This last week I spent some of my vacation time at a retreat called “Bear Your Soul” (BYS) at Easton Mountain, north of Albany, New York. I went to the same retreat last summer as well. As I understand it, the mission of this retreat is to create community for gay men (especially for “bears”) that is centered around building relationship instead of going out to the bar. BYS and Easton Mountain more generally provides a place that encourages spiritual growth, self-acceptance, and self-discovery, helping gay men to integrate body and soul.
This year, I’m feeling the need to debrief a little, so some random comments…
My two experiences at BYS have been wonderful opportunities for personal growth and making new connections. There are workshops on body issues and acceptance, spirituality, and just plain fun. One thing I like about this week is that it provides plenty of opportunity to push one’s comfort zones but what you actually participate in is totally up to you. To get the most of the week, you have to be open and willing to push yourself but making those decisions is a good way to learn where your priorities are and where you are on your journey.
As an extreme introvert, I’m a slow starter at these types of things but as time goes on I usually get into the flow of things. This second time at BYS felt more comfortable and more impactful. I pushed my boundaries in different ways than last year. One big thing was telling myself to stop feeling inadequate if I didn’t have anything to share when we were supposed to be sharing. I am who I am and that has to be good enough. It may sound corny, but I found it to be an empowering attitude that let me relax more. I also tried to push myself in little ways like trying to be more casually social when that is not necessarily in my comfort zone all the time. I don’t know that anyone noticed, but it was a conscious effort on my part.
While BYS is intentionally spiritual, it offers little that is intentionally Christian, which is both my inherited and chosen spiritual path. I didn’t miss that the first year, but I was feeling it a little this year. The people and institutions of Christianity have done so much damage to LGBTQ people in the past, I get why it might be avoided. But the progressive welcoming Christian community has grown so much in recent years. There isn’t any need to throw out Christian wisdom and insight because of the awful ways its message of love has been twisted and abused in the past. It’s better, in my opinion, to reclaim Christianity then reject it, which is a major point of the book I’m trying to finish… hopefully more on that in the future if I find a publisher 🙂
With regard to the intentional spirituality, I found it a little odd at BYS that I never mentioned (this year) that my career / calling was as a minister. It did come up a little last year, but this time around no one ever asked and I never felt the need to talk about it. In one sense, it never seemed relevant and it was nice not to have to be in a pastoral headspace. But, on the other hand, if we’re supposed to be sharing who we really are… that’s an important part of who I am. Of course, it is still part of what I say and do, part of my reflections on the world and on my personal successes and failures. My worry is if I wasn’t feeling safe coming out as a Christian minister. Gay spaces can sometimes be hostile toward Christianity, although I can’t say I felt that at BYS. Perhaps it’s more about my ego worrying about what other people will think and whether I’d feel internal pressure to be what I think others think a minister should be instead of just being who I am – a flawed human seeking connection with the Divine, trying to help others do the same.
One thing that struck me about BYS this year was the genuine desire for radical inclusivity, which is something that has also been an important goal of my local church since its inception (which is why I know it can be so difficult to achieve). While there are sincere efforts to include more men of color at BYS, what really seemed significant this year was that about 10% of the 80 or so men present were trans-men. I found it wonderful to see these beautiful men included unconditionally. I’m sure there were lots of potentially annoying questions as people sought to understand each others’ journeys but I’m not aware of any complaints or controversy on anyone’s part. I found it inspiring.
I hope I have the resources to return next year (BYS also happens in January but since I live quite a distance away I’m not sure that trip is practical in the winter). I’ve still got more self-acceptance and self-discovery to do 🙂 Not that I have to wait until then to do it… Finally, click here for a quick and dirty poem inspired by my experience.