“No one testifies alone.” I read this phrase in a book about the history of black Pentecostalism in America. I was struck by this phrase, and how it resonates with my experience growing up in the church. Whenever someone would testify, it was an invitation to be invited into the story of the community. The words that were spoken informed the community of the events, struggles, and victories of the individual. This person’s story was then absorbed into the continuing narrative of the community. This collection of stories contributed to what communication scholar Ernest G. Bormann called a “fantasy chain.” This phenomenon would “chain out” adding texture and depth to the community in the form of a “fantasy theme.” Don’t let the word “fantasy” distract you, Bormann used this in an academic sense to describe the propensity of humans to tell stories that contribute to our individual and collective identity. It doesn’t matter if the stories are factual or not, because the point of the stories isn’t necessarily truthfulness, but the contribution they make to culture and identity.
Growing up, I would hear many themes included in testimonies. People would recount the events of their day, or week, and express their thanksgiving to God about deliverance or healing. My grandmother was a frequent contributor to these types of testimonies. She would recount the events of her day, which were often mundane, but because of the Pentecostal commitment to blurring the lines between the sacred and the secular, nothing was ever truly mundane. My grandmother would share these stories concluding them with a spiritual twist. She would often make a point of how God took an ordinary chore like gardening, cooking, or cleaning, and infused it with spiritual significance. Often her testimonies included descriptions of dreams that she had in the night that she imbued with spiritual weight. She had a unique way of speaking about these dreams. Instead of saying “I dreamt.” She would say, “I thought” and then go on to explain the events of her dream. She would explain the dream and then reveal the interpretation of the dream which always had a spiritual application, often centering on the apocalyptic events of the end times. Her words provided prophetic guidance for the church. Then, as if on cue, someone would follow up her testimony by quoting the Scripture concerning “Old men having dreams, and young men having visions,” a reference to Peter’s preaching in Acts chapter two and the Old Testament prophet Joel.
These testimonies would contribute to the identity of the community, and on some occasions served as a means for communal discipline. I remember this specifically because on one occasion my grandmother testified about me. I had not gone to school. My grandmother called me out on my truancy in front of the entire congregation, after having done so privately earlier that day. It was weaponized testimony, and I was on the receiving end. A subtle form of discipline that was effective and rather embarrassing.
It is amazing how these public events served to shape who we were as a congregation, and served to empower, otherwise powerless people within the community. My grandmother, although never afforded the opportunity to preach from behind a pulpit, did so in the form of testimony. She would share her opinions and advice, albeit unsolicited, with the community. Her admonishments were accepted and often applauded because they remained in the parameters of the sanctioned testimonial service.
All of us share a testimony. It may not be in a church, or even in the context of a religious setting, but we all testify. We recount our triumphs, tragedies, and tears, daily to those who are close to us and even to complete strangers on social media. All of us contribute to the stories of others, as we also receive from others, contributing to a grand tapestry of a beautifully woven narrative. Indeed, whatever our story may be, no one testifies alone!