Cecilia Valencia spent the night of September 9 sobbing in her room. She had just returned from a three-day retreat with Familias Unidas en Cristo, a worship group with Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Cross churches. “I came back destroyed,” said Valencia, fighting back tears. “I was supposed to come back home happy. People shouldn’t be treated like this.”
The all-female retreat (or encuentro, Spanish for “finding”) took place at Camp Whittier with approximately 80 participants ages 18 and older. Yolanda Gonzales was interested in attending the event but was unable to get time off work. She described the women from Holy Cross who invited her as joyful; they explained the retreat would be “an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and with God.” The experience for Valencia and others, however, was far from joyful.
It began with what Mireya Higuero described as “almost like a show … like a test.” For their first meal Friday night, the women were offered only a small cup of tea and some bread. “We were scolded for complaining,” she said. The leaders told the women this would be their dinner. When participants complained, the leaders revealed there was more food for the women, but when the participants went to sit down for the meal, they were told they didn’t deserve the food because they had been ungrateful, said Valencia. Higuero was bothered by the experience. “The Lord can give us tests,” she said, but humans should not.
From there, the camp explored 18 different topics, including abortion, addiction, sexual abuse, and the eucharist. Most topics were presented in the form of intensive plays, or “dynamics,” that at times used heavy profanity and depicted domestic violence and death. The acting was so convincing that at one point an attendee intervened during a scene in which a male performer appeared to beat a female performer, said Gabriela Solorzano, who, unlike Valencia and Higuero, enjoyed her time at the retreat and described it as “something very beautiful that changed my life.” Other exercises included smashing a crucifix with a hammer and tearing apart what the women were made to believe was a bible.
Each play lasted five to eight minutes, and at the end, organizers would coax the women to come forward and ask for forgiveness. Sometimes they’d yell. “They want you to feel guilty for everything,” complained Valencia. “They were fucking with our minds.” Valencia remembered the leaders talking about women wanting to leave the camp. Solorzano recalled the organizers calling these women cobardes, or “cowards.” “You can’t face these things,” she recalled them saying.
Leaders from Familias Unidas en Cristo agreed that the retreat can be emotionally taxing, but that is their intention. “Some people don’t understand otherwise,” said Carlos Barreto. The organization is molded after a Los Angeles group focused on drug prevention, and that is why some of the topics are so intense, said organizers. “We don’t hide anything; the priests have all of our lesson plans,” said Santos, who declined to give his last name.
Father Pedro Lopez of Our Lady of Guadalupe confirmed that the plays and demonstrations could be disturbing and include profanity. “It’s a dramatization,” he said, “but no one is forcibly made to stay.” The purpose of the retreat is to move beyond the hurt and get the women healing, said Lopez. He explained the camp is a starting point to get women back into the church and hopefully continue on with the organization of Familias Unidas. “The only complaint I have is that it didn’t last longer,” said participant Eva Delgado. “It was something I needed.”