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Rejuvenating Hearts and Souls: Shinnyo-en Foundation’s13th Annual Retreat!

Driving through the Golden Gate Bridge in heavy fog, we were heading towards the 13th Annual Retreat at the Marconi Conference Center in Marshal, CA. Since 1999, Shinnyo-en Foundation has convened the Annual Retreat at the same welcoming and serene venue and offered the friends and affiliates of the Foundations a place and time to connect with others in the field of service, service-learning and volunteering. This year was no exception to previous years! Approximately 50 participants, some flew across the country, others came more locally, attended the Retreat and explored their own personal, cultural and spiritual roots of service from August 10th through 12th.

As the participants arrived and checked in at the Foundation’s registration table, one of the Annual Retreat’s traditions began, i.e., greeting with hugs, as if they were reunited with their best friends whom they hadn’t seen for a while. This warm, friendly greeting was elevated to a “hilariously funny” creative dance opening when Scott Flemming, from The Blake School in Minneapolis, MN, led an Olympics-inspired dance choreography.  By Friday afternoon on August 10th when all 12 groups of the participants introduced themselves and their respective organizations, the proverbial ice had been broken, and everyone, including the first-timers, felt that they had warmed up to other participants at the Retreat.

This year’s retreat titled “Exploring Your Roots of Service” consisted of both large group presentations and small group break-outs or Home Group discussions. The facilitators of the Home Groups, i.e., small intergenerational groups of six or seven participants each who met regularly throughout the Retreat, were Shinnyo Fellows from George Mason University, Seattle University and UC Berkeley matched with high school students from the Interfaith Youth Council of Orange County, CA and Youth Community Service (YCS) in Palo Alto, CA.

Throughout the Retreat, the large group presenters helped the Retreat participants examine their own identities, values, and motivations for service.  For example, Elavie Ndura from George Mason University led a discussion on the cultural roots of service by using an exercise to help us see beyond what we would normally see with our eyes about ourselves and others. Nan Peterson and Steve Herrera, two Senior Shinnyo Fellows, focused on our personal roots of service by featuring the examples of the Foundation’s Six Billion Paths to Peace in action. In addition, Leif Erickson and Shannon Smoot of YCS, Jody Kennedy and Irma Thumas of the Eastview Campus of the White Plains Public Schools, N.Y., and Scott Flemming shared how they had been actualizing the spirit of Six Billion Paths to Peace in their own work with youth.

On the morning of Saturday, August 11th, the 2012-2013 Shinnyo Fellows from the aforementioned three universities presented their initial ideas for their peace and service projects that they wish to develop and implement during their year-long fellowship. In response, both emerging and experienced leaders in the field of service offered their suggestions for additional resources or ideas to the Fellows.

A day of exploring our roots of service and a few hours of free time in the afternoon on Saturday was followed by an individually guided walking meditation labyrinth, in the evening. As in the past, several of this year’s participants also identified the labyrinth as a highlight of the Retreat and a special time to engage in self-reflection. At the end of the day, however, the optional “Open Mic” rocked Buck Hall until the curfew time. This year’s Open Mic was quite international in flavor including the reading of a French poem, Chinese singing, and Shinnyo-en chanting. The Open Mic participants walked uphill excitedly from the Buck Hall to their respective rooms feeling that they couldn’t contain their vibrant energy.

Traditionally, Sunday morning has been reserved for the participants to explore their spiritual and religious roots of service. This year, Scott Flemming lead the discussion on the same topic as he presented the diagram of “Religious,” “Spiritual,” and “Secular/Empirical” roots as some of the motivators for our desires to serve. In response to the recent shooting rampage at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, Scott asked pertinent questions such as “In light of the tragedy at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, what role might service play in bringing people from other religious and spiritual communities into relationship?” These reflective discussions on the role of service for peacebuilding was concluded with another new feature of this year’s Retreat, a guided meditation offered by Rev. Eitaro Hayashi of the New York Temple of Shinnyo-en USA. His calming and soothing tone of voice put everyone’s mind at peace and invited everyone to get in touch with what each of us cared for in our lives and the world.

As the participants engaged in the final reflection on their transformative experiences through service, they joined in small groups to make a fleece tied blanket. At a later time, the blankets will be donated to the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, CA, a community partner of Youth Community Service.

Every year, a kind of magic happens at the retreat; the participants feel renewed with inspiration and energy. They walk away with rejuvenated hearts and souls to go on with what they are devoted to doing in the field. The serene outdoor setting, occasional encounters with wild life, such as deer, rabbits, quails and beautiful flowers, at the Marconi Conference Center are certainly some of the ingredients for the magic. However, what make Shinnyo-en Foundation’s Annual Retreat so meaningful are the people who come together with the wealth of knowledge and experience, huge hearts for youth and service, and many stories to share. The magic certainly happened again this year!