Architect of Sacred Encounters

Welcome to season three of FTE’s the Sound of the Genuine. This week’s featured guest is Darlene Marie Hutto. Darlene serves as the Director for Experience Design for the Forum for Theological Exploration. In her role at FTE she accompanies and builds relationships with denominational and organizational leaders, journeys with students in discernment and directs FTE’s Vocational Discernment work with the next generation of leaders who desire to serve the church and make a difference in the world. She is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and has served as an Associate Pastor, Youth Pastor and Campus Minister. Rev. Hutto’s work, born from her passion for personal, communal and organizational transformation seeks to celebrate the gifts, knowledge and experiences of all creation as we call the Kin-dom of God near. She holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, OH and a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA. Revered Hutto is currently pursuing a Doctor in Ministry degree at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

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Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s podcast where we listen to the stories of leaders who have found meaning and purpose in their lives. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and today we have Reverend, soon to be Doctor, Darlene Hutto, who is my colleague at FTE and she has been here for 15 years. And we’ll hear her story about how she goes from a local vacation Bible school, to Wilberforce, to now doing her D.Min. Also, she can live out her call as she names it as an architect of sacred encounters.

Darlene Hutto, Revy Rev on the Sound of the Genuine! My colleague, my former neighbor - We used to live in the same neighborhood for those who are listening. It’s so good to see you. Thank you for coming on.

Darlene: Thank you for this opportunity, Patrick. It’s my pleasure to be here with you in this capacity.

Patrick: So I know that you are the director of experience design, I know what that job is. That job is a lot of things and that title means probably next to nothing to anyone who’s listening. And I know all the cool things that you have done at FTE. You’ve done a lot of things and in your life prior, but I don’t want to get into that right now. I want to jump back to the beginning. What kind of stirred your imagination? Take me back to where you grew up. Who were your people? What were your dreams when you were little?

Darlene: Sure, Patrick. I would say that my story of call would begin during my days in North Carolina. I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina to church folks, those are the people who raised me, meaning these were people who were at the church, literally seven days a week, if not seven - six, no less than that.

My parents were what you would consider church pillars, big supporters of the church. My life I think would almost be akin to a PK. It’s just that they weren’t in ministry, but they were definitely diehard church leaders. And so much of how I was formed came from the story of their commitments to the churches that they were a part of.

Patrick: Well, tell me a little bit about those churches. What were they big churches, were they little churches, what denomination?

Darlene: So I grew up Baptist and later on my Bishop told me great Baptists made great Methodists. Uh, grew up in Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, Redbud street, Charlotte, North Carolina. I started out in the youth choir. My stepmother was my Sunday school teacher - which sucks, and my dad was the superintendent of Sunday school, also a deacon in the church. My stepmother that raised me was also the president of the missionary society. So I was hitting all points of the church from the choir to junior usher board to youth missionary group, which also spilled over into other missionary contexts within the youth division. Which meant that I participated on the county level and on the state level. Pretty early on I was attending those meetings. And then of course, the day of that shift comes when someone actually realizes, hey, this kid is at the meeting every week, we should make her one of the officers.

I remember I was about 11 years old when I was approached for leadership as a youth officer and was scared. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was just kind of comfortable participating until one of my youth group leaders pulled me to the side and convinced me to do otherwise.

Patrick: Well what does a youth officer even do? What is that?

Darlene: Well, it’s the Baptist churches way, in youth group, of preparing you to learn Robert’s Rules of Order, how to conduct a meeting. There were positions. You know, we had a secretary, that was a person that did the recording. We had the president, the one who was charged with imagining what those meetings would be about, in keeping with good Baptist church curriculum. And so I was first approached to serve as the president of the youth group. There were folks who knew me, they knew my parents and felt like I had been steeped in leadership over the years as an observer.

And so I came on board to provide a sense of how to run a meeting in the church context for my other peers. When I was approached for that, I didn’t think I had what it took to do that work. And I remember one of my youth leaders at the time who was a student at Bennett College, she pulled me to the side and said a word that kind of set me ablaze on the inside.

