Northeast Tennessee Group Debuts Interfaith Storytelling Event

Fr. Peter Iorio, Facilitator of the URI in Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle, with Arif Choudhury (L) and Noa Baum (R).

To paraphrase a quote from Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Compassionate Listening pioneer and international peacemaker, “A stranger is one whose story you’ve not yet heard.” Getting to know one another can be as simple as listening to each other’s story. When that story is shared by someone you might see as one of “the others”, a bridge of the heart can truly be built.

Thanks to the hard work of the United Religions Initiative Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle, two talented storytellers, Noa Baum and Arif Choudhury, debuted an impactful interfaith program titled “In The Heart of The Other: A Muslim and Jew Sharing Their Stories.” Through the Appalachian Storybridge to Peace program of the Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle, the program was produced four times over the two days of September 14-15, 2017 at the International Storytelling Center at Jonesborough, Tusculum College in Greeneville, East Tennessee State University and the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Johnson City, Tennessee.

This was the first time the two storytellers had presented this program, and in fact only the second time they had met in person. Traditionally when more than one storyteller performs, they do so in sequence – first one, then the other. Noa and Arif realized, however, that “In The Heart of The Other” was an unusual opportunity for direct and personal interfaith dialogue. The tandem program that resulted from their combined creativity was electrifying.

Linda Sorrell (left) and Barbara Turner share about URI with those attending the Storybridge to Peace event.

Attendance at each of the events averaged 100 or more, with all present attentive to the storytellers’ spellbinding gifts. A tangible energy filled the room at the iced-tea-and-cookies receptions that followed each performance. In addition to the free public concerts, the two also spoke before an audience of 400 students at Volunteer High School in nearby Church Hill, and Noa Baum presented a highly interactive Saturday workshop attended by 50 would-be storytellers. In all, more than 800 hearts and lives were touched by these two extraordinary tellers with their personal, moving, and often funny stories of what it was like to have grown up being seen as part of an “other” subculture in the United States.

The idea to bring Baum and Choudhury to Northeast Tennessee began just a year ago, with a committee of Circle members serving throughout the year to shepherd the project to fruition. Barbara Turner, an active member of the NETN CC’s program committee, has some advice for other Cooperation Circles considering bringing professional presenters to town: “Let them know what the going rate for such programs is in (your) area.”

Doing so brought the cost down to one the Northeast Tennessee CC was able to support through aggressive, widespread fundraising. “We all reached out to many potential sources of support and collaboration to help make this happen,“ she added.

As a result, the four performances were able to be made available to the public free of charge through the generous support of 27 local area sponsors which included 6 communities of faith, 5 university and college departments, 4 individual sponsors, 4 community organizations and foundations, 3 businesses, 2 storytelling guilds, 2 media outlets, and 1 tourism association.
Arrangements can be made to bring Baum and Choudhury’s special presentation of “In The Heart of The Other” to more communities by emailing

Story and photos by Sandy Westin