Although Sonflower Ministries is a ministry for women, we wanted to get the perspective of a man who worked with the ministry. The following is written by Al Cole, who works with the transportation ministry within SFMI.
A couple of weeks ago, Mary Lucy asked me if I’d say a few words about what it was like to be a man at women’s retreat. So here I am, badly outnumbered again and having to choose my words carefully.
Back in April, when she invited me to the retreat, she said she needed a big, strong man to help load and unload the truck, set up tables, and do “whatever else” needed to be done. She batted her eyelashes when she said this. I’ve always been a sucker for southern women.
It wasn’t long after I arrived at the retreat site—a day early to get things squared away—that I discovered I’d be asked to do things I had not signed on for.
First of all, the beanie babies. Ten minutes after we unloaded the truck, a team member handed me a bag of tiny stuffed animals and asked me to tie ribbons around their necks. I’ve been to a number of men’s retreats, and I can tell you for a fact that men don’t do beanie babies.
But I was here to serve, so I did what I was told. Later that afternoon, Pastor Rea took me out on the lake and taught me how to paddle a canoe with just one oar, like the Cherokee Indians do. I was beginning to feel more like a man again.
Then there were the pearls. No one—not even my wife—told me I would have to wear pearls. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The women started arriving on Friday, and I could see from their body language that a lot of them weren’t happy to be there. Some wore big wraparound shades and had their hats pulled down to partially hide their faces. I could relate. I didn’t know what to expect, either.
That first night, I thought it was cute—and so female—that each attendee was given a teddy bear to cuddle. We don’t pass out teddy bears at men’s retreats—and we typically don’t cuddle. And we never, ever sing “Kumbaya”. We just don’t.
I did have one expectation about the weekend. I expected to see a lot of tears being shed—after all, this was a women’s retreat. I wasn’t disappointed. There were lots of tears—rivers of tears. What I didn’t expect was that some of those tears would be mine.
The funny thing is, I never saw it coming. I was minding my own business, sitting in the back of the room, listening to a speaker talk about how she had to give up her baby many years ago and the hole it had left in her heart. Near the end of the talk, I spotted Mary Lucy in the back of the room holding a baby doll.
Okay, I thought, I get it. She’s going to walk up the aisle and present the doll to the speaker as a symbol of healing. A little corny, but definitely a woman thing. Well, Mary Lucy did what I expected. But then she turned around and invited anyone else who had an empty place in their heart to come forward and hold the doll, which she called Baby Seth.
As I watched these women—some who looked to still be in their teens—take this doll in their arms and cradle it as gently as they would a real baby, and look at the doll’s face as if they were looking into the human face of the child they had lost—a child who had been taken away from them, or maybe aborted—tears began streaming down my cheeks.
In that moment, I was feeling the same hurt they were feeling, because I, too, had lost a child, a child I would never see. I had been a party to an abortion in my twenties, and while I knew God had forgiven me for that, I carried that guilt for more than 30 years before I finally accepted His forgiveness just a few years ago. I guess God knew I still had some healing to do.
I was also shedding tears for all the hurt that thoughtless men had caused these women—men whose hearts were as cold as mine used to be, men who had abused women and abandoned them. I wanted to apologize for all the men who saw women as something to be used and then discarded. I wish that somehow every man could see this ceremony. I don’t know how a man could witness this and not be changed.
Over the course of the weekend, I saw team members shower the women with love, often in ways that appeared childish to me—giving them beanie babies, singing silly made-up songs, dancing together. But I also saw how the women responded to each expression of love, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. You could see it in their faces and how they carried themselves. They were like little flowers, blossoming right before my eyes.
Two other things stand out. One is the words ceremony. On paper, it doesn’t sound like much, but as I sat at a table with my eyes closed—I should mention that at this point I was wearing pearls—I heard women flutter by and whisper words in my ear that described how God felt about me. When one of these angels—that’s what they sounded like, angels—said the word “trusted,” it struck a chord. I had shattered trust in my marriage many years ago, and it was something I once thought might be lost forever. So the word “trusted” meant a lot to me.
I also didn’t know that as a team member I would have to make a card that said who I used to be on one side and who I now was in Christ on the other. This was getting personal—men don’t like to get personal. But the words came quickly, I wrote out my card, then forgot about it.
At the close of the evening on Saturday, I lined up with all the other team members for a procession, all of us carrying our two-sided cards. As each of us got to the front of the chapel we held up the side that described who we once were, then flipped the card over to reveal who we now were in Christ. One side of my card said, “Told I Would Hang from the Gallows at 13.” The other side read, “Free from the Bondage of Self-Doubt.”
I didn’t realize the impact this gesture would have on the attendees until Mary Lucy invited the women to come forward and pray with a team member of their choosing. One young woman knelt in front of me and asked me to pray that she would one day be able to trust a man. Another had been sexually abused by her cousin and wanted me to pray with her.
It must have taken a great deal of courage for them to approach a man, but I doubt they would have come forward if they hadn’t seen that I had once been broken myself. I don’t always know how God works, but I do know this: He is close to the brokenhearted. I saw Him use the brokenness of my past to begin to heal two other broken hearts.
You know, people are always saying, “Read this book, it’ll change your life” or “Do this or that, it will change your life.” All I know is that God is the one who changes lives and that His hand was all over that retreat. I watched Him change lives there—including my own.
And I will be back in November.