She said, you have potential. I think that may have been the first time I heard that. And I was like, “what does that mean?” And she said, you can do this. She said, reach for the stars. You know, that’s where you belong and you have gifts of leadership, so you know…say yes. I said yes. And just kind of learned how to live in those spaces, living into my own sense of leadership, planning meetings, learning how to kind of follow the Baptist church doctrine and how to also provide a voice for the young people in the church whose voices often, as we know, go unheard.

Patrick: I mean, I have a younger Darlene who’s spending way too much time in church, at least that’s my interpretation I’m going to throw on you. Like in these Robert’s Rules of Order, you’re doing Sunday school, your family’s involved. I imagine you had a broader life. Tell me about how you manage both of like this church life…unless maybe, hey, did you go to seminary when you were like 14 and say like, oh yes to the call in that way?

Darlene: I had no idea seminary existed at that time. And in fact, the Baptist church model was that women weren’t preachers, but they were missionaries. And our missionary context, of course, was in the domestic sense of doing good for others, you know, feeding programs, clothing closets.

And so I began to get a deep sense of my own leadership by being the voice of advocacy for young people. You know, I started to notice that church for us was dull. We were forced to come because we had to catch that ride with mom and dad. So I would be there literally to open the doors with my dad, to start Sunday school, go from Sunday school, from that moment on down to the end of worship. And so I just started, you know, making it known that youth needed things to do in church. And so a number of those complaints turned into wonderful opportunities. We were invited to actually begin to plan what Vacation Bible Xchool could look like, some of the activities. You know, we didn’t just need to be studiers of the word solely but we needed to have fun. We needed other outlets, and similarly in Sunday school we needed to do more than just kinda talk about the lesson, but to kind of think of creative ways to engage the lesson for our own flourishing. And so that’s kind of where my love for creating opportunities for young people to thrive is centered from, because I remember what it was like being in those spaces where we often went unheard.

Patrick: You’re going to have to bridge this for me then. So you got this community that you’re in, you got this missionary context. Now, as you come into young adulthood, say, I’m thinking about your teenage years, what is it that you’re dreaming for yourself as a teenager?

Darlene: Well, I’m not sure I would have said “called”, but I knew that my sense of purpose had something to do with speaking. I don’t really like speaking, but that’s where I always ended up. And so I would become the youth speaker for a number of churches. I would become the youth banquet speaker for a number of churches. And so really, you know, where I could imagine myself being was kind of in the confines of where women were being used. And so female leadership in our church really looked like lay speakers, basically. Either you were a lay speaker, but you were the lay speaker who was always thinking of ideas and things to broaden the church’s mission.

There was a summer where, you know, my stepmother who was the director of Vacation Bible School, invited me to be a teacher for the younger kids, but those younger kids did not exist. And so there was a neighborhood housing community that was next door to the church that our members weren’t coming from. So I decided to go over there and knock on doors and say, hey, we’re having Vacation Bible school for kids. Can I bring your child over to the church? I told them who I was and I said, you’re welcome to come and see what it’s like, but then I’m happy to kind of be responsible for getting them there.

And so my first opportunity at that, I came back with 13 kids. You know, so I was like the pied piper of children, which is kinda crazy. And so they came on over and I was charged with doing arts and crafts with that group to kind of bring the lessons to life. And so in many ways, it was creating a sense of spiritual formation in those young people who had no understanding of what the church was, you know, they were just next door and we were kind of both looking at each other, but no one had ever extended the invitation. And so from that kind of lay speaker model, I thought I wanted to be a missionary.

And my understanding of that was solely in the domestic context. And so, I started learning about the Peace Corps, things like that. So that’s kinda where I had my sights set until I left to college where I had a broader understanding of some of the ways that women were engaged in ministry. And that’s when I kind of got introduced to the notion of being a minister. I liked the idea of being a minister because my understanding of that role was to serve others. That’s kind of how I made the transition from what I thought I wanted to be, which was a missionary speaker, but that was kind of the limits of what I saw. But once my imagination expanded around the possibilities of that, then I saw myself much more engaged around community work, outreach work. And so my draw really kind of landed there, thinking about ways to kind of be an extension of the church to the community.

