This year’s Generous Space Retreat ended three weeks ago, and I’ve finally recovered enough to reflect on it. Actually, “recovered” is an exaggeration. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel nearly as exhausted as I expected after this year’s retreat, and I’ll tell you why.
As Director of Community, I sometimes catch myself believing the lie that it’s my responsibility to single-handedly pastor every individual who contacts New Direction. It’s up to me to somehow produce spiritual and emotional maturity in our community. I must ensure that everyone is healing and growing and being stretched. (This lie has the delicious side effect of making me feel really, really important.)
Then I show up at our GS retreat and realize that all I have to do is get a bunch of our community into the same place, step out of the way, and watch in awe as they do all of these things for one another. Let me tell you some of the things I saw at this year’s retreat, interspersed with some quotes from participants and some great photos.
I saw our community give each other the gift of freedom.
The most common thing we heard from first-time retreat participants was the freedom they felt to finally be their full selves. There was no need to keep expending huge amounts of energy covering anything up or tiptoeing around anything. They could be open about their sexuality and gender identity without fear. They could be open about their faith (and their doubt) without fear. As one retreater put it, there was an atmosphere of “unconstrained normalcy.”
“I met people with similar and very different experiences to mine, and felt free to be completely open without hiding my identity.”
The retreat also brought other expressions of freedom. Freedom for LGBTQ+ people to use their gifts – to teach workshops, lead community groups, and play on worship teams, when many of them had been barred from doing these things at their churches in the past. Ecclesiastical barriers also broke down during our communion service, when for the first time in his life, one transgender attendee was finally able to participate in communion. Some people felt free to worship in ways they hadn’t for a long time. One workshop leader provided freedom for people to loudly express their grief. There was freedom for people stay up to all hours of the night laughing and playing irreverent board games. There was even freedom to fail, and grace to forgive, as Wendy described in her own reflections on the retreat.
“The most helpful thing for me was to just have the opportunity to be in a space with so many LGBTQ people and to know that I could be myself and feel loved and accepted. Slowly I’ve been unravelling the ways I have thought about myself and felt ashamed for my feelings and rebuilding my perceptions with love and gentleness. The retreat helped to affirm me in that process while breaking down walls and learning that it’s ok to be me.”
I saw our community teach each other how to honor difference.
One of our themes for this year’s retreat was intersectionality: the way different aspects of our identity (gender, race, sexuality, ability, nationality, income level, etc.) overlap to produce different experiences of power, privilege, discrimination, and inequity for each of us as we encounter systems of oppression in our world.
Our keynote speakers, Michael Blair, a gay Jamaican man, and Jordan Sullivan, a transgender man, educated and inspired us to see and address these inequities and receive the gifts of difference in our community.
But it was our retreat participants who brought their message closer to home (particularly the people of color, transgender people, and people with disabilities and mental health challenges in our community), bravely sharing their stories in their community groups, on panels, and in their works of art. Those of us with greater privilege saw God work powerfully through these more marginalized members, exposing our ignorance, exploding our stereotypes, and exhibiting the beauty of difference.
We have far from exhausted the potential for discussion around intersectionality, and we’ve already flagged other segments of our community we want to hear and learn from next year, including bisexual people and Side B/celibate folks. As one attendee reminded us on our last day together, our community still has a long way to go before we fully reflect and honor the multifaceted family of God, but we’re on our way. We long for the day when race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability will no longer be barriers dividing us (Gal. 3:28), but rather will inspire celebration at the variety of ways we all image God.
“I can’t say thank you enough for the opportunity to spend this weekend with such a beautiful branch of the Church, being reminded that God is drawing all life toward him/her/their self.”
I saw our community inspire one another in creative expression.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call this year’s retreat an extended poetry slam. Many thanks to Jenna Tenn-Yuk, our artist-in-residence, for unleashing this potential in our community by sharing her vulnerable, insightful spoken word pieces during our worship services, and leading a packed-out writing workshop.
Our first-ever Retreat Variety Show showcased our community’s way with words, with several poets courageously baring their souls. The evening also featured dancing, singing, a monologue, an opera solo, ukulele, and accordion. One of my favorite moments was when one participant invited all one hundred of us to sing along, acapella, to the song, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.”
These artistic expressions weren’t mere entertainment – they were tangible demonstrations that all of us (including LGBTQ+ people) are the children of a creative God, and we can take delight in co-creating with our Creator. You can find some records of this retreat creativity on Chris’ blog and Jenna’s blog.
“On the first day, someone who had found my website approached me and said, “Your poem helped me to come out.” I had never met this person before and had no idea how my story impacted them. My poetry gave this person the courage to come out, live their truths and realize they weren’t alone in their experiences.” – Jenna
I saw our community become agents in one another’s healing.
Everything I’ve already mentioned – the freedom and acceptance, the intersectional learning, and the creative expression within our community – these things were all means whereby many people received God’s healing.
But there were also other kinds of healing that took place. I saw the comfort that came when people realized that others shared their suffering; people who needed comfort & healing last year became this year’s comforters & healers (1 Cor. 1:7). I saw people letting go of grief and shame. I saw reconciliation between estranged former church members. I saw weights lifted off people’s shoulders as they were reminded in Wendy’s sermon that in Christ, all things hold together.
“I found that the retreat was a good step in moving myself back to church. I haven’t experienced corporate worship in that concentrated amount in a long time. It was really triggering at some points, but also very healing because it felt like a safe space.”
I saw the mother of an LGBTQ+ child stand in the gap for other mothers, publicly praying for forgiveness and pouring out her love for those who were estranged from their own mothers since coming out. I was overwhelmed with emotion watching so many LGBTQ+ people rush forward to hug her, since in my pastoral role, I was privy to many of their personal stories of ongoing tension with their own mothers. I knew my conversations with these people had been helpful, but I gratefully marveled at how one mother in our community could instantly channel this healing in a way I could not, simply because of whom she represented.
I saw many tears flow during communion, as the community groups, who had spent hours sharing their stories together, offered the body and blood of Christ to one another. And as I remembered the seventeen pastors who spent one day among us at this year’s retreat, I wondered at the ironic goodness of our “community-in-healing” actually being called to offer forgiveness and healing to the broader Church.
“I arrived at the retreat with the hope of learning more about this whole generous spaciousness posture as this was my first interaction with New Direction…but somewhere along the way I rediscovered a personal, engaged relationship with Jesus, developed deep relationships, learned both humility and pride, and rediscovered the Church alive and well amidst these my kin in the LGBTQ+ community.”
In his thoughts on the retreat, one of our wise leaders referred to “the sacrament of encounter with others.” When I finally let go of my own need to engineer the growth and health of our community, I found myself partaking in this beautiful sacrament at this year’s Generous Space Retreat, encountering the freed, multifaceted, creative, healing body of Christ. I am not in control, and never have been, but I am an important piece, as are my fellow community members. We are becoming something beautiful together.
If you want to join us for next year’s Ontario Generous Space Retreat, it’s already booked for May 4-7, 2017, so mark it down on your calendars. And if you’re closer to the west side of the continent, join us this year for our very first Western Generous Space Retreat, Nov. 11-13, in Hope, BC!