is an oral-history project that has recorded more than 55,000 Americans telling stories from their lives to interviewers they have chosen. An edited version of one story airs on National Public Radio every Friday, and all the stories are archived at the Library of Congress.
In 2010, Elie invited Isay to coffee. They met at a patisserie in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“I wanted advice,” Elie recalled. He wanted to know how to gather the stories of other Catholics, those whose experiences of the church were happy, sad, mundane, moving — stories that had nothing to do with the scandal dominating the news. “And Dave says, ‘Why don’t you partner with us?’ ”
Since 2008, Elie had been running a lecture series for Georgetown University, and he had a hunch that John J. DeGioia, Georgetown’s president, might be interested in collaborating. He was right.
“When I mentioned the idea to DeGioia, he said, ‘I listen every Friday,’ ” Elie said. “A year passed, and I manage … during the Big East basketball tournament to put these guys” — DeGioia and Isay — “together for breakfast. DeGioia totally shared the enthusiasm for the project.”
Thus was born the American Pilgrimage Project, a joint effort of StoryCorps and Georgetown. In 2012, Elie left his job at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (where, 10 years ago, he edited a book that I wrote) to become a research fellow at the Berkley Center, part of Georgetown. DeGioia allowed Elie to occupy a role that includes teaching, hosting public conversations and collaborating with StoryCorps.
For the project, Elie will, using the StoryCorps tagging system, find and catalog stories from the audio archives in which the two participants discuss religion. (For StoryCorps interviews, one person interviews somebody he or she knows well.) He may, he said, curate public exhibitions that combine the audio files with pictures or videos of the participants.
And while many of the stories Elie has found in the archives involve clergy members, he and Isay will scout new opportunities to interview “ordinary Americans, people without official roles in churches,” and ask them about their faith.
Several of the religious stories have gone up on an American Pilgrimage website.
Isay, who, like Elie, is 48, joined us for the interview, at the StoryCorps offices in Fort Greene. He said he was not very religious. He attended a Jewish day school as a child, then a Quaker high school, and is maybe “a little more Quaker than Jewish, at this point.” But he was excited by Elie’s idea for a special StoryCorps project.
“Paul is probably the smartest person I have ever met,” Isay said, “so for me it’s a no-brainer. If Paul wants to do something, I want to partner with it. Talking about what was going on in the church, the scandal, it seemed like StoryCorps was a safe space to have conversations and to listen to each other. But I think we’ll have cross-religious conversations and every kind of permutation imaginable.”
Georgetown has received a $100,000 grant to start the American Pilgrimage project, from a donor DeGioia approached. And Elie has traveled with StoryCorps producers to two locations. They have interviewed nuns in Pittsburgh and in New Orleans.
“There’s so much about religious leadership, about religion and politics,” Elie said, referring to the news cycle. “Demographics. But how religious feeling factors into people’s lives is absent from so many of those conversations.
“When we went to Pittsburgh, we got a story about a nun — the nuns used to teach a different subject every year, in this inner-city school,” Elie said. “They’d say, ‘Sister, you have to do physics this year.’ One student really got her struggle, and he wrote a poem about her. She pasted it into her Bible, and it became part of her daily meditation. Years later, the student became an evangelical minister.
“You get the idea of what we’re after.”