Patrick: So where does that take you in young adulthood? So if this is now on your horizon. Like how do you get options and who’s helping you discern what these options are?

Darlene: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m a first-generation college student. My folks were good bootstrappers. They believed in kind of working and building, but didn’t really have a lot of value for education beyond high school. And that had a lot to do with their own kind of limitations. And the, you know, the emphasis of working to help support the broader family. My folks are from South Carolina originally. And so I kind of came in with a lot of questions. I was inquisitive. I was aggravating. I was a little bit of a force. I was always kind of pushing my questions and the ideas that I had cause I wanted those things to kind of get going.

And so in the meantime, I had some folks who I really admired and looked up to and I was really curious about their lives. And ironically, my high school teacher, who I was really close to was Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown was my biology teacher and Ms. Brown was kind of like that person that I was comfortable talking to when, you know…I can say things to her that I wouldn’t say to my parents. Often I would get selected for different things at school, but my parents wouldn’t see the value of it so Ms. Brown was my bridge to kind of make the case for ‘why Darlene should go to whatever thing that she was selected for.’

But Ms. Brown used to always say to me, “I think you’re going to be a minister.” And I would say, why do you say that? She said, because your biology assignments always turn back to God. I thought that was ridiculous, but I went to go visit Ms. Brown. And I remember, I was talking to her and she said, “so it was true.” And she remembered. She kept the papers, you know, those are those old school teachers that still kept stuff in their basements at home. And she would pull out those papers and she would say, I told you, you were going to be a minister. And I was so enthralled with her, what I know now, her theology, because she was an African-American Presbyterian. Some of my colleagues know my affinity for Presbyterians because, from that moment, it seemed like my world always kind of kept me between Baptists and the Presbyterian folks.

And I don’t know why that was the case, but my first real job was actually with the Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. My formation kind of evolved as I got exposed to more things. And so I got introduced to the folks at Covenant Pres. That was my first job kind of coming out of high school, working in an administrative role. Dr. John Rogers saw something in me, apparently, because he started allowing me to be a liturgist. And so I was a liturgist in like this huge white Presbyterian Church. And it was like, wow, this is exciting!

He was the first person that invited me to question my faith. You know, being good, black and Baptist, we were told you don’t question God. And so there was a sermon that Dr. Rogers was doing, and he said, he said something akin to questioning God is the beginning of like uncovering our faith. And I went back and asked him, what do you mean by that? Because we were told we’re not supposed to do that. And so it was the Presbyterians I learned to like break all of the rules that I was given. You know, I turned 21 and a Presbyterian minister of music took me out for margaritas. That was unheard of in the Baptist church.

I realized that my theological lens could have so much spanse as I got to know more people and as I began to kind of understand God more fully. And that was a part of my kind of further evolving. I went to college, immediately after high school, but I didn’t have the supports, which is why I have a big heart for those first-generation college students who don’t do well, who don’t know what the hell they’re doing because no one’s ever told them.

And so I know what that story is. And so my freshman/sophomore year was just a ball of confusion. I thought I wanted to be an accountant. Well, if you know me, I would suck as an accountant. People started to talk to me about my personality, they’d say can you see yourself in a room with a bunch of numbers? And I was like, no. Then I thought it was communications. So I started doing that and then that was okay. But, again, you know, I just didn’t have the foundation that I needed. And so I consider it just the hand of God to send all of these wonderful people along my path who kept pushing me, who kept nudging me.

I did my little stint at WSSU for two years, I wasn’t so good at the coursework, but I was great at the ministry side of campus life. I met Dr. Cedric Rodney, who was my chaplain, and I gave him hell. He was a Moravian pastor. And I believed he loved me, but it was kind of like that love that you have for an annoying person. I had a lot of questions. I was really rebellious. I was a Baptist student hanging out with the Pentecostals and he just was not a fan of that. And he often had to be a mediator between me and my parents, because it would be time for me to go home but I was hanging out with Pentecostal kids. But I was learning a lot around, just kind of various entree points into God. And Dr. Rodney was a loving, very patient guide with me but, I often say that I flunked out at WSSU in Jesus’s name.

