It’s lonely out on the front lines.
Ask anyone who’s spent time working with homeless people, or with children on an impoverished Indian reservation. They’ll tell you that the most challenging part of their work is not long hours or low wages; it’s a lack of recognition. There’s an anonymity that comes from working with the dispossessed, and it’s painful.
Martin Cobin sensed this problem several years ago when he founded the "Honors Retreat," a weekend program offered annually through the Denver office of American Friends Service Committee. Cobin, a Quaker, is a retired university professor in the comfortable community of Boulder, Colorado.
One evening, he found himself in a group of socially concerned Boulderites. "What should we be doing for the less fortunate in our community?" they were asking. Corbin gave a silent snort, and then he reframed the question: "Why don’t we do something to support the people who are already doing this kind of work?"
And so the Honors Retreat was born.
The format is simple. People are invited to nominate those who are doing something to help others at some sacrifice to themselves, and whose efforts may not be well known. Cobin pays a visit to each nominee, expressing appreciation for their work and explaining the retreat. A small contingent of those selected—no more than a dozen, to fit in a van—gather early on a Friday morning at the AFSC Denver office.
After brief introductions, they’re off on a three-day excursion to Endaba, a wilderness retreat in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado. Much of the excursion is into themselves; Cobin has designed the retreat as an exercise in silent contemplation. He offers a series of questions for consideration, beginning with the view from the van on the journey to Endaba.
- Is there anything you see out there that you would relate to the fulfillment of potential?
- Do you feel that you have potentials that have not been realized?
- Do you think anything can be done about that?
"It’s a halfway house between a completely silent retreat and an active, organizational agenda," Cobin comments. People talk when they gather for meals and at bedtime. But they spend their time, for the most part, hiking in the forest, gazing at the mountains, and taking time to give thought to their lives.
Most participants are not Quakers and, according to Cobin, some have found long periods of silence uncomfortable. But generally the retreats have been deeply appreciated.
Sally King paints landscapes, "catching the Earth’s energy," and portraits to "catch the energy of a person." A member of the Right Sharing of World Resources Committee in Boulder Meeting, King became aware of the need for art supplies and instruction on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. For the past two years, she has spent part of her summers at Lone Man’s School near Oglala, South Dakota, working with a local educator, Gerald One Feather, to tap the rich artistic talents of Lakota youngsters.
Hers is the kind of unsung volunteer effort that is prime-time material for the honors retreat. "I was honored to be recognized," she says, "and I loved being with the other people on the retreat. Most of us artists spend so much time in isolation."
Jerry Peterson is program manager at St. Francis Center, a homeless shelter sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. Located at the edge of downtown Denver a few blocks from the Colorado Rockies’ beautiful ballpark, Coors Field, the shelter is a vision of another world. Intake workers and police officers line the entrance to a cavernous room filled with men and women bundled in overcoats. Next to a bustling business district, they sit motionless on folding chairs at folding tables. A quiet buzz of English and Spanish fills the stale air. Some sip coffee; a few read paperback books. But most of them just sit, waiting for something. Hundreds of homeless people come through St. Francis Center every day—for a shower, a place to leave messages, a clean pair of socks. Or, possibly, a job.
Jerry Peterson sits at a desk in a small anteroom, seeing a succession of people every day. His job is to try to help them find employment. On the phone, he is asked about the honors retreat he attended. "It was a very rewarding experience," he observes. "We felt a pretty good sense of community." Then he adds : "You know, many people who work in social service organizations—from time to time they question whether what they’re doing is of any value. Part of the benefit was just knowing that our work is valued, and that people do care."