In our last post, we noted the distrust and alienation that are pervasive in the working-class town where we interviewed young adults for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project. Now we’d like to address the question of what can be done amid this climate of distrust to renew friendship and communal ties among working-class young adults.

In thinking about this question, we stumbled across inspiration in an unanticipated place: 1940’s Spain and the history of a man named Eduardo Bonnín. In an era of suspicion and distrust in fascist Spain, Bonnín pioneered a movement that sought, among other things, to restore amistad (friendship).

Bonnín grew up the son of upper-middle-class merchants on the island of Mallorca, Spain, where he received a Catholic liberal arts education from private Augustinian tutors. At the age of eighteen he joined the military for his mandatory time of service, but he would go on to nine years of service, more than the required term. The military was a mixing experience for him: for the first time in his life, he met men from a demographic different from his own. As religion scholar Kristy Nabhan-Warren writes in her book, The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, & Fourth-Day Spirituality, “He served for as long as he did out of a sense of duty and because he was drawn in by privates’ oral histories.” He essentially acted as an ethnographer, listening to people’s stories, “trying to found what people are like,” as he put it. Hearing their stories moved him to the recognition that, as he said, “at the very centre, everybody is the same.”

Moreover, Nabhan-Warren writes, his reflections on the difference between his own good family environment and the environments many of his fellow soldiers grew up in “led to his epiphany that the environment is instrumental in shaping a man and his culture, and he decided that he wanted to help change the environments in which these men found themselves.”

In an era of suspicion and distrust, Bonnín pioneered a movement that sought to restore friendship.

But how to do so? After his military service, Bonnín entered a Spanish society that was in the grips of the fascist Francoist regime, and recovering from the trauma of the Spanish Civil War. In this context, a “deep sense of distrust” pervaded residents of Mallorca.

“Bonnín, all of his close associates told me, encouraged amistad [friendship] and wanted people to get along and accept their differences,” writes Nabhan-Warren. “He wanted to erase the sense of cultural anomie that so many Mallorquines experienced as a result of the Spanish Civil War by initiating a movement that emphasized new selves, new faith, and new communities.” As one of Bonnín’s longtime friends and collaborators put it, Bonnín “wanted people to be great friends.”

Moreover, Bonnín was interested in building friendships among men who were not in the church pews—men whom he described as the “faraway.” He was thinking about the kind of men he had befriended in the military.

To achieve his goal, he founded Cursillo, a weekend experience intended to deepen men’s faith lives as well as inspire deep friendships. The weekend included a series of short talks, some by priests but mostly by laymen, on the Christian life. In the process, friendships were built. As Nabhan-Warren notes, for men “unaccustomed to showing their emotions, the weekend Cursillo offered the time and space to talk about their personal lives and with other men in a safe space.”

Since its origins in 1944, the movement has “spread via transplantation by laypersons,” and millions of Catholics and Protestants around the world have made their Cursillo weekend, or have participated in a retreat experience inspired by Cursillo.

Nabhan-Warren, who interviewed almost 250 “cursillistas” (people who have made the retreat), says that the Cursillo movement is “an important part of the small-group movement in America (studied by sociologists of religion such as Robert Wuthnow), which emerged after World War II [and] aim[ed] to reconnect Americans with the feeling and reality of meaningful community.” Many of the cursillistas whom Nabhan-Warren interviewed described the weekend as a turning point in their lives, a place where they found meaning and purpose. Because cursillistas go on to meet regularly in small groups, the weekend is just the beginning: friendships deepen over time and faith life is renewed and fostered by that ensuing community.

Intimate small-group experiences like weekend retreats can act as antidotes to social distrust.

Little did we know when we signed up over a year ago for a weekend retreat being offered at our church that we were about to attend an event inspired by Bonnín’s Cursillo. The experience captivated us, ranking among those few events in our lives that we call truly life-changing.

So when thinking about the problem of alienation among working-class young Americans, and particularly as it applies to family formation and fragmentation, what can we learn from the Cursillo movement?

The overarching lesson is that intimate small-group experiences like weekend retreats can act as antidotes to social distrust, as Cursillo did in Francoist Spain. As we wrote in our last post, “group experiences that foster authentic friendships could be an important step toward rebuilding trust in working-class communities, and thus to bridging the class-based marriage gap that exists in America.” Meaningful group experiences can also lead to the kinds of friendship and social support so needed as young adults form families.

