Steven Salido Fisher is doing sacred work simply by listening to people as they share the stories in their hearts. The Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student is building on a mission to give people in the local Hispanic community an elevated voice about the natural environment. His project, “Gathering Historias” is documenting, in their native language, their experiences with nature including the historic green space of The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.
“Many people I have talked to really see their time outdoors, in the natural environment, as a time of restoration, in a place of sanctuary, and even talk about people they love through times shared outdoors.” Fisher, a former student chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital, said. “‘Gathering Historias’ shares those narratives about the changing social and cultural meaning of an outdoor experience within an increasingly-diverse Boston area.”
Fisher has bicultural roots helping him understand social resilience and belonging. Born in Lake Forest, Ill, he grew up in both Chicago and Mexico City, where his parents originate. The integrated experiences from his childhood helped actualize “Gathering Historias.” These virtual stories share, in podcast format, the personal interactions and recreational activities community members have in the environment, utilizing nature as a way to create a spiritual connection to the outdoors, and to others. Telling their stories in Spanish invites people to recognize their own voices being heard and enter into the story in a way that most other content doesn’t allow, Fisher said.
“There’s a level of personality that’s accessed when someone speaks in their native language, you can capture the emotions and there is a real impact on listeners,” he said. “If you don’t speak Spanish, you may not be able to understand what they are saying, but the laughing, the gasping, the tone, or even the slowing down during the narrative – you’re really drawn in.”
Wendy Estrada, a contributor to “Gathering Historias,” said speaking with Fisher revived many memories of her roots, her family, her travels, and she hopes the project will inspire her children to do things outdoors.
“I could have spent so many hours talking to Steven about my experiences. When I was younger, without access to technology, we explored more of the woods and lakes, I wanted to pull out all my [photo] albums and look through them,” the Brookline resident said. “With our busy lives, we don’t realize that nature gives us so much peace.”
Fisher is also a children’s book illustrator and focuses his drawings on the relationship between children and nature. He chose the Arboretum to do the work through the HDS Field Education Program. This opportunity, allowing students to utilize a setting matching their educational goals, connected his own work illustrating social and botanical life to the Arboretum’s mission of fostering “greater understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of the Earth’s botanical diversity and its essential value to humankind.” His drawings, which accompany the narratives, will help illustrate the importance of intimacy, growth, nature, and stewardship.
Ana Maria Caballero, the nature education specialist at the Arboretum, said in addition to Fisher’s talent creating fresh and whimsical artwork with hints of Mexican traditions, he is incredibly focused and driven. He immersed himself in the fabric of the Public Programs department to get a better understanding of people and nature.
“He is a great listener, very interested in hearing people’s stories and finding connections between himself, the storyteller and greater humanity,” she said. “This initiative fits in nicely with the Public Program department’s drive to create relevancy for a wider audience, with programming that better reflects the concerns and aspirations of visitors to the Arnold Arboretum.”
Fisher’s work at the Arboretum is in line with his work in the Field Education Program at HDS, where he is a master of divinity (MDiv) degree candidate. Every year, the School sends approximately 80 to 100 HDS students out to work as chaplains, instructors, and more in parishes, educational institutions, community-based social justice agencies, hospitals, and prisons. The aim is to help students cultivate their theological imagination within a structured learning experience and use the experience to explore their calls to ministry and develop technical skills.
Depending on the job, field education can send students across the country, and in summertime, across the world. MDiv candidates must complete at least 700 hours of field education work before they graduate, said Emily Click, assistant dean for ministry studies and field education at HDS.
“We craft opportunities for our students to engage their gifts in the needs of particular individuals, communities, and organizations. We enable students to discover the ways in which their curiosity, intellect, and kindness can be offered compassionately to people in need,” she said. “In the case of Steven, his field education is a perfect example of the ways in which our students’ imaginations are honored and kindled by the opportunities they see in a field education program that offers not just traditional ministry settings, but places for them to design their own learning.”
The setting at the Arboretum also helped Fisher underscore the value of time. Established in 1872 and a National Historic Landmark, the Arboretum occupies 281-acres of naturalized landscape containing a living collection of trees, shrubs, and woody vines from around the world, consciously preserved for research and cherished by the public. In a similar light, he hopes “Gathering Historias” will live on beyond the moment and the conversations will remain in people’s minds, preserved and cherished from generation to generation.
“I’ve worked in many places—hospitals, universities, the Red Cross, but it’s really astounding and beautiful to see the deep attention to time at the Arboretum, and the beautiful intention to cultivate life within an intergenerational framework,” he said. “It’s not necessarily explicit people can walk by a tree in the Arboretum and sense that it has something beyond their own life span. I hope ‘Gathering Historias’ lives on in the sense that life continues beyond the stories themselves.”
What is it about a story that makes it sacred? Fisher said two specific HDS courses have prompted him to closely examine that question: The Lotus Sutra: Engaging a Buddhist Scripture with Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures Charles Hallisey, and Orthodoxy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity with Hollis Professor of Divinity Karen King. Through studying some unconventional contexts of history and what stories are or are not being told, Fisher learned the importance of people recognizing themselves in a story, and how to interpret the story in a way that is life-giving.
“From a Latino, Latina, Latinx perspective, our stories don't get told very often. And I really want these stories to be on the table when we think about ecological justice, environmentalism, and how we plan for the future,” he said. “This is another key aspect of ministry, essentially having an angle of advocacy and justice in the work that we do, so we ensure that people's stories got told and we become a conduit for those stories and essentially a megaphone in some ways.”
Fisher chose to complete his master’s work at HDS because of its culture that he said feels supportive, freeing and life-giving, something he does not take for granted.
“I really get a deep sense of permission from the Divinity School to explore what it means to be a minister in today’s world. Although I’m not working in a church for example, nobody questions that I see a place like the Arboretum as my church,” he said. “I can learn about myself and really learn about the kind of life I want to live.”
In a sense, Fisher is gathering his own historias. He chose the word “gathering” in the title for the project associating it with other words such as “nourishment,” and “cultivation” which speaks to the purpose of the project. But its bilingual title was chosen with intention.
“The bilingual title speaks to a lot of Latinos here living in the U.S. now, whether they were born here or in other parts of Latin America,” he said. “It reflects that our community is varied and complex for not just Spanish speakers, for not just English speakers, but we often straddle different identities. And our stories can capture that.”
—by Deborah Blackwell, Arnold Arboretum Communications
“Gathering Historias” podcasts and accompanying illustrations can be found on the Arboretum website.
For questions or more information about “Gathering Historias” and Steven's work, please contact him.
Michael Naughton, Harvard Divinity School communications, contributed to this article.