In 2009 I’d been living in the city for a little over a year, and had recently started attending Trinity Grace Church. I wanted to get connected, so I decided to jump in and attend a TGC retreat with a bunch of strangers in hopes of getting to know people at the church.
Weekend of the retreat: Friday night after work I met up with these strangers on a sidewalk in the Upper West Side and we boarded a couple 15-passenger vans to head a few hours away to Who-knows-where, Pennsylvania. The weekend would be centered around discussing a book we’d all read before the retreat, and the author, David Benner and his wife Juliet put their sabbatical on pause for the weekend to come lead our retreat. I was looking forward to getting to know my fellow retreat-ers over the conversations that would naturally unfold.
We arrived at the retreat center a few hours later, on schedule, and waited in the van while Sue Erikson, the retreat organizer, checked us in. A few minutes later she came back and made a stop at each van to make a small announcement. Here’s how I remember it: “So, there’s a little bit of a change of plans for the weekend. This is a Catholic retreat center that we’re staying at, and there will be other groups here while we’re here at the same time. And one of those groups is doing a silent retreat, which is a common thing in the Catholic tradition, so they’ve asked us to join them in doing a silent retreat, as not to disturb the other group. This means that for the rest of the retreat once you get out of the van, you’ll be mindful to be silent as much as possible, including in your rooms at night, outside around the campus, and in the hallways. You can talk quietly at meals for about 30 minutes, and in sessions to ask or answer questions. It should be a really great time of reflection this weekend!”
I couldn’t believe it.
I went to my room, silently. And went to sleep in the same room as strangers, silently. And got ready the next morning, silently. And finally made it to lunch when we’d be allowed to talk.
I sat at a table where Joelle Hattem and Caitlyn Kramer (strangers to me) were rapid firing questions to people to take full advantage of the 30 minutes we had: “What’s your name -- Where do you live -- What do you do -- Where are you from -- What’s your deal?”
I answered: “I’m Chris. I’m new. I-live-in-Brooklyn-Heights-but-I’m-maybe-trying-to-move-to-Long-Island-CIty.”
Joelle fired back: “That’s awesome. I know someone looking for a roommate to move there. I’ll connect you after the retreat.”
Fast forward a couple months, and I was moving to Long Island City to live with Sunday Ibok, the friend she put me in touch with. I stepped into a season of friendship and community that rebuilt my faith and gave me a renewed sense of hope.
The ‘surprise’ silent retreat was deeply important moment in my personal history that has undoubtedly shaped the rest of my life.