I was eleven-years-old when I came home from school and declared to my mother, “I am going to be a preacher someday.” I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the visceral sense of a “calling” that I carried with me from that young age. I credit my belief in that possibility to a woman named Sharon Rose, the Reverend Sharon Rose, to be more precise. Sharon was (and still is) my mother’s best friend. She worked as a staff member in a junior high school. She also was an assistant pastor at an A.M.E. Zion Church in the next city over from mine. She could preach, and preach a lot longer than any Presbyterian or Lutheran sermon I’ve heard. She could pray, also for a lot longer. She carried her Bible, with its tattered corners and notes in the margins, with her most places. And, at a crucial time in my own development, she invested in me. She talked to me about God, scripture, and prayer as well as my friends and my future. She sent me notes of encouragement that I tucked away and kept hidden next to the notes from school-age friends.
Sharon told my mother (stories I heard later in life) about how uncomfortable it could be for her, a black woman, to spend time in my hometown. The city was well-known, at least among people of color, to ooze prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Growing up and well into my adulthood, I misunderstood what Sharon was trying to tell us. Oh, I had heard outright racist remarks and knew them to be wrong and even said so publicly, but I didn’t understand the deeply systemic nature of racism and injustice – how it had shaped education, housing, health care, criminal justice, religion, and just about every other institution. Nor did I know the history of a lynching that had occurred in the late 1800s blocks away from my childhood home. What was overt in my hometown was a symptom of its history and the deep structures and embedded culture of that place – something Sharon knew and felt in her body and experienced in manifold ways.
I did become a preacher, thanks to God, Sharon, and a number of other people. I also learned that being a preacher is much more than what happens in a Sunday sermon. Our lives preach. How we live and love and lead (formally and informally) sends a powerful message to others. And in this broad sense of the word, we are all preachers . . . of one sort or another.
Our retreat center, too, preaches in who we intentionally invite into our space, in the kind of events we sponsor, whom we hire as staff, how we care for our land and buildings, and so much more. I have been living with the question of how Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, an outreach ministry and affiliate organization of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church that hosts an incredible diversity of groups and persons each year, reflects peace, wholeness, healing, justice, and care in this particular moment in the life of our country. How does our retreat center stand up for the inherent dignity, value, and equality of all persons and especially for those who are being denied that right now?
A few weeks ago, I discovered a helpful map of how persons and, I believe, organizations play distinct yet complementary roles in creating lasting social change. I summarized that in a previous post. By virtue of its mission, Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center fits into this map as a place of caregiving, healing, and guiding.
- Caregiving: nurturing and nourishing people and groups by supporting communities of care, joy, and connection.
- Healing: tending to the pain and trauma caused by oppressive systems, institutions, policies, and practices.
- Guiding: teaching, counseling, and advising through our network of leaders who are discerning and wise.
Given all this, the retreat center affirms and joins Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in its commitments to racial equity, justice, and reconciliation:
Rooted in God’s love for the whole world made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Mount Olivet Lutheran Church commits itself to promoting equality among all people, opposing racism in all its forms, working for the healing and health of our community, examining our own practices so they better align with Jesus’ vision for the world, and building relationships of trust and solidarity with people in and beyond our congregation so that we may grow together into the people God desires us to be.
Specifically, we are taking these actions:
- Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center will provide one complimentary 24-hour retreat package for persons actively leading communities of faith and non-profit organizations whose mission focuses on dismantling racism and other forms of systemic injustice. These retreats can be scheduled on designated private retreat dates as well as midweek dates with available accommodations between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
- Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center will offer free meeting space and use of all amenities for daytime retreats for churches that identify as black, brown, indigenous, or immigrant and for other communities of faith and non-profit organizations whose mission centers on racial equity, justice, and reconciliation. These day retreats can be scheduled on available midweek days between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
- Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center will sponsor a series of online retreats and, when possible, in-person events aimed at increasing diversity and cultural competency in organizations, dismantling racism in church and society, and fostering the health and healing of persons and communities impacted by systemic injustice. Full scholarships and/or discounted rates will be available for all of these events.
- Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center staff will participate in training in order to enhance the organization’s cultural competency, diversify its work of hospitality, expand its educational events, and host new groups.
We all need retreat—experiences apart for rest, reflection, restoration, and rejuvenation. We hope especially that those who those who bear the heaviest burdens of working for social change and those who like my childhood mentor, Reverend Sharon Rose, daily endure the onslaughts of unjust systems might find respite in this place as we ourselves commit to growing and working alongside them.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)