Mark Twain famously quipped, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." I'm unsure what to quip about our United Church retreat and education centres. When I last wrote about them here
, we had four across Canada. Now, there are three. Tatamagouche Centre
in Nova Scotia has continued, but in 2016, Five Oaks Centre
in Ontario and Naramata Centre
in British Columbia announced that they would close. Happily, they are still open. Just.
I believe that gathering places for education, leadership training, alternative spiritual experiences and recreation are more important than ever. These are places where justice and the arts dance with the Spirit in astonishingly beautiful natural settings. They're cauldrons of creativity.
Pam Rinehart, who lives in Calgary, is on the board of Naramata Centre, which mostly serves British Columbia, Alberta and the Territories. "I had been teaching Sunday School with a friend at our local church," Rinehart said. “But I felt like a fish out of water. But at Naramata I found a whole different way of worshipping and of being. I felt I'd arrived at home."
Rinehart, who has returned to Naramata Centre with her children every summer, continued: "I want for others what I found there as a young mom. My best hope is that the Centre continues. Today, we work with other volunteers and a skeleton staff who mostly look after property maintenance. Our summer programs are in place, but it's different in that we don't have infrastructure, like cooks, so people arrange for their own meals. Still, people are optimistic."
Programming for kids, youth and adults is affordable, stimulating, safe and fun. Then as now, you might sign up for a course in art journalling, yoga, spiritual eldering, First Nations teachings, evolving faith and reiki, as well as choral or instrumental music. Rinehart said that the boards of all the centres are looking for input from people who have a program to offer or a desire to be involved.
Meanwhile, people are cautiously hopeful and quite encouraging. When well-known American singer-songwriters Jean and Jim Strathdee
were in British Columbia recently, they made the effort to travel to Naramata, which has offered popular workshops in previous years. There, they performed an impromptu concert for the volunteers working there. In fact, many young people have developed networks through the centre’s programs, and received training and a theological grounding that has impacted not only the church, but the world. For instance, Anne Spice
, a key organizer for New York City’s support for Standing Rock, attended Naramata Centre when she was younger.
Interestingly, all of these centres opened during the 1950s — the hallelujah days when the post-war economy was strong and the church membership was up, with people attending services as a matter of course. These are no longer the hallelujah days, though, as the economy is uneven and fewer people attend church regularly. Over time, the centres have responded by opening to a wider community, developing relationships with neighbouring First Nations and Metis organizations and, in the case of Tatamagouche, sustaining a partnership with Guatemalans. So in my mind, these centres continue to do critical work. And that's no exaggeration.