Specifically, we envision small groups of young adults meeting regularly over food and drinks to discuss family-related topics like love, sex, dating, marriage, parenting—and to work towards some common goal they define together as a group. These groups could be launched during a fun and reflective weekend experience, perhaps held at a campground or retreat center, and could operate in such a way so that the first group “graduates” and initiates the next group, ensuring replication and growth.  In his New York Times column, David Brooks imagined another creative possibility for organizing retreats to bridge class divides.

But as we also noted in our last post, there are barriers to implementing these ideas for a working-class demographic: social anxieties, irregular work schedules, the inflexibilities of single parenthood, and, of course, the problem of distrust. (A group experience could help overcome this distrust, but how to get someone to sign up given the initial distrust?)

We envision small groups of young adults meeting regularly to discuss family topics and work towards some common goal.

To address these obstacles, we’ve drawn some practical takeaways from the success of the Cursillo movement and its many derivatives. For churches, nonprofits, or anyone else looking to engineer a group experience to reach “the faraway” (in this case low-income and working-class young Americans), here are some points to keep in mind.

1.) Make the initial meeting feel like vacation. Or at least an enjoyable getaway from the daily grind—something the young adults we interviewed long for but are seldom able to do due to lack of funds and flexibility. In our interviews we heard declarations like “I need a vacation!” paired with exhausted sighs. To reach a working-class demographic, we envision a weekend experience for the whole family. It would take place at a campground or retreat center with plenty of time for outdoorsy activities and relaxation—and with a high-quality children’s program to keep the kids busy while the adults have time to learn and reflect on their own and in a group setting. As David Brooks wrote in the column we mentioned above, a retreat experience is effective because it gets “people out of their normal hunting grounds where their guard is up.” For working class young adults, it also fills a genuine need for quiet space to reflect and recoup from their chaotic lives.

In order to minimize costs for participants, funding could come from a foundation, local businesses, individual donations, a church congregation, group fundraising efforts, etc. Working-class young adults probably won’t request time off work to attend a meeting, but they just might do so in order to attend what seems more like a free weekend camping trip.   

2.) Recognize the power of stories. Everybody has a story to share, and in our experience, the more suffering a person has experienced in his family life, the more he wants to share his story. The retreat experience is a natural way for that story-telling to happen. For example, during a retreat like the one we attended, a “giving team”— people who have been meeting regularly for the previous year—shares their life stories with the “receiving team.” The vulnerability of those who share inspires trust and confidence in the group. The format also means that people are learning primarily from each other, rather than from a textbook.

3.) Use an initial experience to build interest in an ongoing group experience. Since we both grew up in evangelical Christian circles, small groups are second nature to us—but not so much for our working-class peers. They might first need a taste of the group experience to be convinced that it’s a worthwhile commitment. It’s kind of like falling in love or having a baby—those initial fireworks and bonding hormones help us to make commitments that we might otherwise avoid. Make the initial encounter such a powerful bonding experience that people who are unlikely candidates for small groups surprise themselves and sign up for regular ongoing meetings, where friendships can be deepened.

4.) Harness positive peer pressure. One week after our weekend experience, we attended a gathering and were presented with the opportunity to continue on in regular group meetings. We signed a sheet of paper saying that we would commit for the next year. Afterwards everyone celebrated with food and wine. Signing that form in front of our fellow group members reinforced how seriously we were all taking this. And knowing that we’d be letting down our peers by skipping a meeting incentivized us to attend meetings as faithfully as possible, similar to the peer dynamics outlined in the book Join The Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform The World. Of course, team members were understanding when things came up (Amber went into labor while David was at one of his meetings, so of course he promptly left…), but peer accountability does wonders to guard against flakiness.

One unsolved problem that could interfere with meeting attendance: irregular work schedules. The young adults we interviewed who worked in food service and retail jobs felt that they had no control over their schedules, and didn’t know what their schedule would be from week to week. Often they worked nights and weekends. A standing weekly meeting just won’t work in situations like these. We have yet to come up with a creative solution, other than to advocate to change company culture so that managers strive to create schedules for workers that are as regular as possible, are made further in advance (not just a few days beforehand), and allow workers to request a standing shift off (say, Sunday mornings for church, or Tuesday nights for small group).

5.) Empower participants with a common project. In some Cursillo-inspired models, group members plan and execute the next year’s retreat, doing everything from meal planning and preparation to giving the talks and providing music and marketing the event. Nothing bonds a group like working together towards a common goal.

Friendships are not built in a day; distrust is not overcome overnight. Yet a simple weekend experience could help to begin these vital processes in working-class America.