Until David Benning had surgery at age 4, he was literally tongue-tied. A congenital anomaly called ankyloglossia restricted the motion of his tongue, making it difficult for him to speak.
“He couldn’t put two words together,” said his mother, Jami Benning. “He couldn't even lick his lips. I was about the only one who could understand him.”
A decade later, that is hard to imagine, especially after listening to the 14-year-old from Harlan give a dramatic recitation of a Bible story about the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck during the National Festival of Young Preachers at the downtown Hilton on Sunday.
“He’s really impressive,” said the Rev. Dwight Moody, president of the Lexington-based Academy of Preachers, which organizes the ecumenical festival. “He first preached with us when he was 12, two years ago in Indianapolis. He’s very talented.”
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In addition to being one of the festival’s youngest participants, David has won top-five honors in the Kentucky Youth Storytelling Contest for seven and top-10 honors twice at the National Youth Storytelling Showcase.
“I like seeing laughter in people,” David said when asked what he likes about storytelling. “I like to do Bible stories. I also tell Appalachian folk tales, Jack tales and Uncle Remus tales.”
Because of his condition, David went through intense speech therapy as a child, including working with his parents to learn how to tell stories. He and his father “would play-act around the house, different Bible stories and stuff, mainly David and Goliath,” he said.
We thought we were just going in to watch some storytelling, and they asked me if I wanted to compete.
Interest in storytelling led David to learn to read before he started school. When he was 6, his mother took him to a storytelling festival at Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland.
“We thought we were just going in to watch some storytelling, and they asked me if I wanted to compete,” David said. “So I competed and went on to state that year.”
David’s father, Brent Benning, teaches at the Appalachian ChalleNGe Academy, a military-theme alternative high school run by the Kentucky National Guard. He was unable to attend his son’s first state storytelling competition, and he was shocked when his wife called to say David had won the elementary division and top-five honors among all age groups.
Jami Benning, who has home-schooled their only child for the past six years, enjoyed storytelling when she was young, but never competed. She also has participated for three years in the young preachers’ festival to help polish her speaking skills.
“Depending on your religious background, a lot of (churches) frown on women in ministry,” she said. “This was a chance to get some feedback. It really helped me.”
Storytelling and preaching also inspired her to volunteer as a peer mentor at the Cumberland Hope Community in Evarts, a drug and alcohol recovery center for women.
“She helped me to develop my stories,” David said. “And that’s part of how I kept going.”
When he isn’t studying or storytelling, David plays drums at New Heights Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Pineville, and is an intern two days a week at The Stables at Creekside Glen, a Letcher County horse camp run by Meridzo Center Ministries. He also likes Lego robotics, working with computers and hunting deer.
David hopes to continue storytelling as an adult, at such events as the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. But he is more focused now on preparing for college and a career in aviation, perhaps as an airline pilot.
Jami Benning said her son’s birth defect turned out to be a blessing, because it pushed him to learn to read early and become comfortable with public speaking.
"He had a really hard time until he had that corrected,” she said. “After that, he started talking and hasn't stopped since.”