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Innovative retreat makes the desert bloom

NCR Staff
Palm Desert, Calif.

It was the fourth summer that Holy Cross Fr. Ned Reidy, the Newman Center chaplain, and University of Portland, Ore., students had worked alongside migrants harvesting grapes in the Coachella Valley in the desert 100 miles east of Los Angeles. The men and women of the Hispanic picking crew, 200 strong, asked Reidy to say a Mass in the fields on his final day. The owner had agreed and said he’d donate it as a working hour for all concerned.

And there, with the sun barely up, was the altar on the back of a truck, an altar made that morning from produce boxes festooned with grape garlands. A chill was still in the crisp air as the accordions began ringing out their happy music across the miles of flatness, and the women started their liturgical dance on the tilled earth. The liturgy beckoned everyone praying in the field toward the Eucharist.

That was 20 years ago.

Reidy never went back to Portland. He didn’t stay in the fields, either. But he couldn’t escape the desert. Nor the feel of that liturgy in the fields, the dance, the music, God’s creation and abundance as the impromptu faith community gathered for Communion.

He became chaplain to Palm Desert’s two-year College of the Desert, using a small apartment -- just across the road from the present Christ of the Desert Church site -- as chapel, meeting hall and retreat center.

When Cal Tech located a senior college and graduate school on the 10,000-student site, Reidy asked San Bernardino Bishop Phillip Straling for permission to find larger premises. Straling, now Reno’s bishop, agreed.

Ned Reidy is a nut about retreats and renewal programs. In Portland he’d offered students silent weekends, personally directed retreats and Zen retreats, and he wanted something similar for Palm Desert students and parishioners at the Christ of the Desert Newman Center he’d started.

When Reidy and his team couldn’t find what they wanted, they developed their own.

With the Catholic liturgy, the scriptures and Creation Spirituality at their core, Pathfinder Renewal Weekends are now in their 20th year. They have attracted more than 7,000 people -- 90 percent of them Catholics -- from all over the San Bernardino diocese, from San Diego, from Phoenix. “I hardly knew him and he was inviting me to Pathfinder,” said Meg Leusch. Now she’s a member of the Pathfinder team.

“He drove me nuts. He nagged me to death to go to Pathfinder,” said Vince Starace, interviewed a few days before he headed up to the nearby mountain ranch to lead the parish teen Pathfinder weekend. “I went. It was a real downer. Went a second time, and it was a great awakening.” Reidy began Pathfinder weekends with high school and college students. Then he broadened it so the weekends are now intergenerational.

But what is it?

A Pathfinder weekend, Reidy replied, “provides an opportunity for people to get in touch with their own story. It’s not just a groovy weekend of hi and goodbye. It’s not indoctrination into Catholic principles or anything else. I see it as an opportunity to learn from one another. Simply, once people start talking, they feel a breakthrough in growth happening in their own life.”

The weekends take place at a ranch in a lush mountain valley 30 minutes from the church. Total cost of the Friday-Sunday weekend, meals included, is $55. The parish doesn’t take a cut. This is its prime ministry.

As Reidy explained it, Saturday morning the weekenders gather for the initial talk -- the “come away with me to a remote place” talk, from Mark’s Gospel. The speaker tells his or her own story. “This is where I am now,” says the speaker. “What in my life touches an episode or chapter or pain in your life you do not want to face?”

With that opening question the attendees, in groups of seven, begin to look within by talking out, said Reidy. Each can speak for five or six minutes, “knowing there are six people clearly interested in every word you say.”

The stories begin to be shared.

On Saturday afternoons, after horseback riding or hiking, there are separate two-hour sessions, the “Gathering of Men” and “Gathering of Women.”

Both groups together then address the weekend’s second question, Reidy said: Where does spirituality or the plan of God fit into one’s daily life?

And as people explore these questions, said Reidy, they don’t want to stop.

‘People are on fire’

“By the Sunday afternoon liturgy,” he said, “people are on fire. Not about ‘Jesus is our savior,’ but about a whole new way of men and women relating, of getting in touch with the dark side of your life without being crippled by it, a whole new way of experiencing community, of their story, their goals, their future, their gifts. Perhaps new images of God. A sense of decision to wake up, grow up,” Reidy said.

That process takes place within a specific setting, explained Kathy McCarthy, a Pathfinder team member since the initial one in October 1981.

“First there’s the desert’s contribution to all this,” McCarthy said. “Never a service goes by in this parish without someone thanking God for the glory of the desert and mountains experience.

“On a Pathfinder weekend, people get to feel they are in a sacred place,” said McCarthy, who is completing her doctorate in Creation Spirituality at Matthew Fox’s university in Oakland.

“We bring in cosmology,” said McCarthy, “that we’re not just this isolated spot. Yet the gathering is uniquely Catholic and uniquely Creation Spirituality. There is no opposition between the two.

“Pathfinder is all inclusive, all welcoming. The celebration, being able to have a happy celebration -- the setting, the liturgy in a circle, the dance -- that’s probably the essence, right there,” she said.

“Just coming out of the desert and up to the mountain top you get to see the overall. They ask: How am I doing in my life? Is this how I want it to be?” said McCarthy.

“Thousands of people have cried their tears here, shared, remembered their past and used their pain to give back to the community -- asking, ‘What could be a new ministry I could create?’ ”

And from that question have come the parish’s many ministries: from 12-step programs to a youth group, from theology classes to support groups, from peer ministry training to seminars on aging, to Tough Love.

Holy Cross Br. Carl Sternberg is on site as a spiritual life ministries director, and there is a parish-affiliated and credentialed marriage, family and child counselor, Colette Fay, nearby. Also linked to the Newman Center is Holy Cross Fr. Bill Faiella, a credentialed pastoral counselor.

The Thursday after a Pathfinder weekend is “call back,” when the attendees gather at the Newman Center to watch videos of their weekend and talk about their experience and their commitments.

On Sundays, Pathfinder people have their own 6 p.m. liturgy, to keep the spirit of renewal alive.

As Reidy drove around in his beat-up 1983 Honda Civic with 135,000 miles on it (the wipers are shot but it never rains here), or sat and talked about the parish and Pathfinder, the conversation usually, finally, returned to liturgy, Hispanic music and dance.

Two decades ago, that liturgy in the field gripped Reidy as surely as did the desert itself.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999