One of the most powerful experiences as a teacher is the journey with students who have shared their painful testimonies and the courage of students to face their pain head on — to work through these problems and understand them. This is why retreats are so important.
My ministry friends and I have noted that it is inspiring to see how students help students share and open themselves to vulnerability to help each other.
There has been some criticism of retreats like Kairos because they can get very emotional. Some have said it sets unrealistic standards for students in the development of their spirituality. The criticism I’ve heard is “a student experiences a ‘high’ from the experience that cannot be attained again. It sets unrealistic expectations for college campus ministers.”
To me this is missing the point. The goal of any retreat is for those to be present to what is being called forth from them by God – to contemplate what is happening in their lives and relate to how one can maneuver through present challenges. A retreat does not solve problems. It does not answer all the questions a student is seeking. It opens hearts to understanding where a student is in his life in regard to his spiritual development and journey.
Men’s and women’s cornerstone retreats challenge participants to view others’ witnesses to walking through storms and coming out on the other end as well. Hopefully, it will call the individual to take more steps in addressing problems spiritually.
I listened to a podcast of former MLB pitcher for the San Francisco Giants Jeremy Affeldt. Affledt’s podcast is called “Built For The Storm.”
His guest, Kevin Parker, is an entrepreneur who owns Dutch Brothers Coffee. He has developed leadership courses at Harvard University and holds a doctorate in Leadership. Parker was witness to the Columbine High School massacre. He was a young life leader at the ripe age of 25. He was the only volunteer at the school when shots rang out, and he and 500 other students hid under tables.
He was free to speak because he was not an employee of the distract and not under a gag order. Kevin stated “As the gunman got closer, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.” He was praying to God, saying, “I will live deliberately and intentionally, I don’t want to die today.” He and the students were able to escape up the stairs and the teacher who directed the students died at the hands of one of the gunmen. The trauma from the experience lives with Kevin to this day.
Kevin and his wife tried to help students heal by inviting them to their house to have a safe place to talk about their trauma. He tells a story of a student, Byron, who was in the library and witnessed tremendous loss. He asked the student to tell the story of what it was like. The student was stoic as he told the story. Kevin remarks “It was as if he was reporting a Rockies baseball game.” Kevin asked the student to tell him the story again. When the student told the story he revealed more experiences and opened up more. He asked Byron to tell it again and by the third time the student was welling with tears in his eyes and the story was a half hour long.
Kevin asked him to tell the story one more time and there were feelings and emotions and other facts being revealed. It was cathartic for Byron. Byron would stop by their house for the next 18 months to help himself heal. The student knew he was in a safe place to share.
A word of warning, this method of asking a trauma victim to repeat a story is not recommended by psychotherapists, as it may trigger a victim’s trauma from the experience and may not be helpful. I told a friend who is a psychologist that I would never have the guts to do this, and he stated “that’s not a bad thing.” He related that in some cases this methodology doesn’t move the victim forward, but keeps them trapped in their trauma. We both understood why Kevin was doing it, though. What Kevin was trying to do was help the student own his pain. In this case it sounded like he was successful.
Kevin was inspired to help Byron own his pain after reading a book from a man who was traumatized from a loss. “The Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” by Jerry Sittser, who lost his wife, daughter and mother in a car accident.
Kevin and Jeremy noted that “a buffalo runs into storms, not from them.” Jerry Sittser wrote, “You can’t go over the storm, you can’t go around the storm, under the storm. You have to go through it – it’s the only way to get to the other side.”
My therapist friend also noted that the problem with retreats is once people have presented their circumstances, they have no way to further process to help them move forward. Sometimes people will shut down again and turn within themselves having not been able to process what they need.
Ministry of presence does not find solutions for seekers, it allows them a space to work through where they are in order to know they are not alone as they walk through the storm to find the other side. It is a process. It allows people who have suffered to know they are not alone.