"They stand up in front of friends and hundreds of strangers and tell personal stories that maybe only a spouse has heard," said Mark Yaconelli, founder of The Hearth, which sponsors quarterly story-telling events in my Northwestern town. "Some of these tellers unburden themselves of shame and grief that may have been with them for decades."
Meanwhile, the audience (240 in church pews on a recent evening) listen respectfully: what they hear is healthier than gossip, because it's true, it comes from the person who was involved, and the telling feels brave. I don't know how most of the other people felt, but for me this was a relief, for example, from the innuendos of Downton Abbey, where repeatedly a character will introduce a topic then quickly veer away from any direct statement; a relief, too, from evasions in my own culture.
The format is simple, three stories of 10-15 minutes each, sandwiched by live music, a break, and more of the same, followed by Yaconelli's spontaneous, brief and eloquent tying together of main themes of the evening. The overall topic one recent night was "bullies," and the proceeds from the $5 tickets were donated to a local program that works against bullying. The church, the organizer, and the musicians? All volunteers like the tellers.
Yaconelli uses story-telling, a revival of an ancient art, as an occasion to build community, by giving people an opportunity to be witnessed as they share some precious episode from their own lives: an adventure, a discovery, a shame, a success, a hurt, a joyful occasion. The tellers are not performers doing stand-up, nor is the occasion as solemn as, well, a church service. These are regular folks: a car salesman, an attorney, a coach, a father, a secretary.
At the evening events, clothing is informal. The feeling is less an auditorium than a living room that just happens to have grown. In this sense, the event could be called a hearth or a campfire with a mike. The audience is there not to judge, but to witness, in some cases to identify.
Clearly, the evenings of story-telling could be done in any town. Mine has a population of only 20,000. This kind of event does not require an enormous metropolis like New York City or Los Angeles. Classical Athens was tiny by modern standards. What it had were traditions, an audience, occasions.
In finding tellers, Yaconelli keeps his eye out for regular folks, not stand-up comedians or other performers. People come not to gawk at a show, but to hear other people like themselves. The Hearth is a tribute to transparency. The organizer told me about man with an Irish father and a Puerto-Rican mother, who as a child was told to suggest he was some kind of Mediterranean, perhaps Spaniard or Italian, as he would intimate by speaking a phrase in the latter language. After not showing up for a couple of events, he finally did tell his story and ended by coming out as a Puerto Rican. This was hard for him, but the outcome was a standing ovation.
Often people come to Yaconelli with stories that aren't what they end up telling. He listens for the moment of passion and then asks questions, inviting them to focus on and expand what they really care about. His goal is not "true confessions," but something real and not ordinarily spoken.
Yaconelli started his career as a minister to young people, a subject about which he's written books and on which he's given workshops. As his older children finish high school, he is moving into helping people "drop into the heart" and, as a result, feel closer to one another. While he recognizes that "Buddhists have a near-monopoly on the concept of compassion," he sees his own faith, Christianity, as "a set of love stories," and wants to encourage love first for the self, then for the family or other small group, and for friends, and finally for the larger community.
Apart from The Moth in New York City and its satellites in several other big cities, San Francisco has a story-telling organization called Porchlight, run by two women and held in a big bar. The Moth is named after the Georgia background of its organizer, when a hole in the screen-door would admit moths to the light on summer evenings as friends talked about their lives. The Moth has a large staff, but Yaconelli points out that story-telling is fairly simple to arrange and suitable also for towns.
The main challenge is finding the tellers and helping them prepare their stories. Instead of working with each teller one-on-one, Yaconelli gets the group together and they serve as a preliminary audience and as mutual aid. James di Properzio, who has twice told stories and watches podcasts from The Moth, praises the work of preparation and enjoys the feeling of close listening by and empathy from the audience.
Just as The Hearth itself is a social invention, the area has social inventions that deal with bullying, the subject of a recent evening of story-telling. In order to help kids relate in some ways beyond gathering in cliques and picking on others, Yaconelli's area has several programs that go into schools (The Edge, Meditation Works) or mentor individual young people (Boys to Men, The Rose Circle). These social inventions didn't exist until somebody said, "why don't we..." and started them. Some programs get grants, all depend on volunteers. Any of them could be started in other towns, as stand-alone projects, through service clubs, through churches or other religious groups.