“to retreat: to step back, withdraw, rest”
When it comes to our Generous Space Retreats, and particularly our 5th annual Ontario Generous Space Retreat… the above definition of “retreat” isn’t a great fit. Let me explain why…
A month and a half ago, 140 people assembled at the YMCA Geneva Park retreat centre in Orillia, ON for our annual GS Retreat. As usual, we packed our schedule full of worship times, learning opportunities, community group and affinity group meetings, shared meals, hang-outs, and an Open Mic night showcasing the talent and humour of our community. This year, for fun, we even threw a dance party and an escape room into the mix! Our attendance was up 50% from last year, so there was plenty of added fuel for the extroverts’ enthusiasm. Although we gave each other plenty of permission to opt out of almost everything, let’s be honest: many of us pushed ourselves past our limits, sacrificing sleep for conversations that lasted late into the evening.
There were a few things we “retreated” from. We retreated from city life to the beauty and peace of lake country. (Unfortunately, we were also forced to retreat from the rain, which poured down from the heavens without ceasing all weekend long!) Some of us were retreating from difficult family and church situations, finding a much-needed release valve after a year’s worth of tension and awkwardness. Many of us were resting from something subtler: the frequent need to explain or apologize for our spiritual and sexual/gender identity. There is an indescribable inner restfulness that comes from simply being allowed to exist for one whole weekend as an LGBTQ+ Christian without needing to defend your seemingly oxymoronic self.
“For me being at the retreat was a place to feel accepted exactly as I am, a place where I didn’t have to justify or explain but simply be. In the weeks following the retreat I’m realizing that it’s possible to feel that way, to be with other Christians and feel that way, to hear a sermon and feel that way, to worship and feel that way, to be at church and feel that way. It’s exciting to me that it is possible, but I am also lamenting that we so often feel as though we have to settle for less.”
(a retreat participant)
Overall, though, the GS retreat experience is not so much a step back or a step away, but rather a step deeper, a step further in, perhaps a step wider. These steps pushed us outside our comfort zones. They were risky. This could be why many of us, when asked how the retreat was, answered with the word “intense.”
The sixty-five first-time attendees of the Ontario GS retreat this year took a risk simply by attending, especially since many of them had been hurt by past faith communities. Fifteen pastors risked joining the community for the Pastors’ Day (and the rest of us risked welcoming them!). Almost all retreaters took part in Community Group sessions, another comfort-zone-stretching aspect of the retreat, during which they built trust and mutual understanding by listening to the stories of five strangers, and sharing their own. For others, the most challenging and risky step was the step back out on the dance floor, reclaiming the joy and freedom of their embodiment.
While the sessions were informative and helpful, the real beauty was in the shared conversations, both with those who shared common experiences and those whose experiences were quite different. It’s those conversations that stay with me.
(a retreat participant)
In our main sessions this year, we listened to four sets of “pair conversations,” where two people who love one another – but are very different from each other – risked asking each other difficult questions and unpacking their relationship in front of everyone! We also heard from three panels of people who are often marginalized within our community: trans people, non-monosexuals (bi/pan/queer folks), and people of colour. These gifts of vulnerability were sometimes wildly hilarious, sometimes poignant, and often uncomfortable, but never failed to increase our respect for the depth of character and breadth of difference in our community.
This retreat was another step towards the community; in knowing and understanding the rest of the letters beyond L and G.
Our much-referenced theme this year was “Both/&,” and in this vein, we challenged ourselves to make room for apparent paradoxes. We reminded one another that we can be BOTH marginalized in some areas of life (especially as LGBTQ+ people) AND privileged in other aspects of our identities. Listening to the stories of people who are often stereotyped, silenced, and excluded (even within our community of fellow exclude-ees!) was transformational. Eric, our newest staff member, unpacked some of these ideas for us in the Friday night main session. He led us in an exercise where groups were given a long list of privileges and a limited amount of money, asked to select and “purchase” some privileges, and forced to discard others. Through that exercise and through workshops about white privilege and racism, disability, and gender binaries, among others, those of us who are more privileged realized afresh how much we take for granted, and how often we dominate conversations and spaces, and were challenged to show solidarity, stepping back so that silenced/excluded voices might be heard.
I realized that I’m privileged in that I get to choose whether or not I will come out as an ally but I also get to choose whether or not I will even *be* an ally. I decided I would let people know that I’m an ally and I have—I announced it on Facebook. That opened the door for me to have some interesting discussions with people since then.
(a straight/cisgender retreat participant)
We also faced the paradox of BOTH celebrating resilience, beauty and joy together… AND continuing to regularly wrestle with confusion, disillusionment, and pain. We worked on a community art project called “You are the Beloved” that brought these themes to light. In that same vein, Ashley, a GS community member from Hamilton, led us in daily mindfulness exercises, created a quiet room for us, and taught us what it’s like to live with mental illness as an LGBTQ+ Christian. Many retreat participants commented that Ashley’s were among the most practical and helpful tools they brought home with them.
I so appreciated the opportunity to pour out support in an area of life where I often need others to pour into me. I found a beautiful gift in being able to share the resources and support given to me over the years in my quest for mental and emotional well-being. The highlight of the weekend was the paradox of finding life in beautiful exuberant joy filled moments and also in painful heartache shared in quiet moments with others.
Over the course of the weekend, several people bravely opened up about shifts in their faith, some no longer feeling comfortable defining themselves as Christians, but still finding common ground and knowing their belovedness in the GS community.
The retreat had created a shift in my self-expectation: I didn’t need to change myself for the comfort of others and their acceptance of myself. I could be me in all the tattered remnants of my faith and be affirmed and loved without agenda, without needing my faith ‘fixed.’ I was validated and heard and no one needed me to be anything. I was just asked to be, and I did.
(a retreat participant)
Our retreat culminated in a very emotional Sunday morning together (which was particularly emotional for me, as someone who was imminently leaving the Ontario community to continue working with Generous Space in Vancouver). A heartfelt, spontaneous apology from Wendy and the straight/cis folks in the room for their complicity in systems that harmed LGBTQ+ people became an unintended but perfect set-up for my sermon about finding the “Both/&” of dying and rising in the communion meal we then shared together.
The retreat ended on an unfinished note of BOTH wholeness AND brokenness, prompting us to spend the rest of the year considering how to create more safe and spacious places for our fellow beloved community members, how to advocate for one another and for ourselves, how to translate this Both/& experience as we “step back” into the beautiful mess of our everyday lives.
At the retreat, I remembered again that life with God is not narrow, but wide… All of this is not scary, given that to me a bend in the road around a corner is something that always quickens my pulse and makes me want to go forward in search of more. My head and my heart are spacious. Thank you.
(photo credits: Adam Wicklum & Maxx Wolting)
Check out our other Generous Space Retreat 2017 blog reflections HERE!