The PA branch of Peace Islands Institute invited its Advisory Board members and other close friends to the first ever retreat camp held February 25-26, 2016 in Bethlehem, PA. This camp was well attended by at least 20 guests, along with guest speakers from Alliance for Shared Values, PA Turkish Cultural Center, Peace Islands Institute corporate office and local PII representatives.
After the guests checked in to their hotel the afternoon of the first day, they were transported to visit the Chestnut Retreat Center (formerly known as Golden Generation Worship & Retreat Center), where in it resides the inspirational spiritual leader Mr. Fethullah Gulen. The retreat participants were treated to a chef-cooked dinner and had the opportunity to meet new hosts. Guests were then given an introduction to the center and a guided tour, before viewing the screening on the life of Mr. Gulen, titled “Love is a Verb.”
Although retreat participants were not able to meet with Mr. Fethullah Gulen, but a small gesture, Mr. Fethullah Gulen opened his doors to his personal room for guests to see his modest living quarters before guests departed for the evening.
This full day event took place at the Respect Graduate School (which offers a graduate program leading to the degree of Masters of Arts in Islamic Studies), located in Bethlehem, PA. The event started with a review of the day’s agenda by Mr. Feyzi Eygoren, a PII Outreach Coordinator.
The first guest speaker was Mr. Osman Oztoprak from Alliance for Shared Values (AFSV), an umbrella non-profit organization serving as a voice for civic, cultural and service member organizations such as Peace Islands Institute. Mr. Oztoprak gave an enlightening presentation on the evolution of the Hizmet movement and its core values of promoting peace, tolerance, and dialogue through social justice. He also illustratively presented a clear timeline of events and milestones where the Hizmet movement in Turkey used its voice of reason to promote moral values whenever they witnessed injustices being taken place, which he used to explain the reason behind the negative targeting of Mr. Fethullah Gulen and those who are inspired by his teachings, currently taking place by the Turkish government currently in power. Mr. Oztoprak concluded his presentation by inviting those who believe in the true intentions of the Hizmet movement to help spread the message of advocating Hizmet’s core values to others that may have doubt and suspicion; he asked fellow guests of the retreat to keep in touch directly with him, or through AFSV member representatives, and welcomed their thoughts and guidance around public relations marketing.
Dr. Jon Pahl and Ms. Kristen Opalinski from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia led an interactive discussion by reviewing a previously distributed reading packet, which is a work-in-progress product of much time invested by Dr. Pahl and Ms. Opalinski to research Mr. Gulen and the Hizmet movement, which included an independent study of the Sufi Tradition. Dr. Pahl started by reviewing the Preface and Introduction and highlighting key passages from Mr. Gulen’s biography while he reflected on his own upbringing, which he so graciously included in the packet. Dr. Pahl then introduced Ms. Kristen Opalinski, a graduate student and researcher at the Seminary. Ms. Opalinsky guided the retreat participants through each of the sections of the packet by facilitating an interactive and lively discussion on Hodjaefendi’s (Honored Teacher – Mr. Gulen’s) views with respect to prayers, dialogue, education, democracy, and terrorism.
Mr. Mehmet Kilic from PII Global Affairs gave an overview of each of the centers in Peace Islands Institute and shared its best practices by explaining the activities in each center. Mr. Kilic enchanted the listeners with one of the flagship programs called the International Festival of Language & Culture, an annual celebration and showcase for the diversity of linguistic talents from around the world. The retreat participants enjoyed a brief promotional video of the program, which was the best way of explaining how young adults from many different countries come together to express the message of peace and understanding among them through traditional song and dance, and costumes customary in their country.
Mr. Feyzi Eygoren from Peace Islands Institute then shared memorable photos from Turkey trips of the past and entertained the guests, while those among them who were a part of these trips reminisced and relived some of their experiences. Mr. Eygoren explained that the thematic trips have turned a new chapter and announced that future trips are currently being planned to visit countries in Europe where Hizmet institutions are active. He concluded his presentation by asking the guests to sign up for these trips and invited them to the very first trip already being planned for early summer this year.
The climax of the retreat program was the brainstorming session that ensued. Dr. TL Hill from Temple University facilitated the session where participants were formed into groups to work separately and then to present their ideas. TL provided a framework and guidelines that each group used to discuss and write down new perspectives for PII to strive for in the future, while he coached and guided them during the session. The retreat participants really enjoyed listening to each group presenting their best ideas with respect to Hizmet values, social impact, and the feasibility of logistics and cost. PII representatives recorded their presentations, and will use the content to work in collaboration with retreat participants to select and implement those ideas that will bring most value to PII and its principles.
The day concluded with some honest feedback by some of the participants with expectations that PII will act on the outcomes and keep our friends involved in the process. Although it was a day to understand, reflect, voice opinions, contribute thoughts and ideas, it was also a day to get to know one another closer, and bond as a “family” by enjoying one another’s friendship and warmth, and sealed with a family photo, as the retreat.