by Douglas Duckett, Trustees President
Knox Presbyterian Church, together with Third and Montgomery Presbyterian Churches, sends a large group of high-school-age youth to the Montreat Youth Conference each June—as many as fifty some years. In 2010, when my work life changed and became more flexible, I decided to go as an adult leader to see what happened there. As I told my husband, “Those kids come back with electricity in their faces, and I need to see why.”
People have often used the phrase “the miracle of Montreat,” and I thought it was “Presbynice” hyperbole, but I saw that week that it was anything but. Something special, even remarkable and unique, happens there. That mountain retreat is a safe space, and quietly and unobtrusively, these boys and girls put down their armor. They often even put down their phones. I have seen boys weeping and telling each other that they love one another; girls who started with the defensive, oh-so-guarded reactions opening up to someone who is quite different from them. That goodness, that genuineness, is infectious. When I came home, Brett told me: “I see the same electricity in your face.” He gave me his blessing to do this every year, saying that “this may be the most important spiritual thing you do for yourself.”
Thus began a yearly journey, at least for ten years. After the first few, I became a small-group leader, meaning that on Monday morning, around thirty youth from all over the eastern United States came into my room. I did not know them, they did not know me, and no one knew each other—typically, no two youth are from the same church (or, in Montreat lingo, “back-home group”). For five days, three hours a day, this group of strangers works with me to build a community of trust, openness, love, and support. I facilitate and set the stage, but I have learned that my main role is to stand back and get out of the Spirit’s way.
Each year, I have witnessed nothing short of a “Montreat miracle.” On Tuesday, the “golden boy” whom everyone admired and was drawn to share that he has been twice hospitalized for depression and will need treatment for this his entire life—but his life is so much better now, and he encourages others to get help when they need it. I saw a room full of dropped jaws: “You? You have that???” One brave boy opened the door for everyone else to share their stories. In another year, as we were praying at the end of a session, a girl shared that she has been bulimic for 11 months and doesn’t know why, that she has never told anyone but her parents and doctor before, and as she talked, shaking and weeping, a boy moved in quietly to place his arm on her shoulders, and the girl on the other side moved closer to loosely drape an arm around her waist so that she would not stand alone. No adult suggested that, and these three were total strangers just two days before. One night during our late-night “back-home meeting,” youth from Knox, Third, and other churches in the Presbytery were talking about their lives, and suddenly a young man from Third shared the story of how difficult and violence-ridden his life was like in East Westwood, Cincinnati’s lowest-income neighborhood. For three hours, white youth from affluent families at Knox and African American families on Cincinnati’s economic margin told their truths to each other, with boxes of tissues passed around the room for those who were weeping with emotion (including me and several other adults). We blew right past curfew and talked until 2:00 a.m., and as one of my best friends from Knox said, “We should take off our shoes. We are all standing on holy ground.”
The Montreat experience is always exhausting, especially once I started serving as a small-group leader as well as working with our own youth. And it is energizing and stressful and holy. What has kept me coming back has been that glimpse of the Kingdom of God on Earth, with our youth leading the way. On the final Friday with my small group, there is always great emotion as these new friends part for their home churches far from each other. At times there is real sadness. Countless times, I have been asked: “Why can’t the whole world be like this?” Re-entry into a less loving and forgiving reality can be challenging, even traumatic. I try to teach them that “we can’t live on a mountaintop like this all the time, but you can take the mountain with you. You can take what you have learned about yourself and others, and live that out in your homes, your schools, and your churches. That is how we build the Kingdom of God.”
I don’t know if that work will continue for me, as I recognize that chapters do have beginnings and ends. But that experience has blessed and shaped me in ways for which I will always be grateful. In the eyes and voices of those youth, in that Beloved Community atop a North Carolina mountain, I have felt the grace of God, seen the eyes of our Redeemer, and felt the Spirit blow through us like a mountain breeze.