Writer – Justin Howard @Jthnomad
Subject – Urban Confessional @urbanconfessional
Ernest Hemingway once wrote “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Those words written at the start of the 20th century hold true today. Especially in a world exploding with avenues for people to express themselves, from the constant posts to Facebook or video messages on Snapchat. We are all yearning to be heard, but that begs the question who is listening? Well, I can guarantee at least one person will listen to you. His name is Benjamin Mathes, and he is the revolutionary idealist behind ‘Urban Confessional’, a global movement of people listening to people.
Are You Listening? Urban Confessional
Justin Howard – What is an ‘Urban Confessional’?
Benjamin Mathes – It’s a free listening movement. We stand on street corners… We are in about 13 countries right now. We have signs that say ‘Free Listening.’ We are being with people, we are being present with people. We are listening to people. We are validating people through listening to their stories. Being with them as they share.
Justin Howard – It sounds more then just free hugs.
Benjamin Mathes – It is much more then just free hugs. It is free ‘being.’ It is really about just being with people.
Justin Howard – So you started this movement?
Benjamin Mathes – Yeah, about four years ago.
Justin Howard – What led you to start this movement?
Benjamin Mathes – The real story is… I was looking for ways to push against traditional actor training. And I thought that art is at its highest when it is a service. That is the posture we have towards it. So I wanted to see if I could integrate service into training actors. I tried to find a homeless shelter to work with. But that wasn’t what I was looking for. One day I was literally crossing the street at Lankershim and Magnolia in North Hollywood when a homeless guy came up and said “Can I have some money?” I said “No, but I can pray for you.” Which I had never done. But I was in a really low place in my life and thought ‘why not?’ Literally in the middle of the street, we prayed, then I finished crossing the street. I thought ‘Oh my gosh that is a connection. That is what we are all looking for. Just as people.’ That is what I wanted to teach all artists. How do we access that regularly? That level of community, that level of vulnerability, that level of openness and dedication to someone else.
Justin Howard – It is almost… Coming from a person who reads Rumi, it sounds like a moment of unity.
Benjamin Mathes – Right! That is what it is.
Justin Howard – A moment of selfless unity where you are validating them.
Benjamin Mathes – It is a dual validation.
Justin Howard – Like a circuit.
Benjamin Mathes – That is exactly what it is. It is a communion between two people. I thought how can I… That is what acting is supposed to be, all these other things are technical exercises based on ways to practice this without each other. It is a little incestuous in the community. How can we step into danger? I don’t want to create a safe space. I want to give people the opportunity to step into danger. So how can we do that and see how it affects our artistry. So I thought, I don’t want to do free prayer. I want to be a little bit more ecumenical then that. But that would be a powerful thing. I thought listening is pretty close to that. That day I said “We are going to do free listening and who wants to come?” Since then it has never quit. Literally that was how it started.
Justin Howard – How did you go from four years ago, offering a homeless man a prayer in the middle of the street, to today where you are in 13 countries? Did people just get on board?
Benjamin Mathes – People just got on board. We have a pretty good social media presence. We are trying to raise awareness that it is something that should be happening. It is so simple to do. You just hold a sign. I went and did it in Peru. I have done it in England. I have done it in Canada. That’s it for me. But we have groups in Australia, India and Japan. Spain, we have a really great group in Barcelona. It kinda just spread.
Justin Howard – Tell me about the response, because it sounds like you hit an empty spot. In some degree it is very spiritual. But it really isn’t. It is human based and it is a human need. What have people’s reactions been to this?
Benjamin Mathes – People, no matter where I have done it, no matter the country, people kinda respond the same way. They first ask “Why are you doing this?” We have an answer we like to give “For you.” People are like “What? That can’t be.” Then people will share. Good news, bad news, I will sit with someone for an hour or more. They will wave or smile as they walk by. I do think we are at a place tha, as one of my favorite playwrights Lanford Wilson says, “We have mastered exactly half the art of the conversation.” We are in an age where everyone has something to say and that is great. Through social media and traditional media, there is no lack of avenues to say what you think. That is a good thing. But we are getting to play where we have half the art pf conversation happening culturally. It is interesting we look at, this just happened, Justice Scalia passing away and known as a conservative. But his best friend is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I just read her tribute to him and that to me… Where is that today? It is gone. We see people responding to his death, all my liberal friends are saying things. I am like “Why would you say these things about that person?” And to all my conservative friends it is like the Christ just died. You are going ‘wait a second.’ We seem to have lost this. He understood with her, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood with him. As people who have some sort of mutual understanding and human union together in spite of what they have to say.
