East Beach

History of the La Casa Invitational

As always, it started with a desire. The Board of Directors of La Casa de Maria Retreat Center in Santa Barbara, CA, was asking, "How can we make more of a difference?"

     La Casa had matured from a struggling retreat center into an internationally revered model facility. After 20 years, under the direction of Don George, all of the buildings were paid for and the 26-acre retreat center was booked to capacity. Each year 13,000 people attended programs, relaxed in the peaceful surroundings and returned home rested and refreshed. And the world was getting worse.

     Having satisfied its basic needs, La Casa was turning its attention to service. Father Alan McCoy, O.F.M., a member of the Board, had been a priest at La Casa in the days when it was a secluded novitiate for the Immaculate Heart Order. After leaving La Casa, he spent the next 20 years serving the poorest people in the ghettos of Los Angeles. He described waking up at three in the morning to help a homeless man hunt for cardboard on which to sleep. Father Alan said to the Board, "Yes, I feel the pain but there is always hope and there is always something you can do." The Board decided to invite 40 people to La Casa to talk about hope.

     Father Alan pulled out a book by Tom Sine. Wild Hope described a dizzying array of interconnected, growing problems that were not being addressed with enough determination to pull the world out of its graveyard spiral. It left the reader reeling. Barbara Gaughen, a member of the La Casa Board, tracked down the author in Seattle and persuaded him to attend and act as host of the invitational conference, "Wild Hope." Sine's book became the talking paper for the event.

     Near the end of "Wild Hope," Don George asked for suggestions. How could a retreat center have a greater impact on global problems? As I listened to Don describe the question, a picture of the Bing Crosby Invitational appeared in my mind, complete with deer grazing on the 13th fairway at Pebble Beach. As I was daydreaming, Don turned directly to me. "What are you thinking?"

     I looked up. Everyone was staring at me. My mind did a flip and I said, "You could call it the La Casa Invitational. Why not find somebody out in the world who knows a question that nobody else is asking? When we find that person we'll ask them for 100 names of people to invite. I'll bet they can always come up with the answer, and that might make a difference."

     We all went back to our busy lives with memories of a nice retreat. But those deer at Pebble Beach just kept grazing in our minds and the La Casa Invitational refused to disappear, as dreams so often do.

     I met Tom Van Sant a few weeks later when he came to Santa Barbara to talk to a group of geophysicists at UCSB. Tom had a unique perspective, peering at the world through the speeded-up lens of his GeoSphere Project. I asked Tom, "If you could invite any 100 people to spend three days with you in a beautiful, secluded place, and you could ask them any question, assuming they would find the answer, what would your question be?" Tom looked at me intensely. He stared at the table and closed his eyes. When he looked up a couple of minutes later, the geophysicists had gathered around the table and he began greeting them.

     I sat down with Tom at his studio in Santa Monica a week later. After half an hour, he had come up with a great question: How can we speed up the shift to wholistic thinking from linear, reductionist compartmentalized thinking? In other words, how can we get people to see the 'big picture?'

     The Board of La Casa decided to sponsor the La Casa Invitational, hosted by Tom Van Sant. We called it the "Big Picture Summit." Tom Van Sant drew up a list of 100 people with diverse perspectives. I traveled to Santa Monica several times with Don George and Barbara Gaughen to work on the program with Tom. Volunteers tracked down addresses and sent out invitations. Sixty-four people attended the "Big Picture Summit." In three days they developed 72 specific strategies that would speed up the shift to wholistic thinking. Ron Dexter's crew shot 66 hours of videotape on Betacam SP. Marti Glenn and I conducted 42 interviews. A report was issued and presented to the United Nations as part of its "Fiftieth Anniversary" celebration.

     As the "Big Picture Summit" was winding down, I interviewed Robert Muller and asked him what his question would be. He responded without a pause, "What is the meaning of life, and what is the meaning of death?" He had spent most of his life at the United Nations, and this question had continued to haunt him after retiring from his career as UN Assistant Secretary General. The La Casa Board decided to host "A Matter of Life and Death." We flew to Costa Rica to meet with Robert Muller where he served as Chancellor of the U.N. University for Peace. On the way from San Jose to the university, we visited Rodrigo Corrozo, former president of Costa Rica and founder of the University for Peace. He confided that he had offered Muller a salary of $1 per year to be the first Chancellor of the University for Peace. "I now owe him eight dollars!"

     Forty volunteers donated their time to make each event happen. Between sixty and eighty participants scheduled the time and made the effort to be there. As we approached the year 2000, there was a growing sense of hope and joy at La Casa. We were making a difference as the results of the Invitational reached a growing audience. Together, we were sailing into uncharted waters without a notion of what we would find.


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