Paul Bubash, Campus Minister, and Matthew Crossett, Director of Development
Each year, Cristo Rey sends every student on at least one retreat – building community and encouraging spiritual growth. Since March, Cristo Rey’s Campus Ministry and Christian Service Department has worked hard to creatively adapt these retreats for students when they most need it.
During the first, uncertain days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department quickly pivoted this very nuanced, intimate programming to low-cost, virtual formats, using school devices and digital collaboration software. Beyond a respite for students looking for consolation in those dark days, these initial attempts provided a critical opportunity to experiment with new virtual and hybrid retreat formats, ahead of the 2020-2021 school year.
The first of these pioneering experiences – a junior retreat in March – took the form of an independent and asynchronous curated guide, leading students through readings, videos, prayer, and reflection that concluded with a group video chat for students to process their thoughts. While participants appreciated the opportunity and effort, feedback was consistent and best captured in one student’s unambiguous evaluation: “…We don’t want to watch videos or pray by ourselves.”
Over the next five months, the Department tested new approaches and polled rising seniors to improve the design of this year’s retreats. Nearly the entire rising senior class responded to one summer survey and spent almost an hour on average sharing their thoughts! Of these soon-to-be seniors, 70% said their environment at home was not conducive to making synchronous virtual retreats and 94% requested an in-person format, with social distancing and mask wearing enforced. Students remarked:
- “I think our retreats shouldn't be modeled after our virtual classes because a retreat should be sort of a getaway from school and the stress of e-learning.”
- “I think virtual would not help me because I would not be able to focus and express myself and feelings through camera.”
- “I feel like from home would be awkward, expressing our feelings or even crying into the camera, especially because our siblings and parents are nearby too.”
Based on lessons learned from spring virtual retreats, heartfelt student feedback, and public health requirements, this year’s retreats have evolved dramatically.
While safety prohibited in-person interaction for some retreats, great lengths were taken to create community in a virtual world. Over the course of a three-hour, afternoon session at this fall’s Freshman Retreat, more than 40 junior and senior students volunteered to virtually lead freshmen in small groups. Student reflections focused on the concepts of community, faith, and how COVID-19 shapes them, as well as the Ignatian themes of consolation/desolation and seeing God in all things. The freshmen listened to reflections from upperclassmen, built connections with each other, and practiced an Ignatian Examen in the form of a guided art therapy activity. To finish the afternoon, students shared their creations with one another and began writing a letter to their future self. While still virtual, this highly interactive retreat focused on conversation and physical manipulatives as a way to transcend the virtual gap. Feedback from this Freshman Retreat was overwhelmingly positive:
- “I liked the meditation, letter to my future self, and overall feeling comfortable/safe around the seniors in small groups.”
- “I really liked the art and meditation. I found it really relaxing and it helped me reflect about why I feel the way I do.”
- “I found it helpful because it helped us feel welcomed into Cristo Rey.”
These learnings also informed the first of our 2020-2021 Kairos retreats for juniors and seniors – with students sleeping at home, but spending their days at school (masked and socially distanced) to fully engage in the experience with caring adults. Our five November Kairos student leaders prepared reflections in virtual collaboration with faculty and staff and trained for over two months with Campus Ministry in both virtual and in-person sessions. These student leaders lovingly converted school spaces into safe, intimate, reflective spaces – clearing out classroom furniture and adding special touches brought from home. Several staff members also attended the retreat – assisting in small groups and giving reflection talks – as did three visiting priests who gave Communion and Reconciliation – the first in-person sacraments provided at Cristo Rey in months. Feedback from this first Kairos was even more positive than the Freshman Retreat, with students leaving very moving testimonials:
- “It was meaningful. I was able to reconnect with God. I felt like I had been distant and trying not to get involved with my religion, but the retreat helped change that."
- “It made me realize that even when you think nobody's going through some rough patches and the only person you think is going through some rough patches is yourself, it’s never like that because everyone has a story to tell. It also made me realize that we are loved by so many people and we are looked out for by many people without us realizing it.”
- “The confession part made me cry (in a good way). I felt liberated after letting everything go. Also, the speakers made me open my eyes.”
- “I think it’s not about where we are, it’s about what we do with the experience and how meaningful we make it. Yes it would have been nice to get away from home for a little bit more, but the message was still there the experience was still there, and most importantly God's presence was still there.”
This spring, the Campus Ministry and Christian Service Department will continue to build on lessons learned from these evolving experiences to best provide Cristo Rey students with this unique programming – uniquely adapted, uniquely important.