I recently volunteered at a weekend retreat at the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna, NY. The retreat was for persons with disabilities and the theme was, God loves you, based on John 3:16. Some of the retreatants were in wheelchairs due to cerebral palsy, others were hearing impaired, had Down syndrome, or had some memory issues. Each retreatant was paired up with helper/s to provide companionship and in some cases nurses to ensure correct medical attention. As an aside, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), they use the term, people of determination instead of disabilities. I like the term people of determination because it positively describes the lived reality that our retreatants push through every day.
So here I am in Niskayuna, awaiting the arrival of the retreatants. Suddenly, one of our fellow volunteers leaps from her chair and runs out the front door. My heart swelled with warmth as I watched her running exuberantly to greet the van that was transporting her wheelchair-bound friend. It was such a pure, holy moment. An hour later, I received a big hug from a retreatant with Down syndrome whom I had never met before. Her parents explained that she was excited to return to this retreat after a two- year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the weekend, this retreatant would give spontaneous hugs to others. It was always heartwarming and something about her carefree sharing of love stayed with me.
Throughout the retreat, scarves, and instruments (shakers, tambourines, etc.) were provided so that all could fully participate in the Eucharistic celebration. The music team selected upbeat processional and recessional hymns and lively arrangements of the Gloria, Gospel Acclamation, and Doxology to encourage self-expression. You could tell the priests celebrating Mass were touched in an extraordinary way and even joined in by clapping to the hymns. When one retreatant offered a comment after the priest finished his homily, the priest engaged in a loving and affirming manner that made the interaction seem like a regular part of the liturgy. The retreatants enjoyed being together, sharing stories during mealtimes and breaks. There was a real sense of fellowship, oneness, and genuine care for each other. God’s love was palpable and overflowing. It was a sacred space.
As the retreat facilitator talked about the theme, God loves you, I reflected on the big hug I got from the retreatant and how joyfully the volunteer greeted her friend. Is that how much God loves me? Does God delight in me with this exuberance I witnessed? Yes, John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God gave up the life of His only child, for you and for me. Wow, that is beautiful and overwhelming! I thought I was there to help the retreatants and yet God used this retreat to remind me of the breadth, depth, and width of His love through my sisters and brothers in Christ.
If you are discerning religious life and would like to explore ways God is calling you to share this incredible message of love, please contact our Vocations team.