And what I mean by that is I was focused on the wrong things and it wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability to do the coursework, I just had no direction. I got a job working for the urban league and the woman that hired me was Winston Salem Urban Leagues first female president.

And she took up a lot of time with me, but my first job was working in the employment and training division. I was doing vocation from another lens. That was kind of a form of ministry, in hindsight, I was giving what I had to kind of help bring others along. And so that was an amazing journey, but that president, the CEO the urban league kept saying, you should really go back to school. I listened to her, but it was because an opportunity presented itself that would then take me into a whole ‘nother direction. So I ended up, going to Salem college for a short stint and at Salem college, I got introduced to the religion professor, whom I fell in love with who was Dr. Sid Kelly. Dr Sid would open up our imagination around our understanding of God. that led me to an exploration of denominations because, you know, I had these Baptist folks saying, God is not in those other spaces. And then, you know, my Moravian context chaplain was a real problem for my parents because they didn’t know what that was.

And so I just decided to explore denominations. I went to the Church of the Brethren. I went to the Baptist, did the Presbyterians of all stripes. I visited the Methodists, visited the Pentecostal folks and actually became a youth pastor in a Pentecostal church setting. And so it was that moment where I realized everything that I had experienced was building up to what I was becoming in that particular moment, which is why one of the opening lines that I use in our discernment retreat with our young adults is that yes, our footsteps are ordered by God, but God is also in the detours.

And so there were a number of detours that would ultimately land me where I am now. And so Salem college went really well. I felt like I was there to meet some amazing people who would then push me further.

I couldn’t afford Salem College. So, I got the first year because of some good Presbyterian generosity and the second year was a struggle. So worked a little bit more until another opportunity came. And that’s when I would meet the African Methodist Episcopal church and get launched into Wilberforce University, which is where I completed my undergraduate studies. My experience with Dr. Sid Kelly informed my major, which is philosophy and religion. It’s a messy pathway and I know that sounds really crazy and disjointed, but really that’s, that’s kind of the life I was living.

It was a disjointed pathway until I became more actualized in an understanding of who it was that I was, who it was I desired to be, and what it is that I loved.

Patrick: Just to play it back, it doesn’t seem that disjointed if you have Ms. Brown saying, I knew you were being called to ministry, and you’re just figuring it out, like where’s the place for ministry for you? So you go to finish up this degree, you also go to seminary. So you’re going to formalize this. At some point you say like, what does it mean to get trained up in this? Tell me about that discernment, where you went, and about that experience as you started putting these pieces together. Where do I fit in ministry in this broader church context?

Darlene: When I was at that Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and I was wrestling with all of these questions from these experiences, I decided to go to the visitation day at Wilberforce because the Bishop had sent some folks to Payne Seminary, which is in Wilberforce. And I had never heard of Wilberforce, but what happened was a Bishop sent me to this AME pastor and that AME pastor said, you have gifts for ministry.

She just said it out of the blue. And I was like, okay, so what does that mean? And so she took me to an AME church conference and I sat there and listened to Bishop Vincent Anderson. And I thought, why wasn’t I AME all my life? I love the history, the story of history that he told. And so then he started doling out scholarships to Payne Seminary. That’s kind of the first time I heard seminary.

So I was like, what is that? My friend was saying, actually, you need to do this undergraduate thing first and then we can talk about seminary. So I decided to go to Wilberforce cause it was an AME school and I applied. So I was working for that Presbyterian Church and I said, this school is interested in me coming for their orientation. I’m just going to go check it out. And so I had a wonderful boss, he had a lot of questions. Are they giving you money? How are you going to afford that? And are you going to just move there? And he had lots of questions that I didn’t have answers for. And then he said, you know what, go and see. If it doesn’t work out, you have a job when you get back, and if it does just send us your notice.

In between the time that I was to leave there, I was to preach my trial sermon in the AME church. So I preached my trial sermon and literally the next day I was to go to Wilberforce for orientation. Having never seen Wilberforce, like, I don’t know if you’ve been to that part of the world.

