Twice a week, small groups of people head out to the streets of Los Angeles, hold up "Free Listening" signs, and then listen to anyone who wants to talk. The Urban Confessional project, which now happens in more than a dozen other cities around the world, is based on a simple premise: People need to be heard, but it's something that doesn't often happen in a meaningful way in everyday life.
"It's easy to do," says Urban Confessional founder Benjamin Mathes. "In a way we're challenging some institutions—you don't have to be a priest, you don't have to be a counselor to be with somebody. You don't have to be anything but who you are. In doing that, I think we've taken away a lot of the barriers to human connection."
Mathes, a Los Angeles-based actor, started the project in 2012, as he was going through a divorce and looking for a way to start recovering by volunteering. As he was crossing the street one day, a homeless person asked for money; Mathes didn't have any. He ended up talking and praying with the homeless man instead—and realized that he wanted to keep doing the same thing. He convinced friends to join him on the street, offering to listen.
"People almost always respond the same way," he says. "They'll say, why are you doing this? They're totally surprised that somebody would offer to be there for them. My response is always the same: I just say, I'm doing it for you. They're like, what's the catch? I say, there's no catch."
As they listen, volunteers simply pay close attention to whatever the stranger in front of them is saying and offer some empathetic responses. They don't give advice. They don't record the conversations.
Mathes once met a young teenage girl who explained that she was celebrating 75 days of not cutting herself. Another man was on his way to jail to turn himself in. On a recent week, a man spent an hour and a half talking about his problems with his son, and crying.
"It's really changed the way I see the world," Mathes says. People are walking around with a whole lot of crap on their shoulders, and they don't always express that. We don't always know what journey everybody's going through."
Even when he's not holding up a sign, Mathes says he's now more likely to have meaningful connections with strangers—and forget his own problems temporarily. "If you start doing this, it's like you're practicing openness," he says. "I can be in Starbucks and somebody will start talking to me. And we'll be at Starbucks for an hour."
Since the project started in L.A. four years ago, it has spread to Barcelona; Lima, Peru; Sydney; Tokyo; New York; and multiple other cities. Anyone who wants to volunteer can download a basic kit of instructions.
"I really do believe we're in the noisiest time in human history, and we're desperate for someone to get out there and encourage connection in a deep way," Mathes says. "I think this is something that is healthy to inject into the circulatory system of culture, so it spreads."