From the CEO

Can we talk?

Earlier this month I had breakfast with Josiah Haken. Josiah is the CEO of City Relief, a Citygate Network member organization that serves desperate and destitute people in New York and North Jersey. Since I was in Philadelphia for the unveiling of The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission’s new name — they are now known as Philly House — and since Josiah was in the Big Apple, our midpoint meeting place was Princeton, New Jersey.

Princeton is high-class. The Ivy League university that bears the town’s name is where the best and the brightest from around the world gather to connect with tenured professors and challenge each other for the betterment of the planet. I’m sure that happens — although I’m not sure how diverse the ideas are these days — but I didn’t see it. Before I caught up with Josiah, I stopped at the mall that was just starting to open. Sitting and waiting were small groups of young people, silently scrolling on their cellphones. The photo is not staged. This quartet of students sat quietly for at least ten minutes, each one engrossed in technology. They even never looked up when I moved in close and took their picture.

After Josiah and I said goodbye, I crossed the street and strolled the beautiful campus. I was amazed at how many students walking between the historic buildings and beneath the changing leaves were paying more attention to their phones than they were to where they were going. But I’m not telling you anything new. You certainly see the distraction and the absence of conversation right where you live.

Next week, we’ll be back at Amy Grant’s farm for another “Hope in the Gate” retreat. These events have been so successful, in part, because of the absence of distraction and the beautiful setting. With nothing to hijack participants’ attention and with God’s glory all around, people talk to each other. One of the chaperones/counselors who was with us at the last retreat told me that by mid-morning on the second day he was wondering why they had never done a retreat before. He said he had never seen “so many emotional walls [among the participants] torn down in such a short period of time.” People were enjoying the outdoors and talking to each other on a deep level. (Cellphones are not permitted at the retreats.)

In Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005), Richard Louv says, “Never before in history have [people] been so plugged in — and so out of touch with the natural world.” He links the lack of nature in the lives of people today with the rise in obesity, attention deficit disorder, depression, and more. In Reclaiming Conversation (Penguin Books, 2016) — which I highly recommend — Sherry Turkle tells us what happens when smart phones take over our lives. “We lose our ability to have deeper, more spontaneous conversations with others, changing the nature of our social interactions in alarming ways.” We lose our capacity for empathy, introspection, creativity, and intimacy.

Not every member organization will have the opportunity to join in on one of Citygate Network’s retreats at Amy Grant’s farm, but every member can take people into God’s creation, remove distractions, and have meaningful conversations.

Citygate Network will soon be working on a toolkit that details how to have meaningful retreats with program clients. Be watching for it. In the meantime, practice pocketing the phone when people are present. There’s a good chance the individual(s) in front of you are eager for eye contact and comforting words.