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Women Gather Online for Inspirational Retreat

April 21, 2021

Gathering from their homes in every province of Canada, 630 women came together via Zoom for the Inspirational Women’s Retreat.

The biennial conference is historically sponsored by Global Coffee Break (a program of Raise Up Global Ministries). This year, the CRCNA’s Resonate Global Mission and Faith Formation Ministries participated as well. The past seven retreats were hosted at a large church in Oakville, Ont., drawing women from around the province.

This year, however, with pandemic-related restrictions on gathering, event organizers decided to take the conference online and open it up to women across the country. Invitations were sent to Coffee Break and ministry leaders across Canada; all Canadian CRC churches also received announcements to share. In mid-March, organizers emailed to invite past participants, encouraging them to extend the invitation to others who might appreciate a chance to get together, even virtually, in a time when many are struggling with isolation.

“In a season when so much has been taken off the calendar, it seemed important to try to provide an event for women to connect,” said Marian Lensink of Global Coffee Break. “Also, in this season of loss, we felt called to bring hope.”

To help make the fellowship experience tangible, participants were given ingredient lists for a “loaded sandwich” to make and eat together on the Saturday of the event, as well as for a pavlova dessert to create later. Women also had the option, when they registered, to receive a retreat box in the mail. The box included items to use during and after the retreat, such as a devotional book, Coffee Break travel mug, notebook and pen, treats to eat, a candle, and sage seeds to plant.

Beth Fellinger, one of the speakers for the event, shared, “The emotion behind the event was intense. . . . As the names and places [of participants] flashed across the screen, the ability to connect regardless of restrictions was deeply felt. The gathering that encompassed the whole country brought deep hope to many.”

Speaker Rev. Lesli van Milligen agreed, saying, “Through the connections in this virtual retreat I saw women standing in the gap for each other without being prompted . . . by the organizers. It was a real Holy Spirit moment.”

Organizers sent several emails beforehand to create anticipation for the event, and shared a video to make sure everyone who registered knew how to access the retreat’s main sessions, breakout workshops, and times of worship and spoken-word poetry.

The theme for the conference was hope, with reflections on Jeremiah 17:7-8, which begins, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.”

Canadian worship leader and recording artist Brooke Nicholls led worship to open both the Friday-evening and Saturday-morning sessions.

Van Milligen, a regional catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries, spoke in the first main session about trusting God in hard times, leading participants through a time of lament for the different cares and trials in their lives, and encouraging them to look for ways that God has been faithful and times they’ve felt God’s presence. She pointed out that there are 30 times in the New Testament where believers are encouraged to “stand firm” in God.

Breakout workshops on Friday evening and Saturday included a variety of options such as movement therapy, making an herb wreath, guided painting, making felt flowers, learning prayer from Jesus, leading like Jesus, and understanding rhythm vs. balance — all to create opportunities for learning, creativity, and fellowship.

On Saturday morning, Lensink spoke in a main session about trusting God in community. She pointed out how society was already moving toward isolation before the pandemic — self check-outs, ATMs, pay-at-the-pump gas, online shopping — but reminded participants that we were made to live in community. If we stay rooted in God’s Word, she shared, we have what we need to contribute to others. When we all live this way, community brings benefits such as connection, places to serve, friendship, help with life, and a feeling of belonging.

The women attending the event were treated to a spoken-word poetry performance by Samantha Walkes on Saturday afternoon.

In the final main session, on Saturday afternoon, Fellinger talked about trusting God in the neighborhoods we live in. She opened the session by reading The Very Cranky Bear, a children’s book by Nick Bland. She went on to share ideas of how we can build relationships within our own neighborhoods, such as bringing baking or care packages to neighbors or setting up places to sit in our front yards. Fellinger is the regional mission leader for Eastern Canada with Resonate Global Mission.

In the registration form, participants had a chance to make a donation toward the completion of a new Discover Revelation study, which will be available in English, Spanish, and Korean. After the event, organizers informed registrants that together they had raised over $5,000, to be matched for a total contribution of $10,000 toward the project.

Reflecting on the virtual format, van Milligen shared, “As challenging as it was to plan an online gathering, there was much to gain: greater access for women who would not be able to attend something in person, a way to enter into the lives of women where they are most comfortable — their homes — and probably most comfortable to be vulnerable, and an opportunity to try new things.”

She concluded, “I love the creativity that went into this event and am praying that it will inform how we might become more hybrid in the future.”