Is it wise to hold a large retreat, in person, during a global pandemic?
Around mid-summer, parishes across the diocese were just tiptoeing out of the lockdown world of virtual worship. No one knew what to expect, or how things would work as churches reopened. At this juncture, board members of the Women of The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina were discussing whether to host their annual fall retreat—in the flesh. Would the coronavirus be surging again October 23-25, when the retreat was scheduled? Would anyone be willing to attend?
Powered by faith, the board took a risk and worked for months to prepare an uplifting weekend of teaching, worship, good food, and praise music at St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center. Susan Alexander Yates, author of 15 books on Christian parenting, marriage, and family life, signed on as keynote speaker. Yet no one knew whether the women of the diocese would feel safe enough to gather.
The gamble paid off. Within two weeks of its announcement, the retreat’s registration was full—and, they had a waiting list, according to Patricia Smith, president of the board. “It was like a feast. They were so hungry to be in community that they ran to sign up,” Smith, a member of St. Paul’s, Summerville, said. The event drew almost 100 women from 22 parishes in the diocese.
Many intuitively trusted that all would go well, in spite of COVID-19. “I was not going to worry about that,” the Rev. Dr. Tabitha Wang, of St. Michael’s, Charleston, said. “I knew if you come to this camp, it’s going to be safe. Not only do they know what they are doing, but we are covered in prayer.”
Safety measures included shrinking attendance to about one-third the usual number; requiring face masks; keeping a safe distance between people in the cafeteria line; reorganizing food service to prevent communal touch points (for instance, the gloved server would hand you a piece of whole fruit, rather than your reaching into the fruit bowl); setting only four places per dining table to create more personal space. During the large teaching sessions, audience members sat in chairs separated by six feet. People respected the guidelines and seemed grateful for the opportunity to gather together, virus or no virus.
“We came wondering if it was the right decision, but we never thought of not coming,” Peg Dale, of St. Helena’s, Beaufort, said. “It’s been fabulous. Susan was the perfect person, speaking on how our God is bigger than any of our problems, or any of our fears.”
Yates has a flair for humor, often weaving in captivating stories from her life as a busy mother of five children, 21 grandchildren, and as the wife of the Rev. Dr. John Yates, rector of Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia. For example: when she was potty-training her twin toddlers, she dressed them for church in lovely dresses, but forgot to put their diapers back on before leaving home. As the tiny girls walked down the aisle at the Sunday morning worship service, they mooned the entire congregation. Yates could laugh at herself while keeping her audience smiling and engaged.
During three teaching sessions, Yates drew material from her book, Risky Faith. She spoke on the theme “Finding Shelter in Times of Uncertainty,” inspired by Ephesians 1:17-19. From the start, Yates encouraged believers to acquire a proper understanding of sin and self-centeredness. Sin must be faced, confessed, and then, let go.
“God loves a broken heart,” Yates said. “If we confess, He will forgive us and cleanse us.” Yates asked retreatants to write down any sin they felt was too big for God to forgive. Women were invited to place these sins in a bucket at the foot of a cross. On Sunday morning, after worship and Holy Communion, the notes of regret were carried outside and burned.
During her talk, Yates stressed the need to recognize the enemy, describing Satan as a hungry lion who wants to steal our joy, tempt us, and accuse us. W h e n e v e r w e find ourselves feeling guilty, we must discern the source. “Satan speaks generally, but the Holy Spirit speaks specifically,” she said. Satan fills our minds with negative feelings about our self-worth, whereas the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to a particular situation that needs addressing.
Later in the weekend, Yates expounded on the difference between spiritual growth and natural growth. As humans mature, they become more independent; as believers mature in faith, they increase their dependency on God. As people grow up, their lives become more complicated; as they grow spiritually, their lives become simplified. In the material world, people value fast results; yet spiritual growth stresses patience and waiting on the Lord.
In these uncertain times, Yates encouraged believers to avoid spiritual self-centeredness and keep their eyes locked on God. “Focus on who He is, not on your worries,” Yates said. She advised listeners to fill their minds with thoughts about God and his character traits, leaving no room for fear and fretting.
Her timely message struck a chord.
“What I kept hearing over and over in my head is, God is so big, He can deal with all of our stuff. He is bigger than all of us,” Paula Sutcliffe, of St. Helena’s, Beaufort, said.
During the weekend, Psalm 91, referencing God’s protection, came up time and again. Bishop Mark Lawrence recited the first four verses when he spoke to the crowd on Saturday, including, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings, you will find refuge.”
Bishop Lawrence recalled when his daughter Chelsea fell out of an upper-story window as a toddler, yet miraculously was unhurt. That same child, whom the Bishop believes was carried safely to the ground by angels, led the praise music during the weekend. Chelsea Lawrence Hamshaw is now the mother of four boys and the clergy spouse of Jason Hamshaw at All Saints, Florence. Chelsea sang, played the keyboard and various guitars. Sarah Lawrence, her niece, accompanied her soulfully on the violin. The Bishop joined his daughter and granddaughter for a song, playing his guitar and singing. During the worship music, retreatants stood and sang through their face masks. Many raised hands to God. Some blinked back tears of joy.
“Being together nourishes and quenches your thirst for God,” Smith said.
Besides meeting en masse, the women periodically broke into small discussion groups to dig more deeply into Yates’s teachings. In addition, on Saturday afternoon Jane Gurley led a workshop on Women Mentoring Women, using the Book of Ruth to explore how elders in the faith can disciple younger women. During this same time slot, others participated in a guided nature walk, learning more about the camp’s wildlife and ecosystems from a staff naturalist. For all, the seaside setting of St. Christopher elevated the soul. Throughout the weekend, women took advantage of unusually mild and sunny weather to spend time alone, walking on the beach, or exploring the lush, tropical grounds.
“This gives me a sense of connectedness, a sense of peace,” Joan Wynter, of Church of the Resurrection, North Charleston, said. “Just looking at the ocean, the birds, the trees, just sitting in the wilderness and thinking, makes me more appreciative of my Creator.”
Everyone agreed the retreat was a huge success, and more precious than ever after so many months of isolation. “There’s something so powerful about being in community,” Smith said.
By Pringle Franklin, St. Philip’s Church, Charleston