The 2017 Christian Education Weekend | Journey From Curious to Committed

Jun 07, 2017

This post by Heather Powers first appeared in the Winged Lion Review, May 2017.

By Heather Powers

christian-education-retreat-art-project-st-marks-capitol-hilll-dcCurious and uncertain, about 60 St. Mark’s parishioners filtered into Baxter Hall on a Friday night early this year for the first session of a non-traditional Christian Education Weekend. Charlie Rupp, Youth Director Caroline McReynolds, Pete Eveleth and Heather Powers scrambled tradition to try to meet the charge of Co-Directors of Christian Education Joe Calizo and Lucy Brown to have the weekend in town, make it free, and try to reach a younger population.

At the beginning, Pete laid out the leaders’ hope for the weekend: It would begin to unleash the energy of St. Mark’s – within individuals and as a church – to serve the needs of our world at a time of great change, uncertainty, and challenge. All were told the weekend was heading towards a commitment of what each of us would be willing to do to make a difference in the world and what supports we would need to do that.

         Although we did not gather at the familiar retreat center near the ocean at Rehobeth Beach, Del., the centerpiece of the evening was a visual version of the troubled waters in which we find ourselves. It became the backdrop to attendees’ introductory words about how they were doing as they walked into the doors of our church community on the cusp of an unfamiliar federal government that would reside inside our familiar city.

Among the waves, we wrote words that indicated our community’s CURIOSITY, ANXIETY, HOPE, DESPAIR, and what here will be called READINESS. These are concepts and states familiar to those who have been involved in St. Mark’s “functional” Christian Education classes. These are the “units” that follow the church seasons of Pentecost, Advent, Christmas/Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. For that weekend the sense of the unknown and the worrisome in our national air seemed to be making these familiar ideas more fraught.

The facilitators laid out the weekend plans. We aimed to:

  1. Identify challenges in the world that concern us
  2. Identify our aspirations to make a difference and connect these aspirations to our stories and/or beliefs
  3. Identify the potential/actual barriers and/or costs to engaging in those aspirations
  4. Identify times when one was able to overcome obstacles to make a difference in the world
  5. Given the challenges and aspirations, identify things to which we would commit to doing to try to make a change in the world and identify what support we need from St. Mark’s to do this.

For our next exercise, participants wrote three challenges that they were finding most compelling in the world and then sorted their concerns into these areas: Self, personal life, family and children, community/neighborhood, church, country, and the world. With these categories, the scope at which people were focused might be made clearer.

As participants sorted themselves out, “my country” had the most members, while “the world” had the fewest. The energy and passion within Baxter Hall were palpable, with folks clearly eager to have the conversations identifying where their waters were being troubled.

The curiosity of Friday evening lay in uncovering and opening the heightened anxieties that many people had been experiencing since the November election. The two traditional “units” of curiosity and anxiety folded into each other.

The newsprint from Friday night’s discussion displayed a wide variety of concerns, including health, financial, and residential concerns related to aging; figuring out how to act on our values given the environment, so that we can live with ourselves; bridging gaps in generations, geography, political parties, income and race; degradation of the environment; discerning where to channel disillusionment and turn negative energy into an actual plan to hold elected officials accountable; maintaining balance; and staying open to conversations with those of vastly different perspectives

The resonant words of the late Verna Dozier—long-time St. Mark’s member and nationally recognized theologian–closed Friday evening’s discussion: “Holding room for another point of view doesn’t mean that you don’t stand by your opinion, but it will stop you from demonizing the other. What the world needs are people who are humble enough to know that they are not God and don’t have absolute answers and are acceptable even though they don’t.”

Saturday morning began with a free writing exercise led by Caroline, exploring the topic, “If you could do anything this coming year at all to make a difference, what would you aspire to do?” The distilled versions of these reflections were brought to the previous night’s small groups, which then discussed how their aspirations connected people’s individual stories and/or beliefs. This discussion grounded people in their roots and in their values.

When gathered again in a plenary session, the energy in the room was very different from the night before. People seemed impressed and inspired by the stories of their fellow church members. Excitement and hope blew a refreshing breeze over our troubled waters as stories about love, hope, justice, and action within systems filled conversations.

Next, we reflected on the supports that have enabled folks to take action in the past to make a difference in the world. The supports named included convictions, such as “to whom much is given, much will be required”; knowledge that one is not alone in one’s efforts; release of fear of judgment, shaming, or being labeled; fear of what might happen if one doesn’t act; knowing that people rely on you; a sense of God’s presence; the solace and inspiration of the arts; and remembering people who cannot speak for themselves.

