Berry Leads Insightful, Healing Women’s Retreat for UCC Heartland Conference
The Lantern Fellowship, the UCC Heartland Conference’s women’s retreat series held twice each year, closed out its 95th anniversary year with a special September gathering led by the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development. Held Sept. 15-17, 2023, at Templed Hills retreat center in Bellville, Ohio, the “Moving by the Light” retreat gathered women of all generations in a spiritual journey and shared pilgrimage in the world.
“When I learned that it was the 95th anniversary of the Lantern Fellowship, I knew I had to use a theme that spoke to that anniversary,” said Berry. “The Emily Dickenson poem, ‘I am out with lanterns looking for myself,’ immediately came to mind. That led me to focus in on the spiritual journey — and what gets in the way of looking for ourselves.”
Berry centered the retreat around maintaining and retrieving what author Angeles Arrien calls universal healing salves: storytelling, singing, dancing, and silence. The three days also included an embodiment practice called Dancing Mindfulness and an evening drum circle.
The middle of day two also included a brief introduction to the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, which was an eye opener to many attendees. Berry “explained what CHHSM did. Many of us had no clue!” said Marcie Cassaro, a member of St. John’s UCC in Bucyrus, Ohio. “This ministry really does need to be talked about more.”
“Every retreat that we do is different and unique,” said Robin Stanley, chair of the Lantern Fellowship. “They are meant to appeal to all different women, in all stages and times of life. Elyse was able to connect musically, spiritually, and prayerfully with all of the members of our group. This led to deep discussions as well as times for lighter hearts and laughter.”
The “time for dance and the time for drumming … allowed us to engage not only our minds, but our full bodies as well,” Stanley added.
The first day of the retreat was given over to an icebreaking activity and vespers. Day two included worship, the Dancing Mindfulness workshop, and the Drum Circle workshop. The day closed with an evening ritual that included making and lighting paper lanterns. The final morning included Poetry Circles, and the creation of a group poem that Berry assembled from one-line offerings given by the participants.
“I particularly liked the music and movement worship,” said Cassaro. “Although we were all worshiping together, we were doing it with our own rhythm. Spirituality is not a cookie cutter experience. There is no right or wrong way — we need to find what works for us.”
For Judy Brizzolara, a member of Dover Congregational UCC in Westlake, Ohio, the drum circles held the biggest surprise. “Women I know to be shy and not comfortable being the center of attention — including me! — were so willing to put aside their fears and let the music take over. A few accepted the invitation to lead the room, but just about everyone got out of their comfort zone and freed their inner child with expressive movement.”
“In a time where advertising makes so many women feel bad about themselves and their bodies, it was very empowering to see the self-doubt fall away, even if only for a few minutes,” she added.
For Berry, leading an all-female retreat was a new experience. “It wasn’t until the day before the retreat that I realized that I had never had the opportunity to attend — let alone facilitate — a retreat just for women,” she said. “This made the weekend particularly special and sacred for me personally.”
Kim McGuinn, a member of Congregational UCC in Vermilion, Ohio, found meaning and joy in several aspects of the three days. “I really enjoyed the emphasis on the history of women in the church and world communities, and how music and dance was used in worship,” she said. “The drumming circle was great fun, trying out so many instruments! And the decorating of lanterns and lighting them outside was a moving and beautiful way to end the evening on Saturday.”
Several attendees mentioned the lantern exercise as one of the positives of the weekend. The session included the guiding phrases, “What would you say (or draw) to all of the women you once were? How might you honor them and who you are becoming?” Attendees drew or wrote words and phrases on the paper lanterns, the intent being to “reflect on our own light and God’s light in our lives,” said Berry.
The lantern session was the most meaningful for Stanley, too. “The most powerful worship experience occurred on Saturday night as we lit our lanterns and placed them in a circle outside,” she said. “You could feel that the Spirit was in this place, and with us throughout the weekend.”
Another poignant moment occurred Friday night, during the evening ritual. The ritual included reflecting on the Jewish concept of “Tikun Olam” and finding the light of God in our everyday lives.
“In one of the songs, the lyrics are, ‘I am sending you light, to heal you, to hold you in love,’” said Berry. “As the song was playing, one of the attendees received a text message from someone she knows in Ukraine who was heading to the front lines. She took a picture of that song and the candles. We gathered together and sent it to him. Talk about a God moment! Wow!”
Brizzolara was moved by the moment as well. “The woman, instrumental in helping children in Ukraine, shared her experiences and talked about both the strides made and the struggle to keep going,” Brizzolara said. “We joined in prayer and the Spirit was strong in our midst.”
There were joyful light moments during the retreat as well. “There were multiple times during the retreat that I was able to tap into my most ‘self’ person,” said Deb Schirm, a member of Old South UCC in Kirtland, Ohio. “Dancing with the ribbon made me feel almost 10. And when we were coloring our lanterns to put outside, I just started drawing to the music — paisley to go with the saxophone. Both were new feelings for me.”
Pam Plott of First Congregational UCC of Claridon, Ohio, found meaning in the way Berry “presented the similarities and correlation between various cultures and religions, and how we were all involved in experiencing a joyful celebration of our faith. “
Participants left for home on Sunday carrying with them a renewed sense of self and spirit. Cassaro verbalized some of what she took with her. “We need to recognize those ‘Godwink’ moments, rarely earth shattering, but subtle everyday events,” she said. “We need to look deep within ourselves to find out own spirituality. We can’t base our beliefs on what others tell us is correct. Women need to help each other on our personal journeys.”
Join Our Mailing LIst