It is literally miles and miles of feed corn. And so…girl coming from Charlotte, not that Charlotte is like a mega city, but still it was not miles and miles of feed corn. So I went and I thought, well you know, if I’m going to finish this thing, for once and for all, I probably need to be away from my family. So I went and decided to kind of stick that out.

But then as a result of me sticking that out, Payne Seminary was literally around the corner. And so I would go over there for their chapel services. That’s where I met Marcia Foster Boyd and a number of other folks. I was able to kind of land my internship over there to kind of discern ministry.

And so I was working for the vice president of development. And then during the summer months, one of the admins was going on maternity leave. So I actually ended up being the assistant to Dr. Obery Hendrix. So I had all of these amazing people around me, would listen to lectures, and I just was in love with this thing called seminary. As I’m also kind of pursuing the ordination process - I was going back and forth home to attend to the ordination process - but then continuing to make strides as I was going forward.

And it would be, once I graduated from Wilberforce that I was ordained deacon, and then the next year was ordained an itinerant elder. So I knew I wanted to at least do that part of the work. And so it was at the juncture where it was time for me to graduate from Wilberforce that I had to figure out where on earth did I want to go? And my decision could have been as ridiculous as me spinning a globe and saying, this is the next city I’m moving to. And so I chose Atlanta - knew nothing about Atlanta, but felt very drawn to Atlanta. And so the ways that Atlanta came together, it was just divine providence. My dad was so proud of me being the first child to graduate. He said, you know, let us know what you need. So I was like, Hey dad, I needed a deposit for an apartment. And he was like, I can’t help you. And so, one of my friends called me and said, one of our ministers needs help putting a computer together and stuff like that.

And so I went to go help my friend who was in Columbus, which was about an hour away. So her boss was a preacher. And so she was trying to network a couple of systems and get them connected to printers. And my friend thought I was great with technology. And as I was leaving Columbus after doing five or six hours of work for this woman, my friend said, this woman is really blessed with finances. You should have her pray for you as you begin to plan your journey to Atlanta.

And I solicited her prayers and she said, well what are we praying for? And I said, I found this place, but I need the means to get there. And she said, how much is it? When I told her she said, we don’t have to pray about that. You’ve done more work that if I had gotten a consultant to do it, I would have had to pay more than this.

So she wrote the check and literally that was the check that got me to Atlanta in my apartment. All the storage and packing fees and everything that was needed. And then I was able to secure the space, get my utilities turned on from a distance. When I got to Atlanta, on my voicemail was a message from Caroline Kelly, who was the associate pastor at Central Pres, who said, one of my friends at Covenant Pres told me you were coming to Atlanta and we’re looking to hire an administrative person.

That was my interview and that was my job in Atlanta. And that would land me with working with Caroline and Ted Wardlaw, who was the senior pastor. Ted was great to work for. I admired him. I loved his preaching style. So all along, you know, you know, again, Presbyterian connections, I don’t know why, but love them! You know, having conversations, Ted was kind of saying, Hey, you should think about seminary. I was still kind of mulling that over. So I did the conference on ministry at Columbia. I looked at ITC and I looked at Candler. Candler like really spoke to me. I got to sit in on Noel Erskine’s class, which was a systematic theology class and my mind was completely blown. And then I thought about all of the other resources that I would have access to as a result of being on that campus.

So I kind of turned my sights toward that direction, got accepted. And at the time of that acceptance, Ted was leaving to go pursue presidency at Austin Theological Seminary. So he said, you come with me to Austin and I didn’t know anyone in Austin. As our parting gift, Ted blessed me with the set of commentaries that his father gave him and gave me this beautiful note. And so I had the first rendition of the interpreter’s Bible commentaries and a beautiful note from Ted. I just watched his pastoral manner and I just loved him and I loved what he stood for. And so, I was like, okay, we’re going to pursue this ministry thing. And so I ended up at Candler and as a bridge from Candler, between leaving the church when Ted left, I did some work in the outreach center.

