Stories of pain, personal growth and triumph by everyday people are shared with hundreds of others in the Hearth Project, a gathering designed to cultivate community and compassion.

Stories of pain, personal growth and triumph by everyday people are shared with hundreds of others in the Hearth Project, a gathering designed to cultivate community and compassion.

Creator Mark Yaconelli describes the Hearth Project as part church, part service club, part encounter group and part mini folk concert in which storytellers share intimate tales about a range of human challenges. Past themes have included letting go, wilderness, being a teen and, most recently, crime and punishment.

Last Thursday night's gathering attracted retired cop Patty Farrell, who shared a life-changing tale of her rookie encounter with armed, masked burglars as she searched out a 911 call in a residential backyard, then felt a bullet in her leg.

Brandon Shawnego said he was a normal guy with a job, home, wife and kids until he got swept up in the highs and easy money of the drug trade. "A thousand dollars every three days and still holding my real job. ... I realized there were a lot of meth addicts out there," he said.

But he soon found himself in drug deals gone wrong, "my hands and feet tied and five guys kicking me in the face."

He became a junkie, he said, but still "I refused to believe the problem was me." Now in treatment and clean for a year, Shawnego read a poem he wrote. It started, "I was blinded by the monster."

A once troubled Kim Faith ran away from home at 15, got brought home to juvenile hall in Medford, then went to college and became a probation officer.

"What this storytelling does is increases compassion," says Yaconelli. "We let the secrets come out. It's keeping secrets that makes us sick. When we share our secrets, we get to feel the pain and we become more free."

Since Hearth started in 2009, it's done 20 such community events, heard from 100 storytellers and raised more than $20,000 for 19 nonprofit programs, including Mediation Works, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Ashland Emergency Food Bank and OnTrack Inc.'s addiction recovery programs.

With attendance averaging 250, Yaconelli says such community music-and-storytelling gatherings give people an experience of bonding, compassion and community they may not find in church, service clubs, taverns or anywhere else.

"What we've done is taken the best parts out of religion and service clubs and given them to the community as a whole," says Yaconelli, who is trained in the Christian tradition at Graduate Theological Union but has never been a minister.

The core element of storytelling comes out of the Protestant ritual of "testimony," in which one person stands up and shares "how I experienced God," he says. There are brief sets of live music, wine and pastries at intermission that allow people to mingle and meet, then follow-up weekly Hearth Gatherings in which people share their personal experiences.

"It's mesmerizing, the courage and transparency of the stories," says Daniel Murphy. "There's something magnetic about it. It fills a function of community that needs to be filled. ... It definitely has a spiritual function of compassion, loving kindness, nonjudgmentalness, joy and shalom ... and how that is lived in our journey with others."

Communities need healing with storytelling, says Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County. "This doesn't exist in any other way. It's unique and special. We find ourselves present in everyone else's lives. It's profound, the healing for both us and storyteller. The community-building power of it is that it's not a movie or play, but is live right here, in front of us in 3-D. It adds a lot of impact."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at