By Barb Arland-Fye
A friend pointed toward men seated in the sanctuary of St. Joseph Catholic Church in DeWitt at the conclusion of their Christian Experience Weekend (CEW). “He’s the reason I’m here,” my friend said, singling out a young man wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. “I’ve been praying for him.” She’d been praying that the young man, raw with emotion from a family tragedy, would be willing to participate in this year’s CEW. Her prayer was answered tenfold.
This young man got up and shared eloquently what had happened to him and his family and how the men at this retreat reached out to him with the love of Christ. These guys, strangers on Friday, had become a second family by Sunday.
As an ecumenical retreat experience, CEW “brings God into the heart of individuals through witness talks, time together, prayer, sacraments and the action of the Holy Spirit,” according to “The History of Christian Experience Weekends” (http://www.lakeshorecew.org/history.htm).
Deacon Mark Comer of St. Joseph-DeWitt encouraged me to do a story about CEW and how it builds community among people of various Christian faiths. But he was concerned that I might come away from my interviews with the idea that CEW is just about feeling good.
“The message you should have heard, because it was the one I heard, from everyone that spoke, was community, love, and support,” Deacon Comer told me afterwards. “The love Jesus showed us was illustrated by choice, the choice to go to the cross, not by a mushy feeling of love but a commitment to love.”
For John Tuthill of DeWitt Evangelical Free Church, CEW weekends spent with people from various faiths “creates an environment where personal relationships can be fostered, where trust can be built and where unity is based in knowing that we all share the same journey.” He said he gets something from CEW that he doesn’t get from his own church: “it’s the raw emotion of spirituality in an environment where people are open and you’re helping each other.”
Shelley Zucker, lay director for the Women’s CEW at Lourdes-Bettendorf, said the community aspect of the retreat has been especially helpful to her. “We moved here from Michigan in 2005. I felt like I have this instant group of people I know who I’m sharing my faith with and I can rely on.”
Gary Ghere, the lay director for the Men’s CEW at Lourdes-Bettendorf, made his first CEW in 1998. He’s served on a variety of teams during CEWs since then. “Every team I’ve been on, no matter how much work I put in, I get it back tenfold. You’re trying to help these candidates on their faith journey, but it helps all of us on the team with our faith journey. It really builds some great relationships among the team.”
He also emphasized the importance of community — and the power of the Holy Spirit — in the CEW retreat. “Before I went to CEW, I thought it was a one-on-one relationship with me and God … but it really helps to have community support, people who help you along the way, especially during the tough times. And they make the good times better.”
Lora Dierickx, lay director of this year’s Women’s CEW at St. Ann-Long Grove, was seven months pregnant with her first child when she made her first CEW at the parish 23 years ago. The experience left her feeling tired and overwhelmed. But the other women treated her well and she’s been involved ever since. “We raised our kids on CEW,” she said of herself and husband, Pat. Through CEW, Lora said she’s grown comfortable asking others for prayers, even at the grocery store. “I learned to say, ‘Will you pray for me?’ because it’s hard to say (that).”
When her parents, who lived out of the area, passed away in their 70s, many in Lora’s CEW community sent a card or flower. That meant a lot to her. “It’s a Christian community. They’re always there for you.”
“The focus isn’t how we are different, but the one common bond,” said Tracey and Murl McCullough of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Grand Mound. Members of the DeWitt CEW community, they added: “Every church body offers a unique gift to the community and coming together can only feed the fire and make it grow.”
CEWs in diocese
Several parishes in our Davenport Diocese host CEW weekends. St. Ann Parish in Long Grove and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf held their women’s and men’s CEWs earlier this month, as did St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt. Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton held its women’s CEW in mid-February and the men’s CEW is this weekend. Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport held its women’s CEW earlier this month. The men’s CEW is this weekend.
The Iowa City Deanery will hold its Women’s (March 6-8) and Men’s (March 13-15) CEW retreats at St. Mary Parish, Riverside. Call Jennifer Gersten at (816) 206-0754 or Cindy Hanenburg at (319) 530-0329 about the women’s CEW and Craig Slay (319) 430-3390 or John Hanenburg at (319) 621-8465 about the men’s CEW. “It’s been very rewarding,” Cindy said. “I have benefited greatly from my experience.”