But that is just half of it, half of our discourse sometimes is in real conflict. The other half of our discourse, the listening part is never in conflict. I think we are losing that as a culture, we aren’t thinking about it as often. Back in October, I did this with a high school. They were incredible. We went to downtown Atlanta. We listened and then we debriefed afterwards. There have been a lot of stuff with school shootings and that every single person who did a school shooting, told us they were going to do it. They journaled about it, there has been a lot of it documented, but just no body listened. No one listened to the person. So I asked the high schoolers when we finished, I said “Close your eyes and raise your hand if you have someone today who would listen to you without judgement, without distraction and without gossip?” Only two of them raised their hands. Then I said “Raise your hand if you would like someone to listen to you?” Everybody raised their hand. I have never asked adults that, but I am pretty sure that it would be about the same thing.
Justin Howard – It might even be less.
Benjamin Mathes – I just feel like we are in a place that we have plenty of enough stuff to say, but we don’t feel like it has been received really. I think we are hungry for it. I think we are desperate for it. I think we can see that with companies who are actively giving as a business model. Toms is one of them that comes to my mind. I think we are really hungry for this. A return to what it means to be human. So it have caught on. It has been awesome. It is the coolest thing I do.
Justin Howard – Share with me, some of the most intense stories of you personally doing this.
Benjamin Mathes – One girl came back twice. She came one day and we talked as she was going to work. It was very casual and then she literally came back the next week. We were there, she asked if I remembered her and I did. She said “Great, good to see you again.” Then she walked off. Then she came back and she said “Wait, there is something I really need to talk about.” I went “Ok.” And it was a Sunday, and that past Wednesday they went to pull to the plug on her mother who had been in a coma for three months. It was like ‘Oww.’ That was just the beginning of where she was at. Nobody but her family knew, none of her friends, no one at work knew.
The first day literally in 2012, these two men came by. Like George and Lennie From ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Maybe homeless, I couldn’t tell. One was very small and effeminate of character, the other was a very big tattooed rough looking guy. They were walking together, they said some things to us and they walked off. In about two hours later they came back and the little one had some paper with him. He said “So we can tell you anything?” I replied “Yeah.” He said “We had never done this before. We just went to the clinic, I found out I am HIV + and I am pretty sure I have given it to about 15 other people. That is what is going on.” We just stood there. The guy next to him said “I share needles with people, I have shared with him and I am sure I am HIV + as well. And I will continue sharing needles because I don’t care. I have a tattoo I want to show you.” I said “Ok.” He takes off his shirt and his entire back is one of the most detailed and ornate tattoos of him sitting on a toilet, hunched over, veins and muscles showing, shooting heroin into his arm. His whole back. The tattoo was size of his whole back. It was all veins and muscles, a truly beautiful tattoo I guess. He just put his shirt back on and they walked off. I was like ‘this is powerful.’
That same day another person came up to us and said “Why would you listen? Nobody has listened to me in 20 years.”
I had a plus-size prostitute come up and tell us her story which was very interesting. Then she asked if she could listen with us. I said “Yes.” So the next week she came, and then I realized the mistake I made because she was listening to men and soliciting them. I caught her doing it, and had to ask her not to do that any more. Then we never saw her again.
Justin Howard – How do you train someone to listen?
Benjamin Mathes – This is tough. You aren’t really training someone to listen, you are reminding them how to listen. It is kinda the deal. We do have some steps that we go through that train people to do free listening on the streets. So we talk what kind of questions to ask, and how to ask questions. What we are trying to do is to maintain an 80/20 split. So it is 80% the person and 20% you responding to them. So there is a way to do that and to teach people to do that. To give them some thoughts and some ways they can keep that conversation going. We do that and it is very quick. In fact you can download it from our website. Basically it keeps you engaged and to keep you from getting shot.
Justin Howard – And keeps the prostitutes away.
