(From March 6, not published in The Leaven)
By Heather Nelson
Snow lightly falls on the unpopulated campus at the University of Kansas. Most students snuggle in bed on this last day of rest before December finals. But nearly 50 students at the St. Lawrence Campus Center in Lawrence, Kan., gathered to hear their fate.
What is God asking of them on this early Friday morning? How would God call them to serve the community?
Students kneel before Jesus in the chapel. One by one, the lay director calls students forward.
“Chuck, you will serve as a resource and bring one person on this retreat.”
“Yes, Lord. I long to do your will.”
Months before the retreat, students commit to serve as a part of a team on a retreat called, “Koinonia.” Students lead the retreat twice a year, fall and spring, at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg, Kan.
Chuck Hollwedel, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said he served on retreat because he needed to share God with others.
“Koinonia really changed my life, and opened me up to God and His love,” Hollwedel said. “I wanted to help do that for others.”
Hollwedel served as a “resource” on the retreat. As a resource, Hollwedel gave a talk and led a small group of retreantants.
“As resources, we are looked at as leaders of the retreat,” Hollwedel said. “However, with my experience as a resource, [the retreatants] truly led the group by the profound things they would say in our discussions.”
Six groups comprise the 50-person Koinonia team. Each week the team meets to prepare for the retreat. Meetings start with breakfast followed by a meditation. Then, the teams split off to work on different tasks. Resources practice their talks; “wheaties” prepare the menu and décor; music team compiles all music for the weekend.
The lay director, Gage Shirley, and coordinator, Sarah Regan planned and organized the meetings. Regan, a sophomore at the university, assisted Shirley with the logistics of planning a retreat.
“Basically, I was the one with the watch [on the retreat],” Regan said. “Anything that Gage needed, I did.”
Ten years ago, the university hosted the first St. Lawrence Koinonia, also known as SLK. The retreat was adapted from the same retreat at the University of Illinois. Since then, the retreat has grown, and most students involved with the St. Lawrence attend the retreat before graduating.
“The retreat exists to introduce people to Christ and to allow the opportunity for people to experience Christ in a more personal way,” Regan said.
Along with many others, Regan stressed the importance of a student-led retreat, which provides students with an instant sense of community.
Sophomore Libby Grube, who served as a resource, said the with student leadership, the retreat earns a different sense of credibility.
“[It’s] not the type that comes with age or degree or experience, but the credibility that only a few years, months or even weeks ago, I was in the exact same place as some of those retreatants,” Grube said.
Another resource, junior Sam Cunningham, said that the experience is more personal when a peer is guiding you.
“Student leaders are much more approachable to other students than a teacher, faculty member, or other adult may be,” Cunningham said.
The retreat revolves around the paschal mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Koinonia lasts one weekend: Friday is “Die Day,” Saturday is “Rest Day,” and Sunday is “Rise and Go Day.” The talks for each day fall under each theme.
Retreatants take part in the sacraments, enjoy holy leisure, and grow in faith through prayer and fellowship.
Senior Beth McMillen didn’t know what to expect when signing up for the retreat. Like most others, McMillen’s friends encouraged her to go on the retreat. Others heard an announcement at mass that enticed them.
“I loved how quickly I connected with everyone that I met; I felt like I knew them for years,” McMillen said.
Like many others, McMillen applied what she learned from her peers to make changes in her life.
“One thing that stood out to me is that we must renew our love for Christ each day,” McMillen said. “I need to remind myself each day to pick up my cross, just as Jesus did for us.”
Though the retreat lasts a few days, the purpose is to extend that community well past the weekend. For this reason, a “Fo(u)rth Day” is organized to allow students to share how they’ve continued to live out Christ’s mission after the retreat. This year, Shirley and Regan challenged students to make a concrete resolution that stemmed from their experience on Koinonia.
“All weekend we speak of how to grow in personal relationship with Christ,” Regan said. “But fourth day shows that we are not meant to keep the joy of the Gospel to ourselves.”