by Carmen Lopez Villamil
The Marconi Conference Center sits atop a hill that overlooks the bay. To reach it, one must drive through San Francisco’s famed pastel homes, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and along miles of road that twist around hilly farmland and between magnificent redwoods. This drive was only the beginning of the wonder and joy that I experienced at the Shinnyo-en Foundation’s Annual Retreat.
If you have yet to discern the setting of the retreat, feel free to reread the first paragraph. If I was unclear, the Marconi Center is beautiful. As we drove along the bay and turned into the forest on Friday afternoon, I had no idea what I would experience over the next few days. First, I met Jay: exuberant and inattentive to norms, notably, those set by Ineko. Ineko is powerful, composed, and kind. I then met my roommate, Esha, and the other high school students at the retreat. We were acquainted through an admittedly stressful name game, involving the memorization of 35 names and associated foods. In this short introduction, I discovered that everyone, from the Shinnyo-en Foudnation staff to my new friends, instantly inspired me with their charisma and passion for service, learning, and the conjunction of the two.
It wasn’t long until I figured out the purpose of the retreat. Sandra Bass, the director of the Public Service Center at Berkeley, began her workshop with her family history. Her story was of slavery, segregation, and of her parents’ triumph over systemic oppression. The social context of this history is the ground, while the ensuing values are her roots. She went on to describe family and the Public Service Center as her support system, her trunk. And the culmination, the fruit, was service, in its many manifestations. The retreat’s purpose was to help individuals discover why they serve and how their past informs and strengthens their service. It was to share our roots and our fruits, to contribute to each other’s trunks and ultimately change our shared ground.
This aim was fulfilled most crucially by a group of people I failed to mention earlier: my Homegroup. There were six homegroups, each with six people, and presumably randomly assigned. It was so random, or perhaps this was Ineko’s intent, that I first thought I could not bond or share with them. It’s a shameful revelation, but I find it difficult to talk about myself honestly. And so it began, with what I thought would be a shallow session of sharing our family’s history with a boastful conclusion of what we have accomplished. That was not the case.
By the time the first member of my Homegroup had finished talking, we were all speechless and in tears. As the second person began, I tried to listen wholly and actively, but I realized that I trusted these people and that I must be honest with them. Everyone told their story earnestly, trustingly, and forced me to do the same. Though I typically resort to sarcasm to evade sincerity, and I could not entirely discard this defense, my Homegroup pushed me – or “stretched” me – to be honest. It was empowering to share my values and history to a group of supportive strangers and to form part of that group for others.
On Saturday, after a session on restorative justice that asked us to question systems and norms, and a vulnerable iteration of show and tell (also with our homegroups and highly recommended), was Open Mic night. Nothing could have prepared me for that night. It is important to note that my arsenal of defense mechanisms, along with sarcasm, includes an avid avoidance of public vulnerability: no singing or dancing.
But my new friends, all high schoolers in California, did not share this aversion. Maybe it’s something in the water, or in their case, lack thereof? But earlier that day, we had decided to learn and perform the iconic finale of High School Musical, “We’re All In This Together.” I agreed gleefully and enjoyed our impromptu rehearsals during our free-time. It was all fun and games until we actually had to dance in front of 30 mature adults. But we did it, and there is a video somewhere that I hope you never have to see, and it was one of the most joyous and free moments of my summer.
The Shinnyo-en Foundation’s Retreat was a lot like High School Musical; it was an ideal experience of self-exploration, building relationships and pure fun. I cried and laughed, reflected and danced, ate very well and basked in the serene landscape of Northern California. It was a deeply emotional discovery of who I am and its effect on how I serve and learn. I cannot wait to keep stretching myself in everything I do and bring the impactful activities from the retreat back to the rest of the Youth Advisory Council. Above all, I ask you to challenge your assumptions, to trust others with your story, and to discover why you serve. Service-learning is a fantastic pedagogy, but its meaning rests in your reasons for doing it. They are thus worth identifying, even if it requires a little discomfort; or a highly choreographed routine in matching T-shirts.
A special “thank you” to the Shinnyo-en Foundation for creating a powerful agenda and the space for an experience like no other. We are truly grateful.