Pre-Retreat: Organizers ironed out last-minute details
On a recent Monday evening at Wesley United Methodist Church in Cicero, Alicia Vega, Cesar Robles and Katya Mazon were finalizing details for a unique event taking place, a three-day retreat for LGBTQ youth. They are members of Q-YES ( Queer Youth Exploring Spirituality ), an LGBTQ youth ministry begun nearly a year ago at Wesley.
The June 6-8 retreat brought together LGBTQ youth for a weekend of activities designed to foster trust, promote teamwork and offer a safe space to discuss issues of spirituality and treatment of queer youth by religious institutions.
The non-demoninational retreat, which was open to LGBTQA youth ages 16-21, was held at the United Methodist Reynoldswood Camp & Retreat Center, a year round facility in Dixon, Illinois. Dixon is known as being the birthplace of Ronald Reagan, who reignited a conservative political movement. This weekend however, participants of the retreat aimed to help ignite a more spiritual one.
Alicia Vega, a member of Wesley Church,was among the adult facilitators on hand to help guide discussion and make sure that the retreat is a safe space for participants. Vega had been active in LGBTQ Latino/a and youth advocacy when she and her wife were searching for a spiritual home.
They chose Wesley because it was part of the Reconciling Network of United Methodist Churches and welcomed LGBT persons. She helped launch Q-YES almost a year ago after recognizing a need at Wesley and the community. She applied for and received two grants to begin the youth ministry and used part of the grants to provide stipends for youth facilitators Mazon and Robles.
Robles had been active in Morton College's gay-straight alliance and heard about Q-YES through Emmanuel Garcia from Project Vida's RAICES project. He joined the ministry as a youth facilitator to help LGBTQ youth but also because he had attended RAICES and had always mentioned the need for a safe place for LGBTQ youth to discuss spirituality, himself grappling at times with reconciling his spirituality with being a member of the queer community. For him, being active in QYES and planning the retreat allows him to finally have a place to do so. "The purpose of Q-YES, in general, is to explore the intersectionality of being spiritual and a member of the queer community and how those things overlap and how those things can conflict and how to resolve those conflicts."
Mazon has been active with the Illinois Safe School Alliance as and sees this as a natural extension of the work she has done with The Alliance, where she has focused primarily on collaborations with other organizations about creating safe space for LGBTQA youth. She describes herself as an ally and was recruited by Vega to be a facilitator but her role as an ally helps to connect queer youth and their allies. She wal also be one of the youth facilitators at the retreat, along with Antonio Elizondo.
Together, along with adult allies/facilitators Vega and Precious Davis, they hoped to offer participants a unique opportunity for LGBTQA youth to come together in a non-judgmental safe space and meet other youth for discussions on spirituality; to share in team-building exercises; and to enjoy activities such as canoeing, board games, archery, hiking, campfire, talent show, obstacle course and a screening of the movie But I'm A Cheerleader, surrounded by nature within a supportive environment. There were no other groups utilizing the facility that weekend, a move that was both welcome and intentional so that the group could deal with the internal and not have to worry about the external.
A youth facilitator perspective
Antonio Elizondo attended the retreat as a youth facilitator and, along with the adult facilitators, helped run sessions and partook in discussions at the retreat.
Elizondo, who is active with Project Vida, participated in the many activities and felt the weekend made an indelible impact on his work and advocacy. "This Q-YES retreat was definitely an experience that I will carry for the rest of my life," he said. "It allowed for a check-in reflection on what spirituality really looks like and means to myself as well as others. The experience provided a safe and fun space to express myself and see that it is OK that my thoughts and beliefs can compare and contrast to those of my fellow LGBTQA community members."
Elizondo said that the youth who participated came from different parts of the area including Cicero, the Chicago area and included youth of different ethnicities and who expressed/represented several identities including gender non-conforming, bisexual and allied. He described the campground as the ideal setting for the retreat. He said next steps are that were discussed included to continuing to meet and hosting a movie night in July.
A pastor's perspective
Rev. Cathryn Caliendo is the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church and both her and the congregation have welcomed Q-YES and have supported the ministry.
She said she didn't realize there was such a tremendous need for the LGBTQ youth ministry but hopes the retreat and Q-YES's presence at Wesley will have a long lasting impact on the congregation. She was attending another conference and unable to make the retreat but she has high hopes for the effects of the retreat and its impact on Q-YES and Wesley.
Caliendo said, "I would love for it to be viable and ongoing. That all the LGBT youth in Cicero and surrounding area would know this is a place they can come, be supported and be welcome."
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 773-426-2406 or visit Facebook/Q-YES.
Wesley United Church is at 6011 W. 36th St., Cicero. Contact Rev. Cathryn Caliendo at 708-863-6577.