So that’s really kind of like all of the things that I love – outreach, people, I loved Ted’s pastoral presence, his way of communing folks, looking folks in the eye, seeing people. I loved Caroline Kelly’s manner of advocacy. She was a former attorney who had become a preacher and her story just was like, why would you do that? And so I knew that the call thing for her was really real. And I saw her passion as she worked as the liaison to the outreach center. Once again, you know, that kind of landed me safely into Candler, where then I would meet Michael Brown, who ultimately told me about FTE. And so the story kind of goes from there.

But that call journey gave me such a heart for people who needed direction, to understand that they had everything that they needed to get where they wanted to go. Because my life had kind of shown me that, even though I didn’t know it at the time. And so that’s really the many places where my heart for young people asking those questions, you know, am I good enough? And do I have what it takes? And how can I know I’m called? What is it that I’m good at? And so, those meanderings answered those questions for me cause I did that journey myself. And my conclusion was God is everywhere. God is there.

For young people who come wanting to know what’s the right space for them, and then me talking to them about where do they feel comfortable, where do they feel drawn, is kind of the crux of all of that story. And so it was all of those people along who kept saying finish, get the undergraduate degree out of the way, you should be in a seminary. And once I got to seminary, the conversations that would happen, over meals and in-between classes was just so life-giving. And so, in my work, I get to create those kinds of conversations in spaces that are life-giving for folks and encourage them to find ways to keep those conversations going.

Patrick: Tell me a little bit about what does it mean to do experience design here at FTE and our work with young adults and how you see that fitting into this call, this kind of exploration? I mean, it’s in our title.

Darlene: I started working with the fellowships and dabbled in data a little bit.

And then moved over into grants and then from grants into kind of more directed work with young adults. Our former colleague, Melissa Wigington used to say to me, you come alive when you work with young adults. She said, if FTE ever assigns you to anything that’s not doing that you should rethink being at FTE.

Again, that’s another way of kind of seeing people and seeing where do you come alive? And I think I come alive in that work because of my own narrative of feeling as if it was like a life of lostness until I arrived to the thing that makes my heart sing. There were people who kept pointing me along the way. Those people saw me - they saw me when I couldn’t really see myself. They often would equip me to have what I needed to get to the next destination. They made time for me with conversations. They would give me resources, different things that would kind of help me answer the questions that I didn’t realize I was even holding.

As director of experience design, I get to work with our grantee partners in the form of relationship building from the sight line of helping build their capacity to do the work with young people. And so those are conversations often, or those are facilitated moments. Those conversations are sometimes just the sidebar conversations around some of the work that they’re doing and some of the things that we may have tried out. And we may come to some consensus around a particular kind of process or practice that may be instructive for them to try in their context or what it is that I’m learning from my conversations with other people.

My work gets to bring me into some of those circles. And, you know, I’ve been told that relationship building is my super power. So it’s great to exercise that by inviting people into an understanding of the work that we do and why that work matters. And the other side of my work is designing retreats, programs for young people in service to young people, through the partners and sometimes directed conversations with young people.

There’s nothing more rewarding when you hear a person come with the question and the question is so far off…off the beaten path and then that question gets closer and closer into alignment with where they should be. That is really who I was. Many of these young people who have a question, they may not be to see the connection to it, but then, you know, the conversation, the making time, the listening for the different indicators and helping them to imagine how those puzzle pieces can come together and eventually shape a concept or a reality for them that they had not ever actualized. And then when they awaken to it and it actually begins to come together and the glow on their faces through the zoom call or the excitement in their voice or their resonances and gratitude for arriving to that place, that then becomes the catalyst for the other places that they will go, is a part of the amazing work that I get to do in service to young people and our partners.

Patrick: I would love for you just to talk a little bit, as you talk about your work here, what is designing an experience for vocational discernment look like for young adults? Like it’s one thing to say you’re doing that - build a retreat for young adults, but like those retreats have rhythms, they got flows, they got mentors. They got people who are inspired, preaching moments, worship moments, dance parties. I mean, what does it mean to really design an experience for someone who is wandering? Who’s trying to find their way to build the conditions for them to actually discern that work well, in a way that doesn’t say you can’t do something, but really says, let’s give you everything you need to help you discern. What’s it like to do that work?

