Keeping Stories Alive: The Hearth Storytellers Group
As far as trends go, storytelling must rank as one of the more surprising ones of the 21st century, in a time when individuals are spending more time sucked into their computers and phones than actively listening to one another—or, so we are told. Perhaps more traditionally, storytelling was considered something done before the advent of publishing, or around a campfire, in the past decade storytelling has arguably reached its highest peak of popularity, with radio shows and live performances like “The Moth” drawing more than one million downloads and routinely selling out shows coast-to-coast.
The Hearth Storytellers Group is a fine example of that cresting new tradition, a storytelling group dedicated to foster oral storytelling and dedicating evenings to listen to others’ stories, and that is gaining popularity throughout southern Oregon.
“We have become more polarized, more isolated from one another,” says Founder Mark Yaconelli. “The Hearth seeks to address these fractures. We seek to nurture relationships and rebuild trust within a local communities. Each Hearth gathering tries to help people cultivate a sense of community, remember our core values, and celebrate our common humanity. We’ve discovered that one of the best ways to do this is by getting people together and inviting them to share their stories.”
Yaconelli grew up around storytellers. He says his father was a public speaker, volunteer pastor, and author. Stories were an important part of his father’s life and was how he communicated with others on a deeper level. For 20 years, Yaconelli worked with youth in congregational and camp settings. Now an author and speaker, he has toured the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. The groups he’s involved in is a long list, encouraging and supporting as a spiritual and motivational leader.
“I saw that stories were sacred and if told well, could cultivate trust and inspire people to address suffering,” he says. Throughout his life he’s realized that stories often times are the best ways to express feelings of empathy, resilience, and courage. He explains, “In my work with The Hearth, I’m trying to explore and recover the power of personal storytelling to connect, transform, and draw out our better selves.”
The nonprofit group recently held a three day storytelling conference in Ashland about compassion, garnering 100 volunteers and 950 attendees. Other past events took place in Roseburg soon after the shooting at Umpqua Community College and in Austin, Texas, where 100 stories were collected from undocumented residents.
“Here in Ashland, we hold quarterly storytelling events in which six local residents volunteer to tell a true story, in about ten minutes, on a particular theme to help raise money for a local nonprofit. These gatherings usually involve 20 to 25 volunteers and we usually gather 350 to 400 local people at each event.”
Local storytelling events occur four times a year, the next one occurring Saturday, August 25. Along with local events are “Story Life Retreats” and workshops to work on the craft of storytelling. In the future there will be the Center for Community Storytelling––a place for people to come and dedicate time to telling stories. The place will hold programs, workshops, and retreats.
Yaconelli has a hard time choosing a favorite story after listening to so many that are so personal. “The thing about personal storytelling is that it is an experience, a moment of connection that happens between storyteller and listener,” he says. “You can’t capture it on video. It’s a living moment…Every time a person gets up and openly tells the story of what they’ve lived, I feel grateful, more human, more freed to be myself.”
He hopes that the storytellers and the listeners at each event find a connection to others and to oneself. With so much that divides us today, he says it’s important to trust one another in order to achieve a unified world. “Our current political and media stories divide us into enemies—liberal/conservative, peace-lover/veteran, etc. But it turns out when you get people in a room, and they share stories about their fears, desires, mistakes, and struggles, we find out we have a lot in common.”
Today people seem more anxious, depressed, and disconnected, but for Yaconcelli that doesn’t mean everyone is more alone than ever. “At the heart we have similar values,” says Yaconelli, “we want similar things for our children, for each other, for the world. The separation created by politicians is more false than true.”