Over the May long weekend, 140 members of our Generous Space community (some brand new!) gathered at Trent University in Peterborough for our seventh annual Ontario Generous Space Retreat. Our theme for this year’s retreat was “from strength to strength,” often summarized as either “resilience” or “resiliency,” depending on which side you supported in our weekend-long grammar debate!
The uncontested highlight of the weekend was our keynote speaker, Rev. Liz Edman, an Episcopal priest based in Brooklyn, and author of “Queer Virtue.” In her keynote, she unpacked the the “woman at the well” passage in John 4 using a boundary-breaking queer lens that brought fresh hope to many of us who struggle to find life-giving interpretations of scripture. Liz gave us way more than a keynote presentation; she took time to get to know us, initiating countless conversations with attendees, even joining us on the dance floor and at late night hang-outs. She’s gained over a hundred Canadian friends and fans who will be following her writing for years to come! One participant said, “I have been slowly heading away from Christianity the last several years but [Liz] hooked me back in.” We also heard powerful teaching/preaching from staff members Wendy and Jamie, who drove home the fact that despite exclusion from some churches, LGBTQ+ people have an undeniable place in the kin-dom of God.
“I have felt so alone on this journey… The retreat gave me such a deep sense of safety, of being seen and accepted. I got to meet people whose experiences were like my own, people who accept me, and people who celebrate my sexuality as a part of who I am. I didn’t know how much I needed this time to breathe and be myself.”
I saw our community encourage resilience by caring for each other in tangible ways over the weekend. Thanks to generous donations to our scholarship fund (many from within the GS community), 27 scholarship recipients were able to attend, and for the first time, we had the funds to increase accessibility by offering ASL interpretation for the full retreat. We had larger-than-ever volunteer teams offering peer support, hospitality, and prayer. Retreat participants were eager to listen to each other’s stories and share their skills and ideas for everything from coping with mental illness, to making their churches safer, to decorating Ukrainian Easter eggs and tying the perfect bowtie. Together, we affirmed our resilience by singing new queer hymns and reclaiming evangelical worship songs as our own: “I’m a child of God, yes I am!”
‘We worshiped, learned, and danced with the most diverse, inclusive, loving, talented, educated, passionate-for-God group of people we have ever experienced. This is what real church is like.”
Creative self-expression tends to increase our capacity for resilience, so it’s fitting that the arts held an important place in this year’s Ontario retreat. Every main session, we heard from a Resilience Poet, some of whom are published in the brand new poetry/prayer book we excitedly launched that weekend (order your copy of “A Queer Communion” here!). Community members led workshops on writing, dance, and queer celebration (which included crafting art pieces on the topic of “what we love about being queer”). As usual, we were overwhelmed with a wealth of vulnerable and creative offerings at our Open Mic, and afterward, we all managed to express ourselves fabulously on the dance floor despite the notable absence of our beloved DJ, Danice. The “piece de resistance” was our incredible community art project, spearheaded by a community member who brought spray paint and wooden sheets and invited us to use graffiti as a way to reclaim space and voice.
“I barely even looked in the mirror. I was comfortable being me, not overthinking it, no fear of judgement. As busy as the Retreat was, it was still so restful because I was living free of the weight of anxiety or fear of judgement.”
We’re also super grateful that two marginalized groups in our community took initiative this year to vulnerably invite us into their experiences. For the first time, we hosted a workshop on Asexuality and Aromanticism, which we hope to repeat at the East Coast and West Coast Retreats in an effort to continue dispelling myths and increasing understanding. And as Wendy wrote about in her recent blog post, our Triple A members (atheist, agnostic and ambiguous about faith) held their first “Heretic Huddle,” singing songs and discussing the ways the changes in their faith have brought them fear, grief, and hope for moving forward. It was powerful for everyone present (even folks like me who still hold faith), communicating that everyone truly belongs, and that we can affirm one another’s resilience and gifts even when our spiritual journeys seem to be heading in different directions.
“I noticed relaxed muscles in my face that I had never been aware were otherwise in constant tension, and I noticed a level of spontaneity and joy that I’ve been quite guarded about in worship settings for the past decade….I felt like it was easier to be “me” than it’s been for over a decade.”
As we wrap up this retreat, and as we watch other developments in the queer Christian world, our more marginalized attendees are rightly calling us revisit and deepen past retreat themes/conversations/commitments related to intersectional justice and privilege, particularly in terms of addressing our ongoing racism and ableism. We want people who still feel unwelcome or underrepresented in our community to be able to join us in saying, as Wendy so often said, “we are beloved, we belong, we are enough, and we are here.” For our community to truly reflect the breadth of difference and diversity we see in Ontario and beyond, we need to intentionally build solidarity and safety, and we’re looking forward to doing this work together as we dream about future retreats with our beautifully resilient Ontario GS community.