After a lunch break, we turned to Saturday afternoon’s reading of how there is no way that Jesus’ invitation to leave everything was uncomplicated. As the Matthew 10: 34-39 reading records Jesus saying, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…”

With this to begin our creative processes of considering things that we may have to overcome, we asked participants to use a variety of art materials available to make masks that displayed the potential barriers and/or costs to their attempting to make a difference in the world. People shared their masks in small groups and then returned to attach the masks with string to the frame for a mobile in the center of the room. Our hanging centerpiece displayed striking representations of being stuck in cages, of expressions of fear, of being pulled in many directions, or of having locks on our mouths.

Standing inside this mobile, I reflected on how the disciples stood up and followed Jesus’ call and stayed with him, despite personal costs and barriers that must have whirled around and inside themselves. Then there was the crucifixion.

My workplace serves many people who have lost loved ones to homicide. Like for the disciples after Jesus’ death, for the loved ones of homicide victims, there is a scattering after a killing, but there is also a gathering back together and even a desperate urge to do so. Families and loved ones contact my organization for supplies and programs for candlelight vigils to honor the memory of their lost loved ones–to get a light to hold up in their darkness.

Similarly, the disciples gathered in their community after the crucifixion and were given the light of fire and the Holy Spirit to go out into the world. Within that spinning whirlwind, they stood up and shared the light they were given by taking action in the world. Despite their despair, they forged ahead. I invited folks to recall the courage indicated in our Christian lore, the courage to stand up in the face of so many costs and barriers.

Pete opened our next session with more wisdom from Verna Dozier’s “The Dream of God”:

The Lord’s resurrection power is as available to us, as to the twelve [apostles]. We discover that availability as we use it, as we exercise his ministry. It is never clear ahead of time, that we can or will be able to do what is appropriate. In fact, in and of ourselves, we probably don’t have what it takes…. Only by going out in faith, often with fear and trembling, do we rediscover the truth…. Jumping in is always a leap of faith, every time. Nothing scares us more than freedom. We are always afraid that freedom will degenerate into chaos–as it often does–so to escape chaos we flee to authority, which means authoritarianism.

Pete then shared his experience of choosing to make a difference in the world by stepping into the very different world of someone struggling for home, employment, income, and connection. He spoke to the barriers he had to overcome in order to do so, how he is managing this in an ongoing way, and the richness of compassion and understanding that it has brought to his life.

With these things in mind, people were asked to share stories about obstacles that they had overcome and then to reflect on Luke 9, 1-10, wherein Jesus sends his disciples into the world.

After a break, we gathered to bless and share a meal put together by some lovely volunteers. A bit tired, but dedicated, the weekend went into its promised closing question, “What are you willing to commit to doing to try to make a change in the world, and what do you need from St. Mark’s in order to do it?”

Participants expressed a wide variety of commitments. Some people’s commitments spoke to what they would do in their personal lives, like maintain their meditation practice. One person made a commitment in professional work with youth to offer mind-opening discussions that will work towards acceptance of difference. Some spoke of taking on tasks within St. Mark’s like becoming a volunteer coordinator.

One person volunteered to pursue a bystander intervention workshop being sponsored at St. Mark’s, so members could explore ways to help shield folks who are experiencing discrimination or hateful words or actions right in front of them. Some plan to continue with renewed energy what they have been doing and others plan to take on a new thing in their lives on a personal and/or communal scale. The most popular commitment was to create intergenerational dinners that would connect the older generation (largely represented) with some of the younger folks in the parish who are also passionately engaging in the world right now, but who were largely not present.

The idea of intergenerational dinners got an immediate offer from someone willing to manage the technological needs of putting this together. Some folks said that use of space for something like an ANC meeting would be good support. A number indicated that St. Mark’s energy and enthusiasm would help them to stay true to their commitments.

It was an intense weekend into which the facilitators put a lot of thought and spirit. During planning, the leaders mused about many things: whether folks would commit to efforts already in place at the church, recommit to efforts in which folks are already engaged in the world or within St. Mark’s, create new efforts within the parish, connect our efforts to efforts already in the world, move toward individual efforts outside of St. Mark’s, and/or direct this community as a whole toward communal action in the world.             Rather than coming to a consensus of action, the group at the weekend seemed to come to a consensus of energy and feeling. As a whole, we appeared bonded and consoled by our communion.

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