A dozen women came together from September 22-24 at Irons Homestead, the Rhode Island UCC Camp and Retreat Center. Irons Homestead is described as “A sacred space that enables lives to change through encounters with God, nature and others.” The group experience was led by Valerie Tutson, a graduate of Brown University with a self-designed major, Storytelling As a Communication’s Art. A life-long member of the UCC (United Church of Christ) Valerie works ecumenically, sharing her gifts and helping others to tell the stories of their faith.
One of the first experiences we shared was learning a song from Malawi, sung in Chechewa. Valerie taught it to us, just as it had been taught to her by Masankho Banda. Translated, it said: “I see you with my eyes. I see you with my heart. I see you, fellow human, in front of me, and greet you with respect.” Throughout the retreat, we sang this song, repeatedly recognizing the innate value of every person as a beloved child of God, a valued member of God’s family.
At another gathering, we sang songs from our childhood, some learned in church school or camp. Valerie inspired us to think about how we see ourselves in relation to the name our parents had given us and how we perceive the journey each of us has taken in her life — the points of decision-making that we have navigated, the many women and men who have played a part in shaping us, the many roles we have played during our lives.
After supper on Saturday evening, we carried out a ritual called the Despacho Ceremony that is part of the spiritual traditions of the Andes mountains that Valerie had learned from her teachers in Peru. We were to make a Prayer Bundle, a collective offering that provides a way to give thanks or to release what needs letting go, a way to call in or ask for what we and the world need.
First, Valerie laid the fire. Then, starting with a clean white cloth, she laid out large sheets of white tissue paper, and in the center a large clam shell was placed. A symbol for the world? Small gummy creatures — Adam and Eve? — were placed in the shell. Special leaf bundles were placed at the four compass points. Then our hands went around and around, layering the offerings — bay leaves, special beans, rice grains, herbs, other grains, spices — around and around, each person adding her contribution to the layer, each ingredient symbolizing a different element of life, the hopes, the regrets, the ancestors, the children born, the children yet to be born. Pink flowers, white flowers — around and around.
Then the “good” stuff, the “fun” stuff we were offering up — the ginger snaps, the gummy bears, the chocolate drops — the sparkly ribbon, the brightly colored beads, the pink and blue cotton candy.
The bundle was prayed over as all hands and hearts embraced it. As the final act of this ritual, Valerie wrapped the bundle up tight, lit the fire and gently placed the bundle on the burning logs. Within seconds, the bundle felt the heat and opened up to the flames, releasing all of the prayers up into the heavens, crackling and snapping as we watched the Despacho bundle burn up, rise and disappear.
Looking back at the Women’s Retreat, Valerie said that her intention for our time together was to create and hold space for us to connect more deeply with our selves, with one another and with God and the presence of the Holy Spirit…through sharing our stories, singing and sacred ritual…and have it be a joy/full and nourishing experience, so that we could return home feeling good and energized and inspired in our day to day lives.
One participant looked back at her Retreat experience and felt “Grateful to have spent this past weekend making peace with all the women I once was. Grateful for the women who were by my side.”