Darlene: There are a couple of strings of wisdom that I draw from. You know, Matthew Williams, our former vice president, used to say to me…I think I would make the planning piece really hard…and he would say, just think about your own story and what it would take for you to get there. That was one piece. And then there was a moment where I was used to kind of abiding in an administrative role. And then one day Stephen said, you’re planning - I think it was our early rendition of the CLF - and I was like, I don’t plan those. Like, that’s not what I do. And he goes, you’re planning it.

And I was like, that’s not what I do. And so, you know, in good FTE immersive fashion, we’re going to throw you in it. And we’re going to all look at you while you’re flailing and trust you to kind of find your way and be there to help pull you out if necessary. And so I remember thinking about the things that we’ve learned. Like drawing from the senses. You know, does the space create the kind of vibe that you need in order to do this reflection work?

That shaped the kind of places that we go to now. You know, we’re doing hotels on occasion now, but ideally, you know, retreat environment is best situated. So we’re usually trying to take those hotels and kind of make them feel like a retreat. But ideally, you know, you want to think about all of the senses. The taste piece and the hospitality piece go hand in hand for FTE. FTE knows how to throw a good party and they know how to treat people really well. So you want good food. And for our young adults who are so aware, you know, that’s often really good food. It’s food that’s farm to table in some spaces where we’re able to provide that or good balanced meals that are good for the body. It’s foods that don’t put you into a food coma after you have lunch, because often we still have more work to do.

So all of those things that it really just so common sense that in designing, you have to consider. You know, what is the room like? I was talking to a peer colleague the other day who wants to do a partnership. And she mentioned the chapel and I said, well, does the chapel have pews? And she said, yes. I said, oh, that’s not going to work for us. That’s not a model that we designed by, where everyone’s facing one person. You know, we design for conversation and for dialogue and for integration and preferably with some movement involved. Right. And so the senses come into play around the aesthetic of the space. Where we’re situated, is it providing a sense of safety for all concerned? What’s in the natural environment that we might be able to draw from that adds some beauty? You know, you would go well, why does that matter?

You know, there’ve been some spaces where we’ve seen our young adults immediately go to the outdoors to journal. They’ll find the perfect tree, the perfect rock, the perfect waterway, whatever. And that’s the place where they can do their reflection. So you want to make sure that you can create a container that is going to invite people into that place of introspection that is so deeply needed for discernment work.

Worship. You know, if you, if you’re talking about church folks, calling folks to ministry, well worship is central. It’s the place where we invite God to engage us in these conversations and the questions that we’re holding. It’s the place where we can have our release and expression through song. Because of those senses, you gotta have the arts. Now, you know, I used to fight against that artistic piece a lot cause I didn’t know any better. Our artists are just amazing people, and you know, we don’t serve a boring God. We serve an exciting God and this exploration moment is an exciting time.

So yeah, you want to have the hoopla and the fanfare and the uplift. And, you know, the beauty of voices coming together and in even inviting young people to come and be a part of that process, that’s all discernment too. You know, many of our young people say I’ve never been asked to plan worship! Bring everything that you have and that will work itself into the exploration that that individual will be journeying on. Not that it’s necessarily as on to worship, but those pieces will find meaning and hold meaning for folks as well. One of our key learnings is we know that young people benefit from talking with each other. It’s that discovery that somebody else is holding the same question and now I’m not the lone person on the ship. I got some other compadres with me who are asking these questions. And that holds meaning because their experiences are aligned and they have some shared similarities or even the differences. The differences then become something that you can become curious about because we’re all coming into this space with a particular desire or aim.

And so designing for conversation, for dialogue, is key to our programming. In addition to that, the other piece that we learned, which is often, a surprising element for me is, is that if you put people who have arrived to the place that folks are trying to find the destination to, then you’ve got another kind of conversation. Hey, how did you get there? What did you do? Tell me about your life. What are you up to now? What do you think about this? And so that is the part of our model where we put before young people, individuals who have done work around the work that we desire to do in ways that are extraordinary and different.

