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Retreat Lets Lawmakers Reflect in Solitude on Uncertain World

Several members of Congress gather at a religious center to unwind and put the conflicts of the day in perspective.

January 25, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — It was a spiritual retreat for a small group of members of Congress. They had spent too many days in the last few months consumed with the subjects of war and economics. This was a rare opportunity for solitude and self-reflection. Put simply, they needed to come up for air.

"These are people who are incredibly busy helping run our country," said the Rev. W. Douglas Tanner Jr., one of the retreat organizers. "It's been especially stressful since 9/11. They are constantly on the run, and they have to listen to a lot of noise about all the issues we face today. So this is an oasis in the desert for them."

In the long run, a spiritual retreat probably won't change any votes, said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), who helped bring her colleagues together for the three-day session at the Immaculate Heart Center for Spiritual Renewal on the sprawling grounds of La Casa de Maria Retreat Center in the Montecito hills.

But the sessions could change some attitudes, put the conflicts of the day in some perspective and give participants a chance to dwell on positive approaches to national problems, she said.

"What I got out of this weekend was an occasion to give voice to a yearning inside me," she said. "All of us have a heart and a soul and a yearning for a sense of peace and serenity. You have to make time for faith."

For busy members of Congress, there are few opportunities to do that, said Father Daniel Coughlin, chaplain of the House of Representatives.

"There are two or so a year that are like this one," he said. "There are other retreats, but not with the same emphasis on faith. There is a congressional prayer breakfast every Thursday that about 40 members attend. But retreats like these are rare, and they have a special value.

"Alone time is specially valuable for these people," he added. "Most of them are public speakers.... They hit the ground running day after day. It's extremely important that they have time like this to just listen to other people."

Among those attending the mid-January retreat were Republican Reps. Vernon J. Ehlers and Fred Upton of Michigan and Cliff Stearns of Florida, Democratic Reps. Capps and Lynn C. Woolsey of Petaluma, and former Rep. Tom Sawyer of Ohio.

"Our lives are always busy, so time for reflection is always important," Woolsey said. "Of course, it's more important now than ever. We need to remember that there is a spirit out there more powerful than any of these people who are trying to save or destroy the world."

Though the main thrust of the retreat was to provide a spiritual break for participants, the event also had a personal significance for Capps. Her late husband, Walter Capps, was a professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara for 33 years before his election to Congress in 1996. She was elected after his death in 1997.

In part because of her husband's deep interest in religion, the retreat was "a beautiful, beautiful experience," she said.

The retreat brought together an organization called the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, leaders of a civil rights history project called Veterans of Hope, and the resources of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at UC Santa Barbara.

The Veterans of Hope project is an educational initiative headed by two longtime civil rights activists: Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding.

Affiliated with the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, the Hardings have spent years collecting oral histories from dozens of front-line participants in what they describe as "the social transformation for the 21st century."

Sessions of this sort are crucial for U.S. leaders, who need to take time off to think about the spiritual side of their lives, especially in the months since the start of the nation's war on terrorism, Coughlin said.

"Religious experience changes minds, hearts, societies," he said. "Remember that we vacated the Capitol on 9/11. It was a probable target too.

"I remember on that day finding myself in this room somewhere, with all these people. And somebody said, 'What should we do?' And somebody else said, 'Let's pray.' So I led them in prayer."

Ehlers, who noted that members of the retreat group were careful not to let partisan differences distract their focus, said he typically works 80 to 90 hours a week.

"Even though you go to church every Sunday, you don't have time to think," he said.

"This is more about faith than politics. It lets you get rid of the stress."

But not for long.

"The serenity lasts about 27 minutes," Ehlers joked last week. "Once you head home and get off the plane, it's back in the rat race. I represent 600,000 people, and I am very conscientious. Next morning, I saw this enormous pile of work and said, 'Why did I go?' "

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