The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.

The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.

— Anthony De Mello

When I was 26 years old, I went on a contemplative retreat with author and Episcopal priest Morton Kelsey. On the first day of the retreat, we were placed in "life story" groups. In these circles, each person was given 30 minutes to share his or her life story. When I saw the individuals in my group, I was disappointed. As a young man in his prime, I had no desire to "waste" a whole day listening to what appeared to be a retired pastor, a 60-something Georgia socialite, a middle-aged homemaker and five other unremarkable people recount the details of their lives.

The socialite went first: "Twenty years ago I woke up in a motel in eastern Georgia. I was naked, lying on the floor in a room filled with empty bottles of Southern Comfort and vials of morphine. I had no memory of the past three days. No idea why I was two hours from Atlanta, so far from my home." The woman went on to tell a story of childhood sexual abuse, a loveless marriage, a prescription drug addiction and a series of unsuccessful suicide attempts.

I was shocked. How could a woman who was so educated, so successful and so put together have such pain and chaos in her background? For the rest of the day I sat in stunned silence as a sociology professor talked about his life as a migrant worker, a suburban mother told us about losing her parents as a young girl, and a retired pastor told us about the beatings he suffered as a gay teenager growing up in rural Mexico.

Around the circle we shared, each story unexpected. Full of tragedy, unmet longing and determination, each story aroused deep compassion in those of us listening.

I left the retreat utterly disoriented. If this group of plain-faced people was full of such pain and courage, what lived within the lives of my neighbors, my workmates, people I passed on the street? Suddenly I was filled with a new sense of curiosity, less judgment and more empathy for those around me.

In 2009, a friend of mine told me about The Moth in New York City. The Moth is a storytelling series in which people tell true life stories in front of a live audience. Inspired by this model and wanting to create a transformative "life story" space for others, I founded The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks. My goal has been to create a community-building project that enriches the tellers, the listeners and local nonprofit organizations.

For each gathering, which takes place four times a year, I choose a theme: growing up, letting go, falling in love, wilderness adventures, to name a few. Then I find six community members willing to explore the theme by sharing raw and creatively told experiences from their own lives. Since February 2010, we've had barmaids, therapists, landscapers, school counselors, doctors, filmmakers and dozens of other brave souls. The proceeds from each event go directly to a local charity.

Why do I volunteer my time to facilitate this series? It's a very long list. I do it because I've been changed by stories. Because my dad was a great storyteller. Because I love to tell stories. Because my friend Duane Whitcomb is willing to arrange the music. Because of all the people who come to me and say, "I have a story I need to tell." Because stories are what make us human. Because I want to create a welcoming space. Because listening to stories is one of the great pleasures in life. Because every one of us has a story to tell. Because when we listen to each other's stories, we become more connected to ourselves and others. Because everyone wants (and needs) compassion for what they've lived. Because everyone deserves to be heard. Because it raises money for beautiful people working for beautiful causes. Because when we tell stories we gently alleviate shame and celebrate ordinary courage. Because every one of us has a truth we've lived — a funny truth, a tragic truth, a heroic truth — and when it's shared, the community becomes more honest.

Mark Yaconelli is the program director for the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology and the founder and director of The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks. He has written four books, including "Wonder, Fear, and Longing: A Book of Prayers" (Zondervan). His most recent book, "Changing the World One Heart at a Time," will be released in the spring. He and his family live in Ashland.