The sun is starting its ascent on a beautiful afternoon in Belmopan, Belize. Fans blew down on us to fend off the waves of heat on what would be a brutally hot day. I looked upon the first row of pews at the mass of people gathering in a loose semi-circle on the floor facing a large white stone altar. “JUBILEE,” I yelled in an effort to quiet the room. “PEACE,” everyone replied, and the room fell silent waiting for Amaris, a member of Belize’s first Happening Staff, to speak. Amaris told a powerful story about how faith had gotten her through difficult times and called for us not only to revel in our faith, but to act on it. It was personal, it was thought provoking, and it was inspiring. When the talk came to a close, members of the staff and the Happeners (the name given to students who are going through the retreat for the first time) were called to go to their small groups. I took a moment to myself to reflect on how blessed I was to be in this position and the joy I had sharing the Happening experience with our companion diocese, the Diocese of Belize.
I took part in my first Happening as a nervous 9th grader in the spring of 2011. I had been going to church for as long as I could remember and had participated in Trinity Cathedral youth groups for almost as long. And while my family and I had been attending Trinity since my 3rd grade year, I felt some distance between myself and the Church. I was a young kid trying to fit in, not knowing exactly how to do that. I went to my first Happening overnight retreat with low expectations and a healthy dose of skepticism. What I found was a group of people who inspired and changed my life forever. With its “by students for student’s format,” Happening allows an opportunity for students to mentor each other on a peer-to-peer basis. It is a place where we disconnect with the outside world and focus on our relationships with each other and with God. For me, this was a new way to worship and a new way to experience God’s love for myself and for all of his creation. I can say that I would not be the person I am today without my experiences at Happening. So when I found myself sitting down to dinner with a delegation from the Diocese of Belize in the summer of 2016 and discussing ways to help forge connections between our two dioceses, Happening seemed to be a perfect answer.
A lot of prayer, hard work, and two years of planning later, I found myself in a church in Belize surrounded by members of the Dioceses of Belize and Ohio sharing in each other’s understanding and love. We listened to other student leaders from Ohio and Belize give talks on prayer, the nature of reality, and Jesus Christ. We wrote positive notes to one another and placed them in personalized bags that surrounded the room. We sang and danced loud enough for the entire town to hear us. We broke bread and prayed together. We formed bonds and friendships together. I watched walls fall away from students who had built them up as high as they could, I saw smiles widen and hearts open as we took this journey together, and I saw faith leaders of the future emerging before my eyes.
This event was everything we could have hoped for and more. The Rev. Barbara McBride, a planner from Belize for the event, shared, “Having the youth from Ohio partner with the Belizean youth fostered our companionship ties and showed our new Happeners that faith, friendship, and fellowship transcends distance, ethnicity, and even language.” Christopher, a Happener from Belize, summed it up wonderfully when he told us that it was “nice to come to an event that let him center himself with his God and make new friends.” It is the Happening tradition that the staff of each Happening is made up of students who have gone through the retreat for themselves; Christopher will be among the leaders of next year’s Happening in Belize, a tradition that we hope will carry on through the years. In the closing service, Keisha Lang, a school teacher in Belize and the leader of next year's Happening, quoted Matthew 20:19 in which Jesus challenges us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This theme of faith in action shone through in this first Happening. Faith in action signals the continuation and strengthening of bonds between the Diocese of Ohio and the Diocese of Belize