(Re)discovering God’s Love and Purpose on the Protestant Ministry Retreat

students standing in a group with a clergy woman

Kami Steffenauer (C’26) to the right of Rev. Ebony Grisom, Interim Director of Protestant Christian Ministry (center, back row) with students at the Calcagnini Contemplative Center.

Riddle me this: All things it devours. Birds, beasts, trees, flowers. Gnaws iron, bites steel. Grinds hard stone to meal. Slays king, ruins town. And beats high mountains down. What is it?

Stumped? I don’t blame you. For those of us who are fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit movie trilogy, you may recall that this is the final riddle Gollum gives Bilbo Baggins in exchange for leading Bilbo out of the caves in the first movie. Growing up as a shy preteen who had a heart set on adventure, I loved these movies to pieces; from the heroes and heroines to the enchanting scenery and the epic battles, I watched these movies religiously, losing myself time and time again in a daydream of being apart of such a magical world where good always conquered evil, the princess always got her dream boy, and everything always ended with a happily ever after. Yet as a nineteen-year-old college freshman, I can say with clear certainty that such endings are purely fiction. Yes, I still believe that dreams can come true (my acceptance into Georgetown was one of them). Yes, I still believe that good people can win against evil, and yes I still believe in the same God I met when I was just a kid. But life has twisted and turned in some nasty ways that, like many of us have experienced, have left us lying in the dust, unsure of our surroundings and questioning everything we’ve ever known. 

When I started college, I felt totally overwhelmed by everything, from relearning how to write essays to familiarizing myself with a brand new city and adjusting to the assumptions many people made about me simply because I’m a White, blue-eyed heterosexual woman from a small, conservative, and rural Midwestern town. While I originally questioned my intelligence, fearing I wouldn’t be as smart as the students who attended private, well-funded feeder schools, the opposite was proven true as I dove headfirst into Georgetown life and fell wholeheartedly in love. I couldn’t have asked for anything more and was very excited to spontaneously attend Protestant Ministry’s retreat in November. And I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful group of human beings to spend twenty-eight hours roasting marshmallows, playing Apples to Apples, hiking, eating, and studying Scripture with.

Toward the end of the retreat, Rev. TauVaughn Toney, Protestant Christian Chaplain asked us to gather stones and bring them back to the community room with us. After doing a show-and-tell of our rocks, our pastor cited one of my most beloved passages in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3 entitled, “A Time for Everything.” The beginning verse is “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:” preceding several stanzas of human actions, including “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them.” Rev. Toney asked us to consider what stones we carried that God was asking us to let go of, for Christ asks us to lay down our loads and take up Jesus’ yoke, for He didn’t just pay the price for our sins, but rather, all of the shame, grief, and trauma we have carried with us for far too long.

young people standing in the woods, casually dressed

Rev TauVaughn Toney, (second from right) with students gathering stones at the retreat center.

Sitting there on the grass, overlooking the beautiful valley of the Virginia and West Virginia border, I couldn’t help but feel mesmerized by the vibrant colors of fall, of the clouds scattered across the sky, and how all of my problems and obsessions about being in this club or that or wondering what people thought of me seemed so minute, so insignificant, so irrelevant to God’s purpose for bringing me to D.C. I was made to love, to love others, as well as myself, and that was what I was going to do. At the end of our session, Rev. Toney asked us to cast off our stones and anxieties, for God cares for us. As I walked along the tree line, holding my flat, triangular stone, I ran my fingers over the edges, noticing how rough it felt, and how heavy this stone was getting, even though it appeared to be mere millimeters thin. As a girl who spent her summers climbing trees outside her house, I felt at home here, the perfect place to scatter my stone as I flung it into the trees, feeling a weight off my chest as I stared into the trees, so set on never turning back. 

Two weeks later, as I was sitting at my desk in my dorm I shake my head at all that has transpired, all that could have gone and did go wrong since I stepped off the bus from the CCC. To say it has been hell would be an understatement; those last fourteen days have, easily, been one of the hardest seasons I’ve gone through in my life, not because of anything I’ve done but by what other people have done to me.

Perhaps you are reading this reflection expecting that I would tell you how my life has improved greatly because of this retreat; perhaps you weren’t expecting that, as I certainly was not. And yet, I can’t help but look back on my retreat because when the nights have gotten so dark when my doubts have gotten so loud when I’ve starred in the mirror and could only point out the flaws, I thought about that moment – the moment I flung the rock. Something happened then that changed in me, that allowed me to press on and be able to tackle this monstrosity of a season because as Gollum acknowledged earlier, time does grind stone to meal. Time does dwindle our pain and our past, setting us free and allowing us to move further because even if we can’t let go of those stones, God is eternal love, and eternal love does not know how to quit. I don’t know how this chapter of my life will end, but I do know that God will be there, asking me to fling my stones over and over again until they grind to dust, with my Lord cheering me on every step of the way, which has allowed me to find new beauty and healing in such a challenging trial that I never dared to hope for in my wildest dreams. 

Because we only have so much time, may we not fret about the mountains in our life, for time and love will dwindle them to ruin and God will carry us when we’re too tired to keep fighting. May you walk out in peace today, knowing that you don’t have to carry those stones forever, that mercy is asking you to remember what matters in life, for the only thing that time cannot kill is love.

by Kami Steffenauer COL ’26