Retreat changes world 'one conversation at a time'




“I feel like I can change the world one conversation at a time…that racial reconciliation is possible.” That’s what Florida International University student Joely Ramos had to say about her experience at the Converge Retreat held in late fall at Riverside Camp and Retreat Center in Labelle.

Florida International University student Joely Ramos, center, was one of 35 participants in the Converge Retreat held at Riverside Camp in late fall. The event included conversations about racial reconciliation, workshops and worship.

The brainchild of three Wesley Foundation campus ministers, the weekend event brought 35 students together from different races and backgrounds and encouraged them to engage each other through question and answer sessions, workshops, worship and play.

“This retreat was born out of conversations with Latricia and Katie,” said Rev. Christy Holden, campus pastor at Gulf Coast Wesley Foundation. Rev. Dr. Latricia Scriven is director of the Wesley Foundation at FAMU, and Rev. Katie Lineberger is campus pastor at United Wesley, serving Florida International University, University of Miami and Miami-Dade College.

“We talked about how we were longing to have honest conversations with each other, and what it’s like to talk to people who are different from you,” said Holden. She said the fact that “we live in a very polarized time” and that “there is need for movement toward racial reconciliation,” played into making this retreat happen.

Holden said despite the current events of the past year, including the racially-charged rally in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, she is unaware of a specific polarizing event at a Florida school campus. However, confronting stereotypes and learning about others is all part of the college experience, she said. Giving students tools to help them engage with one another was part of the weekend, with listening skills at the top of the list.

Questions posed by students to each other included: “How do you feel when you see a Confederate flag?” and “How do you feel about football players kneeling during the national anthem?” There were also questions about white privilege. “It may seem rather playful to consider these kinds of interchanges, but it seemed to help students open up and have honest dialogues,” said Holden.

Scriven has experience with the types of activities that helped facilitate communication. “There were games, like a get-to-know-you icebreaker, and we talked about what it means to listen, to mirror and affirm. The kind of things you learn in counseling or continuing professional education,” she said. “I was amazed at how transparent students were; it seemed it was easier to share with strangers, things they had wrestled with.”’

She explained that each of the Wesley Foundations is very, very different—with FAMU being almost 99 percent black, Gulf Coast sending Caucasian students and United Wesley sending a cross section of black and Latino and Caucasian students. Conversations held at the retreat were able to be safe conversations in a safe space, she said.

The Converge Retreat attendees also had times when they played together, taking kayak rides, trying archery and enjoying the camp setting. They had worship and meals together.

“It was a pleasant surprise how quickly (the retreat) became a safe space,” said Lineberger. “They quickly began to trust and to ask questions of their peers that would be a faux pas to ask in any other setting. We hope that this will open the door to other conversations,” she said.

Months later, that seems to be happening. According to Scriven, attendees have formed a “Group Me” messaging system to keep up some form of dialogue on their own.

“We definitely plan more of these types of conversations,” said Ramos. “I talked to people who looked different from myself but have the same mission. If we keep talking together, we can spread God’s love. This experience provoked me to think about this, to come to listen to someone else’s story, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We can have ongoing relationships and conversations.”

“We look at these students as future activists of the church and the country, and there needs to be cross-racial conversations like they were learning and practicing (during the retreat),” said Lineberger. “These students give me hope.”

Asked if there will be another retreat like this one, Scriven answered emphatically, “There must be!”

--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
 

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