By Shannon Philpott-Sanders
What started as Sister Carol Lehmkuhl’s women’s writing circle at the East Side Heart and Home Family Center in East St. Louis has morphed into a one-of-a-kind urban immersion retreat connecting students and groups with residents of the city to counter negative stereotypes about East St. Louis.
The retreat, called “Praying with our feet,” receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
“We had several women from the community in our writing group, who for months wrote autobiographical stories about their lives,” said Family Center employee Sarah Nash. “Once we reached the end of that, we thought long and hard about what we wanted to do with those narratives.”
Nash and Sister Lehmkuhl, OP, director and founder of the Family Center, put their heads together and came up with the idea of an urban immersion retreat, a program that would connect local women from the writing group with people unfamiliar with the city, so they can pray together, reflect and discuss the marginalization of others, and recognize historical and contemporary manifestations of oppression and racism, said Nash.
“Praying with our Feet” began as a two-hour workshop, but it wasn’t enough time, said Nash. Now, the East Side Heart and Home Family Center hosts one-day retreats that include scripture readings, movie screenings, drives around East St Louis, and facilitated group discussions with women from the writing circle.
Mae Strong, a 30-year East St. Louis resident, is one of the women who shares her stories and perceptions of East St. Louis.
“I like to talk about how community resources helped me get back on track,” she said. “If it wasn’t for resources like the Griffin Center and the Family Center, I wouldn’t have been able to get my GED, find housing or get a job to provide for my children.”
The East Side Heart and Home Family Center began in 1995 as a collaborative effort between the Family Center, Catholic Urban Programs, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in St. Louis and local leaders such as Joe Hubbard. In 1997, they built the first four homes with the help of donors and volunteers.
Strong said “Praying with our feet” helps others see that not everything about East St. Louis is negative. “East St. Louis has been nothing but good to me,” she said. “It feels good to tell the groups about my story. I shutter to think what my life would be like now without the help of the people of this city.”
During the retreats, Strong encourages the people attending the workshops to look past the crime and negative things they know about the city. “Don’t just talk about it,” she said. “Be about it – let’s do something to fix it,” she said.
Strong’s advice is what persuaded retreat participant Julia Nouse to get more involved in the community. Nouse attended the first retreat last Spring with her campus ministry team from St. Louis University. She now volunteers at the Family Center.
“I hadn’t heard anything positive about East St. Louis,” said Nouse, who is from Akron, Ohio. “It was exciting to see such a healthy community.”
Nouse said that hearing Strong’s life story was powerful. “She has lived through a lot,” said Nouse. “It was enlightening to talk with residents and discuss how we fit into the culture.”
According to Nash, the women feel empowered to tell their stories. “They take ownership of their narrative and the narrative of East St. Louis,” she said. “It’s important to tell the story of East St. Louis.”
The goal of the immersion retreat, according to Nash, is to help participants understand the context of the city. “It’s easy to just see poverty and decline,” she said. “You have to understand the history that still affects the city today.”
Growth and understanding inevitably happens at each retreat, said Nash. “They are making connections with people who live here and want to see it improve,” she said.
As the program continues to evolve, Nash said she hopes the retreats will happen more frequently and be open to the community as a whole, versus just groups and organizations.
“We want to continue molding and transforming the people who live here,” she said. “I feel hope that we can create a new story that looks better than the reality right now.”