People who’ve overcome obstacles and challenges, against all odds. Those stories help awaken the imagination and, build confidence. and those young folks who are desiring to take their questions and turn them into something more, or even see beginning to invite them to see how their questions might turn into something more.

So I’m holding all of that. But I mean, in truth, the first thing I do is I pray. Because it’s the prayer, you know - God help me to be the instrument that helps design, in service to the things that these young people will take away, so that they can leave and flourish. And so it’s very heartfelt work for me. It’s very serious work for me, but the design piece considers all of the mechanisms that are instructive for how young people work, how they engage, what’s meaningful for them. And then of course the party is all about celebration, right? We want to celebrate everything that we’ve done because now we’ve made some new friends, we’ve met some new people, we now have potential mentors and the people who have been our conversation partners and leaders throughout the retreat. And so we’re going to just celebrate in anticipation that we’re going to land someplace with this and it’s going to be exciting and we’re going to be so relieved when we get there, because we couldn’t see where we were headed.

And so we do that in the best way possible. You know, you throw a big party, feed people, you have great music, you know, let people be themselves, let their hair down, all of that, soul train line, you name it. So all of those pieces are just kind of imagining how do you create the container for people to do meaningful, thoughtful work with others in ways that are safe in ways that are fun and in ways that invite the important work of introspection?

Patrick: Darlene two things. One is just to say for anyone who is listening, we have taken the walks in the wilderness, we have partied in an airplane hangar, we have celebrated in the biggest ways possible, including making a cathedral inside a hotel ballroom - artistically using foam and art and all that.

So your vision for the imagination around what that container looks like is pretty expansive and beautiful. And also to say, putting people who are a little further along, who are at that destination, who can inspire that journey and to echo Matthews words around, Hey, what about your own story? You’re one of those people to put in and I hope that you’re picking up on that…be a part of sound of the genuine, you’re one of those folks along that I really admire for doing this. So I have my last question here, Darlene. This is question I ask everyone who comes on the Sound of the Genuine. As I listened to your story, you know, in North Carolina, the corn fields, Wilberforce, coming to Atlanta, trusting God, ended up at FTE exploring. You have Ms. Brown telling you, yeah, you got a call to ministry. You got a great pastor you worked for at Central Pres., how much of your discernment and your journey has been guided and shaped by those in your community and how much has been guided by your conversation - maybe it’s with the divine or your own internal curiosity about what you might do with your one precious life?

Darlene: I would say it’s definitely the community. I had some questions, but I don’t know if I could have given voice to the questions that were inside of me. I believe that there were people who, I wonder if they even knew, but there would be something about those people who just kind of bothered to take up with me, so to speak. There have been a number of folks, you know, so I am definitely not my own. I am formed by a variety of communities who invested in me in just amazing ways. They became an extension of family for me. They were sages along the way.

In preparation for this conversation, I just kind of like took some notes and did a chronology and stepped back and looked at it, which was a fun exercise. In this chronology, I’ve got pastors, theologians, I’ve got lay people, I’ve got a lot of ministers, a lot of teachers from school, you know, So it’s been the community all along, who has invested in me in a variety of different ways, who has met me in a lot of different places, encouraged me. And from their light it drew me more and more to the thing that I’m becoming increasingly actualized in.

Patrick: Well Darlene, this has been a gift to hear the pieces of your story, knowing that there’s so many that aren’t on record. But I just want to say, I appreciate you for all that you’re doing not just for young adults, but for us as staff and partners, and to expand our vocational imagination and dream big dreams for worship…increasing that budget, and really kind of taking the time that it takes to look people in the eyes and ask them what their call is. It’s just such a gift to work alongside you. So thanks for coming on, sharing your story.

Darlene: Absolutely. And let’s make sure we say it again for Stephen Lewis, worship is central!

Patrick: That’s awesome. I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Darlene’s story. It would be a big help for us if you subscribe to this podcast. I want to thank my production team, our executive producer, Elsie Barnhart, our producer, Heather Wallace, our social media manager, Diva Morgan Hicks, and as always, @siryalibeats for his music. You can listen to the Sound of the Genuine and find all of FTE’s great resources at And we’ll see you next week on another episode of the Sound of the Genuine.