Benjamin Mathes – Yes, keeps the prostitutes from soliciting. We have been at a stabbing. It didn’t happen to us, we were just there. Which was great for the cops because when they showed up and asked about it we were like ‘Yeah, we were listening.’
Justin Howard – That brings up an interesting point. When you hear something is it private? Do they know that?
Benjamin Mathes – So the answer is yes. It is confidential, we don’t record it. We don’t record anything. So in that sense it is safe as we don’t do anything with it. How do they know that? We can’t ensure it and I can’t offer that to them first. They can ask us and I will say “Yes, it is confidential.” But this is very grass roots, very organic, there is nothing that anybody signs.
Justin Howard – It is just a principle.
Benjamin Mathes – I have been asked before, what if someone confesses a murder? Or something like that? I have talked to lawyers and we aren’t under any obligation to do anything. Not anymore then anybody would be. We aren’t trained counselors, we are just people listening to people. If someone tells us something awful, we aren’t under a legal obligation to report it. I have had people tell me things that are bad and I have had to talk through that, to see what happens.
Justin Howard – What is next for you?
Benjamin Mathes – You mean ‘Urban Confessionals?’ Well, we got a school bus.
Justin Howard – Tell me the story behind the school bus.
Benjamin Mathes – Here is my school bus story. When I started Urban Confessional four years ago, I thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a bus. We stripped the bus. We painted the bus. We gutted the bus and made it into a little hippy mobile. We drove around the country and just listened to people. That was it.” In the party vision we pull out a smoker, we cook out for everybody, and we do all these fun things. We let people know we are coming. We train people how to listen, we take communities free listenings. We just listen to people. We raise a tremendous amount of awareness for the movement and the cause. Really we are just going around listening to people. That was three or four years ago and life came into play. I was like where are we going to find a bus, how are we going to do that kind of stuff? I didn’t share this idea with anybody. I mean I shared it with friends. Right before the Holidays, I wake up and there is a text message from the East Coast that says “Do you want a school bus?”
Have you ever been faced with your dream? And be like, I don’t know if I want to do this. I was like “Yeah’ I do.” I call the guy and it turns out that somebody had found some school buses for my dad’s organization. They were going to send them over the Dominican Republic and use them for mobile computer labs. In the 13th hour, Dominican Republic was like ‘we aren’t going to take them.’ So this guy was stuck with these buses. His name is John Horton and he runs a huge Chevrolet dealership outside of Atlanta. He is this awesome country guy and so I called him. He was like “Ben, I got these buses and you want one?” I was like “Yeah.” He said “I will sell you one for a coupe grand.” I was like “Ok, cool or you could donate one.” He replied “Well I will have to think about it.”
So I go check it out when I go home for the Holidays. It was perfect! I tell him what I am going to do with it and he has to be looking at me like I am crazy. Yet by the end of our conservation he was like “I will just donate it you.” So I ask my mom “Can I park it at your old shop?” Because she runs a business and they have a shop. She didn’t even ask me any questions, she was like “Yeah, whatever. You have a school bus.”
My step-father is a diesel mechanic and we checked out the engine. So now I have a school bus. A buddy of mine calls me out of nowhere. We don’t talk too much any more. He is a genius kinda of designer, artist. He works for this big company and they build these big sets. He is like “Let’s get lunch or breakfast.” We get together and he just unloads. He was going through some hard times… These wasn’t any purpose to his job. I said “Well I have this bus.” We get all excited. So we are going to try and get his company to build it out and design it.
Then I am sitting here working with our editor, and I get a call from another buddy. Who starts by saying “Long story, but I am the head of production at a digital media company called ‘Woven’ – and we’re a big deal, we are doing all this big stuff. I want to tell the Urban Confessional story. I don’t know why I haven’t thought of this before.” I said “Well, I just got a bus…” All of these things are pretty awesome because it is on the path of doing something bigger than myself. So now the idea that I am riding, I have written a very brief pitch to send to some people to try to get more support behind it. But the idea is kinda simple, I want to go for a month and try to hit Baltimore, Selma, Ferguson. You have to do it right. You have to go in through the community. Train people to listen, to get their stories. Then go to the other side of the tracks and do the same thing. Then to try to get these people to listen to each other.
Justin Howard – If people want to participate?
Benjamin Mathes – They can just visit our website www.urbanconfessional.org
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