A One-Day Retreat on Service in the Inner City

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Suzie Knapp describes an immersion into the lives of the homeless that serves as a retreat experience (and potentially a heart-opening one) for students studying social justice. The prayer, music, activities, and reflection opportunities are described in detail.

Our sophomore class day retreat focuses on finding spirituality in the inner city. It is a kind of "urban plunge" experience within a spiritual framework, and students go on this retreat during the same semester that they take a social ethics (Christian justice) course. In the class the students have time to prepare for the experience before the retreat day and to process it for a class session or two afterward, connecting it with content in the course.

We have a wonderful facility for the homeless in San Diego--Saint Vincent de Paul Village. This residential village serves as a model for other cities by providing three hundred to four hundred formerly homeless people with all kinds of services--educational, work readiness, medical, child care-to help them get on their feet and move on to living independently after a year or two. A night shelter and a soup kitchen that serves hundreds of people every day are located across the street. We have worked closely with the volunteer coordinator to make the visit a worthwhile experience for our students. That is key to doing this kind of project--finding someone at the agency or place of service who really believes that this can be a meaningful experience for the kids-not just another field trip--and who will help to facilitate that. Of course we can't guarantee that the students will have a good experience--we can't control all the interactions they will have and who they will meet-but we try to create an opportunity for significant things to happen.

The day begins at school with a commissioning or anointing service. We share music and a Scripture passage (Luke 4:16-­21). Everyone is assigned to a small group with a peer leader. Those leaders bless perfumed oil and take it to their small-group members, and everyone's hands are blessed; then there's more song.

Things are well organized when we get to the Village. In their small groups, the students rotate through various experiences:

  • They hear speakers, who are residents of the Village, talk about how they became homeless and how the Village has turned their life in a new direction. They reflect a lot on substance abuse and sobriety, the effects of unemployment, learning job skills, attempts to get custody of children, and so on. Also, several of the staff of the Village talk about why they decided to go into this kind of work and how they keep going in it-what sustains them. So the students hear a great deal about people's journeys, and they ask lots of questions. It's quite an eye-opener for many of them.
  • They take a tour of the facility, which covers two square blocks, and they see the night shelter, the soup kitchen, dorm rooms in the residence, the medical center, the child care facility, the chapel, and so on.
  • For a couple of hours, the small group does a service project. Once we helped with construction; often we'll sort clothes, work in the soup kitchen, or paint. It may not be the "ultimate" service experience, but it's whatever needs doing at the Village that day. The students eat lunch with the residents in their dining room, play with children in the playground, and receive information about long-term volunteering.

We emphasize to students that the purpose of the day is not for the shelter to cater to our needs and create the perfect experience for us. We're there to enter into the rhythm of the Village, even if that means simply eating with a resident in the dining hall. The meaning of this day is not that a group of "haves" helps or saves a group of "have nots"--which we certainly don't do. Rather, we enter into the daily life of the Village, accompanying the people there on their journeys, creating a place where the seeds of ongoing community involvement can be planted or can continue to grow.

At the end of the day, we go back to the school for shared reflection on the experience, in small groups led by the peer leaders. One question we ask in order to focus the students' reflection is, "If you could bring back one snapshot from today, what image from all the experiences you have had would it be?" In the chapel we have a closing prayer service. One of the peer leaders gives a mini-sermon, connecting with the Beatitudes or Matthew, chapter 25, and incorporating an image she or he has in mind from the day. The students receive Jerusalem cross pins from their peer leaders as a remembrance of the day.

Examples of contemporary music that we have used, along with liturgical music, in our opening and closing prayer services for the day are "Why Walk When You Can Fly?" by Mary Chapin Carpenter; "Hammer and a Nail," by the Indigo Girls; and "Heaven's Here on Earth," by Tracy Chapman.

We also follow up the reflection in their social ethics classes for the next couple of days, tying it to the course content. We never know what is really going to stick in a student's mind. Often we hear of students who are deeply affected by the day. Some of them end up volunteering at the Village.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is, if you want to do any type of "plunge" experience, to find an agency or staff person who really believes in this kind of project, who doesn't view the students as a bother but sees the potential of this retreat day to move hearts. That staff person has to do a lot of organizing at the site to make this come off well, and a good working relationship with her or him is critical. Of course the situation is not perfect, and we continually have to try to work out the bugs.

Suzie Knapp

is a campus minister and religion teacher at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in San Diego, California. Her e-mail address is: suzknapp@sprintmail.com.


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Published April 1, 1998.