What are the criteria to be a storyteller? According to Mark Yaconelli, it’s simply to have a story to tell…and the courage to tell it.
Mark Yaconelli is an author, speaker, spiritual leader, youth worker, husband, father and self-proclaimed disco dancer. He’s also a firm believer in the power of stories.
Yaconelli’s father was a pastor, who impressed upon his young son the importance of storytelling for spiritual and community growth.
“I noticed that the times that I really paid attention in church to my Dad’s preaching was when he told stories,” says Yaconelli. “In fact, my Dad himself often said that’s the only thing people remember.”
Yaconelli, who lives in Oregon with his wife and three children, holds an MA in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union. He was co-founder and program director for the Centre for Engaged Compassion, where he helped develop programs to assist individuals and communities create healing and reconciliation.
In 2010, Yaconelli founded The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks, a non-profit organization devoted to developing community through storytelling events. At these events, people gather to listen to live music and personal stories, and the admission fee goes to support local charities.
“You don’t need a lot of skill to tell a story, despite what everyone thinks,” says Yaconelli. “I’ve found that what’s most important is honesty and vulnerability. What I tell the storytellers is that it should feel like sitting around with friends at a kitchen table with a bottle of wine – not a performance. I’m looking to evoke the sacred within a community, so it has to have that kind of informality and intimacy and safety that we have in conversation.”
Yaconelli started The Hearth because he was concerned about the loss of some of the best practices of Christian communities, especially in our high tech, social-media world.
“These gems of the church need to be collected and thrown forward,” says Yaconelli. “I’m talking about sitting physically in a room together…having people tell each other what they’ve lived through and overcome…eating a meal together…finding ways to collectively share our resources with people in need. And The Hearth does all those things.”
Through its storytelling events across the U.S. and U.K., The Hearth has raised money for a long list of non-profit agencies and causes, including food banks, hospices, Red Cross relief, music scholarships, crisis hotlines, affordable housing and wildlife protection.
Each Hearth gathering has its own theme. In an effort to help counteract the divisive and misogynistic rhetoric of the recent American presidential race, an event was recently held in Ashland, Oregon with the theme “Growing up Girl.” Six women from a variety of backgrounds came forward to share their personal stories about growing up female. The stories were rich and inspiring, covering everything from relationships to horseback riding, and the proceeds from the event went to an arts-integrated literacy organization called Stories Alive.
“There’s something quite soulful about sharing stories,” says Mark. “Stories touch our souls, and our souls are susceptible to beauty and wonder. They are also that place in us that holds suffering. But the soul knows that suffering is not the last word; it waits for joy. There’s a hope that emanates from our soul, despite our attempts to ignore it.”
The Hearth occasionally organizes special projects to help hurting communities. After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon in October 2015, The Hearth started the Umpqua Story Project with a grant from the Ford Family Foundation. It was an effort to collect and archive stories of kindness and compassion, to help promote healing after a lone gunman killed eight students and a professor, injuring a number of others. The goal was to bring the community together in the wake of this tragedy, and to show how small acts from caring people can overcome the pain of a single monstrous act. A Story Exhibit, with written stories, images and audio recordings, was created as a memorial that focused on courage, selflessness and hope. As well, a live storytelling event was held at the College.
“Stories are a kind of communion,” says Mark. “When we tell stories, we’re all sharing the same experience. It’s a way we learn to befriend one another, and develop compassion for what others have lived. And it’s the way our Christian faith was passed on.”
In 2015, Mark was invited by the Anglican Church in Wales to do a six month residency as a “Community Innovator”, which involved training twenty teams to develop their own local storytelling projects in North Wales. The Church wanted to help its parishes and communities address increasing loneliness, alienation, and the breakdown of social relationships. The culmination of the training was a storytelling event in the town of Llangollen, with the theme “Strangers in a Strange Land”. It included storytelling from recent refugees seeking asylum within the U.K., with proceeds going to an organization working to assist refugees and the homeless.
“Every one of us has a longing to be known; to feel that I’m seen and heard,” says Mark. “You don’t get that when you’re watching a movie or listening to the radio. You get that when you’re with your neighbours, telling stories about something that happened to you. When you laugh at a moment of self-recognition, they laugh alongside you. When your eyes fill with tears, their eyes fill with tears. That’s what gives us a sense of connection.”
And connection is exactly what The Hearth is all about.
Photos by Joseph Linaschke: www.photojoseph.com
Read a Kolbe Times review of Mark’s latest book The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places.