The Ontario Generous Space Retreat has consistently been a life-giving and transformational event. This year, as we intentionally considered our theme of friendship, we once again encountered the richness of God’s presence with us, and the encouragement and hope of deep connection with each other. As I entered the new venue, I met some of the early bird first-timers. I could intuit some of the anxiety as they wandered around wondering, “Just what have I gotten myself into?” I so applaud the courage of those who take the risk to attend the retreat for the first time – and recognize that it alludes to the ongoing and significant need for LGBTQ2SI+ people to find and connect with meaningful community.
Generous Space has truly become like a family – and I could not be more grateful. This sense of family permeated so many aspects of the retreat. Deep friendship and chosen family go hand-in-hand.
And all of us benefit from a wider circle of friendship and family. In the warm space of freedom to be fully oneself, without reservation, encountering others who really “get” you, having your story and experiences witnessed and validated by others, and experiencing a sense of support in your journey, allows people, sometimes for the first time, to feel a sense of belonging and home. As people shared their poetry, their music, their wisdom in workshops and on panels, this sense of belonging and feeling of safety to bring one’s whole self to the table emerged again and again.
This was also experienced as our two guest speakers shared from their own stories. Evan Noodin Smith, an Indigenous, 2-Spirit, ordained, United Church clergyperson shared from their colourful journey. Evan reminded us that there are those with whom the church has broken covenant. We have failed to cultivate space and to create a sense of home and family for many that have been commonly deemed ‘sexually deviant.’ Naming particularly those in the leather community, those in the kink community, and those in polyamorous relationships, Evan reminded all of us that God is concerned with the keeping of covenant; keeping relationship; maintaining a sense of kinship – family. Evan’s talk was deeply meaningful to many in our community and unsettling for others. This paradox is the heart of Generous Space – navigating and loving across our differences.
Unpacking Generous Space’s commitment to a centred set, in contrast to a bounded set, invites us into a new approach for processing our unsettled feelings. Rather than a bounded list of positions that we agree or disagree on, used to determine who is “in” and who is “out”, a centred set discerns the kind of values that will shape our response to particular questions. This concept of centred set was unpacked in more detail during our Sexual Ethics stream: three workshops that allowed us to consider what life-giving, God-honouring values will guide our sexual ethics discernment. Many of us had experienced teaching about sexuality that was energized by shame, fear, or externally enforced control. In Generous Space we honour the agency of each person to do the discerning work of clarifying their values in the context of their faith and then commit to one another to support each other in living in alignment with those values. This was practically lived out in the extra “fishbowl” conversations on sex that many participated in.
Welcoming diversity and resisting a fear-based urge to control, censor, or silence those with controversial views isn’t without risk. But the decision to live into our value of hospitality compels us to keep asking, “Whose voices are missing?” We won’t rest until all those hidden, all those who feel the church has no place for them, and all those who have felt erased by Christians, have the opportunity to be affirmed as image-bearers of God, fully Beloved, endowed with dignity, worth, and value. Without this deep foundation, debating issues of scripture, sin, and sanctification become empty exercises.
Our second guest speaker, Thelma Eisan, served as a site pastor for the Meeting House and came out as a lesbian during her tenure there. Thelma was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. As Thelma had us laughing and crying, the simple beauty of our humanity was affirmed. We are both fragile and resilient. Child-like wonder and faith are gifts that can sustain us.
Building on steps taken in the last year, our Generous Space family continues to grow in being attuned to and advocates with those living with mental health challenges. It is our ongoing commitment in Generous Space to cultivate spaces in which those navigating anxiety, sensory overload, thought patterns that harm or hinder, or other mental and emotional burdens can participate in a meaningful and life-giving manner. This will mean that staff and volunteers access more training and resources in the year ahead. And it means that we will commit to doing the hard work of discerning how to continue to best develop and offer support during future retreats.
As I have engaged the reflections of retreat participants, I find myself profoundly grateful for the ways we are learning to love across difference. I am thankful for the friendships that were made and/or deepened. I am thankful for those who choose to connect with a distinctly Christ-centred community – even when their own experience of belief is shifting. I am thankful that we are a community so willing to offer of ourselves to each other. OGSR 2018 is over – but the seeds sown will take root and bear good fruit for a long time to come.
~ Wendy VanderWal-Gritter