KELSEY RETTKE, Staff Writer
On Saturday, Feb. 4, a group of students, Bill Conover, and I went to Angelic Organic Farms for the “A Place at the Table” Spiritual Life retreat. It consisted of a few hours of reflection and conversation about what it means to be religious or spiritual here at the college and why Beloit (being a secular school) can sometimes make it difficult to carry a faith.
We spent most of the time in the farm’s Learning Center, a small wooden, straw-insulated, very comfortable two-story building, with a kitchen that added a nice, homey touch—just enough room to house our little group of twelve. Upon sitting down, a joke was made connecting the title of our retreat, “A Place at The Table,” with the convenient irony of everyone fitting perfectly around the kitchen table. The first activity was simple: introduce ourselves and, optional, place a little token or symbol of your faith in the middle of the table.
After going around the room and hearing everyone’s unique stories about their journey of faith and their transitions during their time in Beloit’s challenging atmosphere, we all sat back and looked at what we had placed on the table. Bill remarked how he was struck with the symbolic power of the items that lay before us: a cross necklace, a mustard seed pendant, a ceramic cross, a few bibles or books of prayer, a Buddhist pin, a bookmark, and a book on Catholicism to name a few. This was a testament of our faith. Our beliefs sat together, representing why we were all there: a common question, a persistence that represented our need for familiar understanding, for a friend in the midst of doubt.
Being a person of faith has never been a question for me before. I grew up in a Christian home and was raised Presbyterian, and I have always assumed that my faith has been grounded. But coming to Beloit last semester was quite a different experience to say the least.
I’d never met some people so frank about their blatant opposition to a spiritual or religious faith. It shocked me. Those that voiced their opinions did so outright and unapologetically, though not disrespectfully, and I would find myself silenced or silent whenever a topic of Christianity or atheism came about. I reasoned with myself that my religion was my own, it was personal. And I kept it that way.
Having refused to go to any Spiritual Life activities or meetings thus far, mostly out of my own shyness and feeling that, “Maybe I’m not as knowledgeable about my religion as everyone else seems to be,” I approached Saturday’s retreat cautiously, doubtfully, and unenthusiastically.
After we had finished with introductions, we were instructed to walk around the farm a bit and reflect on what our faith means to us as a person. Each one of us has different ways of dealing with outspoken questioning, and keeping our faith strong in an atmosphere that sometimes leads us to question it.
Some people can draw on memorized scriptures and Bible passages to defend their faith, I found that although I’m not “educated” enough to delve into theological arguments, it’s okay if my faith is what carries me through. At the retreat, someone suggested that not only does being at a secular school test our faith, it strengthens it. I was given new hope that such an experience can only lead to a positive outcome.
For our last exercise we split into three groups and discussed possible ways to approach hypothetical scenarios, such as having a friend being indifferent to your faith.
What I drew most from this experience was the knowledge that my faith is my own and I have a kind of passive responsibility to defend it. It is important at a secular school such as Beloit to have these conversations where each side of the talk may hold different viewpoints. But to respectfully carry on a conversation while still holding on to your beliefs can be a difficult thing to do.
What I experienced during those few, short hours was something powerful, something comforting. I found in 12 complete strangers the same feelings that I had felt, and the same inward confusion and bewilderment at secularism (I didn’t even know what that word meant before last semester). I found, as one person in the group said, ‘a community’ of people to which I can relate my experiences and share my feelings. A group of people that understands the difficulty of being a person of faith at Beloit. For a whole semester and a half I sat in silence and shyness, unwilling to go out and talk to people, but for four hours that day, I had a great conversation. I gained a confidence in my ability to be secure in my faith. I now have a comfort in the familiarity, in the knowledge that there is a community of people here at Beloit who are willing to guide me and share with me and support me, but more importantly, they understand. And for that I am grateful.