Mary Jean Leeper
In the 21st century, it seems everyone is in a constant state of fast-forward with their life-settings on autopilot. We rarely slow down long enough to sift out the frivolous and the mundane. Everyone is plugged in, logged on and connected with way too many “friends” to ever keep up with. Have you ever considered a retreat or a spiritual vacation? A time to shut out the noise of everyday life to reconnect with nature, your own soul and with God – quiet times to hone in on what really matters. Perhaps Father Francis Hoffman says it best: “God wants your attention and everyone else can wait!” But what if you had a chance to drive just 20 minutes away from town to leave work, stress and those constantly bleeping devices behind to spend a day of quiet reflection in the country? Perhaps take a long nap on the porch while deer, rabbits and wild turkeys dart in and out of the woods?
Mary Jean Leeper was helping her husband of 62 years on their 33-acre hay field, when she was, again, dazzled by the sheer beauty and solace they experienced every time they set foot on the property they own just outside of Columbia near the intersection of Routes UU and O. It’s land they had only used for growing hay where you cannot see another soul because the nearest neighbor is up the hill and across the road totally out of sight.
Leeper remembers the exact moment in 2003 when she had that random thought while helping rake and bale hay with her husband Dr. Sid Leeper. “As we were finishing up, I said, ‘This is so pretty. Too bad we cannot share it. It would be a wonderful retreat center.’”
Her husband, a retired physician, replied “Yes, that would be good.” Her suggestion obviously sparked the same vision in him to have a place of solace for the weary on their property. From Mary Jean’s perspective, his positive response stamped the idea with God’s approval. They named the place Shalom Spiritual Life Center because “Shalom” means peace in Hebrew and that’s exactly what they wanted their guests to experience. They immediately began brainstorming ideas for their place where busy church leaders could get away from the everyday hustle of life and spend some time alone with God.
Once they made the decision to use their land for a retreat center, the hardest part was getting started. “We didn’t know how to go about it,” Mary Jean says. She remembers that they had big plans, but no financial backing or governing structure through which to actually run a business. They opted to form a non-profit organization and immediately deeded the property over to the corporation’s board of directors. From there, they had a gazebo built, brought in a porta-potty and a storage shed and, for the first two years, only hosted a few church picnics around the gazebo. They later purchased a large, three-bedroom modular home with enough room to sleep five. One of the bedrooms doubles as a library/sprayer room, complete with a custom-made wooden prayer bench. There’s a full kitchen, washer and dryer and the only thing guests need to bring is their own food. The house’s bright, sunny living room can accommodate up to 22 people for daytime retreats. “I wanted the pictures and everything there to be very restful and part of the retreat atmosphere,” she explains. You’ll find some kind of “Shalom” plaque adorning just about every wall.
Early on, Mary Jean’s greatest concern was how much to charge people for staying there. After all, without any big backers, they needed to keep it scheduled at least enough to cover their expenses. She remembers her husband suggesting, “Let’s don’t charge anything. Let’s have people give whatever they can afford.” They didn’t want to exclude anyone, especially new pastors on starting salaries who wouldn’t be able to afford it. Her advice to guests is always, “You pay whatever it’s been worth to you!” An ornate wooden “moneybox” sits on a coffee table in the living room so people can leave whatever they can – sometimes two dollars, sometimes a hundred.
“We don’t have Wi-Fi or cable TV…on purpose!” she insists. “When you go there, that’s what you want to get away from! It’s a place to renew, relax, recommit and get away from stress and strain.” There’s not even a telephone landline. “It’s very quiet and dark at night,” she adds. There’s a big light hoisted on a pole out front, but hardly anyone ever turns it on. The retreaters who come to the Shalom Spiritual Life Center prefer looking up at a pitch-black night sky glittered with stars – something you only get to see when you’re in the country. During the day, the only noise you’ll hear is from the birds – not traffic!
One frequent guest from Florida prefers the retreat center to hotel lodging when she comes to Columbia to visit her mother. “And for several years, we had four female pastors who met at seminary; they’d meet here a few times a year,” she adds. “They’re tired and they sleep a lot, they read a lot and walk the trails. But I hope they don’t write sermons!” she chides.
“We’ve had a few men’s retreats and I love that! Pastors get so busy and have so many demands on them. I think it’s wonderful for men to retreat. Most men say they don’t have time, but those are the ones who most need it! It can’t help but be a great thing whenever people get together to talk and think and pray,” she says. “Men will always share more when it’s not a mixed group.”
Retired Pastor Jim Hillbrick is a Shalom board member who has enjoyed several personal retreats at the Spiritual Life Center over the years. “It’s a time to think and pray and do some writing.” He loves the fact that it’s so isolated, yet only 20 minutes away from town. For him, it’s “one of the best kept retreat secrets in the mid-Missouri region.” Most of the retreaters are from small towns near Columbia but sometimes from as far away as St. Louis and beyond.
Their guest book is filled with the kind words of satisfied guests: “Thank you for this place of true shalom.” Another writes, “This is a day of new beginnings. Thanks.” Other remarks include, “One of the best days of my life,” “Oh what a lovely place of rest. I’m so touched by your kindness,” and “I will take this love back to Africa.”
The Leepers have two sets of twins and their daughter, Karen Stone, remembers her mom expressing that same kindness as they grew up. “My mom has always, always had people in her life that she’s helping, loving and serving,” Stone recalls. “She’s been one family’s surrogate mother and grandmother since the 60’s when their house burned…she has way more energy that I have.” While growing up, Stone remembers her mom making sure that the men at the Fulton State Hospital were well stocked with new socks and toiletries every year. She describes her mom as “servant,” which is perhaps the best way to describe the 82-year-old whose silver hair is usually pulled back into a ponytail. With boundless energy she handles all the retreat center’s registrations and hospitality, mostly by email and phone. She gets the place ready before guests arrive and cleans, vacuums and does laundry after they leave. But it’s typically easy work because retreaters take good care of Shalom. “When I go down to clean, sometimes I find that there’s nothing to do because the guests vacuum and take care of it.”
Pastor Nick Campbell, Shalom’s board president, has been involved with the retreat center for more than 10 years doing what he can to advertise and get the word out to other pastors via newsletters and at his denomination’s annual conference. Campbell is willing to do whatever it takes to let people know about Shalom because he sees it as an ideal place “to gather with people to focus on those ties that bind them together for a time of renewal.”
Years ago, the Leepers created an endowment to ensure that the Shalom Spiritual Life Center will be around for a long time. It’s never been their desire to create a fancy destination place; they just want their quiet little haven in the country to stay open so weary pastors and lay people continue to have a place to go for times of renewal – a place of real Shalom.