Love in God’s Country – A Reflection on St. Paul’s Richmond’s Parish Retreat

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting “God’s Country.” Those are the words that Dick, a member of the St. Paul’s Richmond community used to describe Shrine Mont, the location of their. I have to say, Dick was completely accurate, even prophetic, in his description of our time at Shrine Mont which ended up being a time of growth, challenge, retreat and beauty as we community experienced how to build Beloved Community together.

Part of my work with the Katallasso Movement is facilitating workshops that build the capacity of leaders to build Beloved Community. St. Paul’s invited me to facilitate the workshop Katallasso: Radical Love during their adult formation sessions. Katallasso: Radical Love is a workshop that exposes the need to pattern our lives after the example of Christ’s radical love and the workshop was broken up into four sessions

Preparing the serve Holy Communion with the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley

One: Why Beloved Community

The first session’s plenary teaching provided a theological grounding for the claim that the Church is called to build Beloved Community by looking at scripture, the Episcopal Church’s teachings and my personal experiences in the Church and/or Beloved Community. The audio link to this session is below.

Two: Follow Christ: Accept Humanity
On Saturday we learned how to form Beloved Community by following in Christ’s example of radical love. We talked about how loving one another as God’s Beloved, at all times and in all circumstances, facilitates in one another a deeper understanding of our identity as the Beloved.

Three: Follow Christ: Invite Boldly
In the third session we reflected on Christ’s ability to see the possibility in his companions before they saw it in themselves and invited/challenged them to realize this possibility – we too are called to invite others into a full realization of what it means to be the Beloved.

Four: Collective Commitment
This last session moved from individual relationships to the power of making a collective, communal, commitment to building Beloved Community. Small groups identified 4 – 6 ways that they would like to see the learning about Beloved Community applied at St. Paul’s and we debriefed the exercise together: identifying commonalities, exciting possibilities and concrete ways of moving forward. We have since decided that I will return to Richmond to do a follow-up retreat with the parish in which we learn practices of radical love: sharing our stories and reconciliation.

Small Groups at Retreat
Small groups at the retreat sharing their experiences of Beloved Community at St. Paul’s.

 

I speak for all of us in saying that the retreat was a very powerful and moving experience. I believe that most, if not all, of the participants left with a deeper understanding of Beloved Community and a desire to build Beloved Community within our relationships. This is largely due to the prep work that was done with the St. Paul’s leadership – Pete Nunnally, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley and the St. Paul’s Shrine Mont Retreat Committee to co-create the curriculum for St. Paul’s. Another major factor in the success of the weekend is the fact that this material is something that meets a deep longing in many people across the Church: we hunger for deeper connection.

One of the key “takeaways” from our time together was the reawakening to a longing to know one another on a level that is deeper than coffee hour conversation and niceties. The workshop material awakens this desire by looking at the intimate and radical way that Christ broke down boundaries to love the people with whom he interacted, despite their messy humanity. At one point I said to the group, “this is risky and hard but we need it to live.” I could sense a lightening in the room as the participants were given permission to desire and seek out deeper relationship.

Over the weekend I felt a growing sense of boldness in the participant’s willingness to ask for this type of relationship. All of us so deeply desire to be seen as the Beloved but we rarely ask to be treated with such love. This weekend people got up the courage to ask for what we all want. If the Church intends to be a place of real importance and transformation in people’s lives we must learn to name this desire and to guide one another in the habits and practices which facilitate such intimacy.

I, like the participants, felt a deep sense of connection this weekend. The leadership at St. Paul’s has built such a kind and welcoming community; from the onset of our time together I felt truly cared for by the parishioners. Looking back I think their love and care was a key factor in what made the weekend so powerful. I came into the weekend feeling a little anxious and a bit distracted by some big decisions that I’m in the process of making. I was worried that those distractions would keep me from being as fully present as I like but I was so able to connect with people at St. Paul’s that it gave me an ability to root myself down in their community – if only for a weekend. I experienced what the teaching about the ongoing nature of being the Church promises, their love for me reminded me that I was Beloved which led me to affirm that more deeply in them.

One of the most powerful moments during the workshop happened during our third session I presented a photo of children living in poverty in India. This photo was intended to facilitate discussion about our response to the fact there are people who are not living in conditions that are fit for God’s Beloved. The photo sparked contentious discourse about our ability as outsiders to name this situation as unacceptable. Despite the fact that I was feeling a little shaken and thrown I welcomed the discussion and was able to hear the concerns of the participants while maintaining my original point that at times people are living in situations that are not reflective of their true identity and it’s our responsibility to do the work of creating a world where all live in conditions that affirm who we are as the Beloved. Afterwards participants mentioned how by allowing difference and inviting growth at the same time we modeled Beloved Community. Again, the promise of what can happen when we are the Church came true … I maintained my commitment to listen to them, to affirm who they are as the Beloved and in doing so, I was offered a deep experience of God.

Often my work about what it means to be the Church today takes me to places that are developing an alternative way of being church through Episcopal Service Corp programs, living communities, emergent worship or community organizing movements but this weekend we explored a commitment to being the Beloved Community in a thriving (and somewhat traditional) parish in Virginia. It gave me great hope for the Church’s desire to be the Beloved Community in all places. Dick’s words were true; this weekend we went to God’s Country, we we’re the Church, we lived in the Kingdom and it was beautiful.

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