Four-day religious retreat provides female first responders an outlet

San Antonio police officer Gloria Belcher prays along with others as Local law enforcement attend a mass at Holy Spirt Catholic Church on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — “God is good!” a police officer at the Shields of Christ Women’s ACTS Retreat at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen shouted to the circle of female first responders around her.

“All the time!” the other police officers, deputies, troopers, border patrol agents, EMTs, firefighters and dispatchers shouted back to her.

Fr. Andres Gutierrez blesses Holy Communion as local law enforcement and others attend a mass at Holy Spirt Catholic Church on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

It was the second time the women had done the chant, and it seemed like a few of the first responders wanted to do it just one more time.

The chant marked the end of the first Shields of Christ Women’s ACTS Retreat to be held in the Rio Grande Valley. The event brought together just under fifty female first responders for a weekend of fellowship and bonding.

ACTS stands for adoration, community, theology and service. The first responders at the retreat spent four days growing closer to God and each other through discussions, speakers and exercises, they said. The event was capped off by a Catholic mass and a luncheon for the women and their families.

Gloria Belcher with the San Antonio Police Department directed the retreat. She said Shields of Christ was founded by a retired San Antonio Police Department officer who is now a priest.

“Our goal is to get them closer to God, and to deal with their problems, and to let go and hand them over to our heavenly father, who will take care of them,” she said. “It’s basically a lot of healing for these women.”

Belcher said the change in the women who took part in the retreat was evident.

“You can just see the transformation from the day the came till today,” she said. “They came in hard and not wanting to come, and some of them were wanting to leave that first day, but we talked to them, they stayed and stuck it out, and now they don’t want to leave. They love it here.”

Local law enforcement attend a mass along with others at Holy Spirt Catholic Church on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Shields of Christ has held retreats for male officers in the Valley, but this weekend’s retreat was the first held for female first responders in the RGV.

“We had a lot of people from the Valley travel to San Antonio and express a need for this type of ministry down here,” Belcher said.

Estela Longoria-Rodriguez with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office was one of those women. Longoria-Rodriguez said a tragedy drove her to seek out the organization.

“Four years ago there was a girl that worked with me at the office and she passed away, she committed suicide. She was a deputy, and nobody knew what kind of problems she had,” Longoria-Rodriguez said. “A friend of mine told me to make contact with these ladies and I made contact with them. They came down and talked to me and stuff, and I went to their retreat in August.”

Longoria-Rodriguez says the retreat allowed her to unburden herself in a way she’d been unable to before.

Local law enforcement attend a mass along with others at Holy Spirt Catholic Church on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“When I went to my local ACTS retreats, I was only able to share half of me. With these women that I went with on my first retreat, I was able to open up and just get everything out, all the ugly stuff, all the bad stuff,” she said.

According to Longoria-Rodriguez, many first responders bear heavy emotional burdens and don’t always have a place to address what they’ve seen on the job.

“We can only share a certain part of us at a community ACTS retreat in a parish, but here we can share more because we’re in the company of our peers, and people know what we go through, people have seen what we’ve seen. I mean, we’ve seen everything. We see deaths, we see rapes, we see burglaries, we see murders, we see people that need help, child abuse, and we bear all of that, we carry that, and people expect us to keep up the strength and march on,” she said. “At the end of the day all we have when we get home is our God and our family.”

Shields of Christ also gives first responders a support network that goes beyond their parish or their precinct.

Local law enforcement and others attend a mass at Holy Spirt Catholic Church on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“Recently my little sister was diagnosed with cancer. I was a mess, I was all over the place,” Longoria-Rodriguez said. “The power of prayer is awesome; I just told one, and before I knew it, all of them were praying for my sister.”

Longoria-Rodriguez says the women at this weekend’s retreat embraced it wholeheartedly.

“It was powerful,” she said. “Our women, they were awesome.”

Slated to be the director of any future Shields of Christ Women’s ACTS retreats in the RGV, Longoria-Rodriguez says she hopes the program continues to grow along the border.

“All I can say is that it’s a breath of fresh air for these women. If they’ve got something going on, we’re here, we’re a community, we’re sisters and we take care of each other,” she said. “Not just sisters in blue, but sisters in Christ.”

More information on Shields of Christ is available on their website at https://www.shieldsofchrist.org.