Sometimes you must go to great lengths to connect with other people. Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirmed that recently when she took part in a weekend retreat in Kentucky, leading Bible study and mustering up the courage to do a little ziplining.
Cintrón-Olivieri was the guest of Western Kentucky, Transylvania, and Mid-Kentucky presbyteries for a joint youth gathering. Nestled in the secluded Cedar Ridge Camp on the outskirts of Louisville, the 75 youth and adult leaders focused on the theme “See and Being Seen” with Psalm 121 as the scripture reference.
“Vilmarie led the youth through a series of reflections on how we see ourselves, how do others see us? How does God see us? Those sorts of questions,” said the Reverend Doodle Harris, associate pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville. “Young people live in this selfie culture of ‘let me put my best self out there,’ so we focused on being loved despite our imperfections and vulnerabilities.”
Harris says the growth of social media in recent years has only added to the need for young people to react.
“There is this idea that everyone’s watching us and there is this need to respond to it by giving people something to watch,” she said. “Now, that person is only a small version of who you are. It’s just too hard, too scary to be completely vulnerable on social media.”
Cintrón-Olivieri started their time together having the youth create playlists of songs that either described the participants or reflected where they were right now, comparing that to the ultimate “Biblical Playlist” that is the Psalms.
“We focused primarily on the Psalms, how these reflect the human experience, the emotions shared by the psalmist, and the person’s relationship with God,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “As part of the activities, the participants wrote affirmations to each other and we ended our time together sharing how we think God sees us.”
“They get so many messages about the need for perfection. To get in the right schools, hang out with the right people, a lot of pressure to be perfect,” said Harris.
There was also a time for recreation, including a hayride, ball games, and the experience of ziplining. Cintrón-Olivieri said the zipline challenge was met with a lot of encouragement from her new friends.
“When a group is as supportive as these young people were to me, you will go far! There are so many metaphors regarding church life portrayed in this experience: from getting geared up and climbing a 40-foot high pole, letting go, trusting there’s someone at the other end ready to catch you,” she said. “There is no way I would have made it to that last rung in the ladder to the platform without having someone shouting, 'You’ve got this! We’ve got you!’ and actually meaning it.”
Harris says she considers the weekend retreat a huge success.
“We did it a few years ago with the Reverend Denise Anderson. We had done it once and had a model for it,” said Harris. “It’s the Co-Moderator piece that makes the difference. It’s the fact that the young people get access to someone so important in the church who sits down with them.”
One youth attendee, in a written summary of the retreat, described the excitement around the diversity of youth participation.
“I am so glad that this year a group of youth from the Lexington Korean Presbyterian Church came. I am half Korean and I was really excited to meet other Koreans that were not local family or family friends,” he said. “We bonded over soccer. I also enjoyed the Co-Moderator very much.”
Retreat leaders are hopeful this will become an ongoing collaboration with the three presbyteries.
“I’m grateful for a weekend at camp again, for new friends and adventures,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “Most of all, I am grateful for the privilege of walking alongside young Presbyterians whose hearts are open to experience God’s love and grace.”