When We All Belong
Our reading today comes to us from a piece titled “Children of a Different Tribe” by Sharon Colligan.
I grew up in the shelter of UU Societies. I was taught by Jews, Hippies, Asians, Scientists, Montessorians. I learned in Sunday School to be skilled in trance journeying, to visualize myself as a tree, to cast circles invoking the Four Directions, to gather for celebration and meditation on the turning of the seasons, to invent my own ritual expressions as my spirit moves.
The word God was not feared, but was translated for children as love, or mystery, or specialness. At thirteen I was gathered in a safe and sacred place with others of my age, and taught that sexuality was an interesting, good, and special thing, well worth making careful decisions about.
We were taught about disease and birth control, about shyness and communication, about the goodness of our bodies. We were taught to talk with one another with frankness, care, and trust. We were not divided by gender; I had never heard of a world ruled by an old white man in the sky. I slept knowing there is safety in togetherness, knowing our elders trusted our wisdom.
I was not taught that my upbringing was unusual; I was not taught that any of this was different from what other kids learn.
But our Youth know that they are different. They give all kinds of names to this feeling of difference: they say, I’m a vegan, I’m a queer, I’m a Pagan, I’m a punk rocker.
I’m here to say: the reason we feel we are different is because we are different. Our formative experiences– of childhood, of youth, of spiritual transformation– are profoundly different than those of the dominant culture. We are Children of a Different Tribe.
I distinctly remember how much I disliked Catechism school. Some of you probably knew it as CCD or some other acronym for Catholic or Anglican religious education. Now, I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for most of my life, many of you already know this about me — but not always so.
At one point in my younger years I was a tried and true Anglo-Catholic. I went through many of the standard rites of passage that you do when your family represents such a grand tradition. I was baptized, made my first confession, first communion, was confirmed and swore fealty to the See of Canterbury, even though I was technically a Unitarian by then, and one thing that is often overlooked as a rite of passage for any good Catholic or Anglican — I went to Catechism school where, in theory, we were to learn the doctrines of the faith.
My memories of Catechism school rest mostly on the image of the thick workbooks you would get for each years curriculum. The workbooks smelled parochial, had odd coloring, Jesus was depicted much like Tom Selleck, and you knew that whatever was contained in that book was all you were going to learn in any given year.
The teachers were often lapsed Catholics and Anglicans that felt by teaching they were atoning for their poor knowledge of churchmanship or lack of commitment. Beyond those lovely workbooks, in my especially younger years, I remember the songs. I imagine some of these are cross-denominational so they might be familiar. We would sing A-B-C-D-E-F-G, Jesus died for you and me. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible told me so. Songs like that have a way of never, ever leaving your mind.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m discounting core Christian teachings, those are still important to our Christian brothers and sisters. But the whole educational experience was disappointing to me and my parents. For me, and I suspect for many, what was left lacking was a sense that it mattered I was there in that classroom, that it matters I was there learning about doctrine and faith and why it’s important — I didn’t feel as if I belonged.
The teachers changed frequently, the workbooks were always the same ones, and the teaching was done by the book. There was little room for questions and if you were lucky the teacher might be willing to answer questions instead of saying, “Go ask the priest.”
Additionally, church services often had nothing in the service itself for kids and many churches I visited with family had those sound proof booths for crying babies or talkative young ones. I despised those rooms. I still do. The sound of a crying baby is the sound of a growing church — it’s an Amen and Alleluia to the work of the people.
When my family started going to the Unitarian church down the road instead, I was blown away by what I found. The minister welcomed kids to stay in service or go to religious ed, the middle school group was relaxed and focused on being supportive to one another — there were no workbooks, and it mattered that I was there. There was a sense of deep belonging, not just for me, but for everyone that was there. We knew that we all belonged and that our questions, struggles, successes, and day-to-day lives mattered in that community.
This approach is at the core of why religious education is different in Unitarian Universalist communities. Not only is it eclectic in its content, not only does it offer broad perspectives and explore various beliefs, but it is anchored in the personal experiences of our children and youth.
At the core of our religious education programs is the goal of fostering lifelong learning, endless curiosity, and a focus on the methods we use to build community and engage learners instead of idolizing the end results. And we owe it all to a woman whose name you heard earlier, Sophia Lyon Fahs.
To say she was a revolutionary does not cut it. Starting in 1937, she began to foster a revival in what was then the American Unitarian Association. She had begun teaching Sunday school in college over 40 years earlier and at that time it was similar to the Sunday school I experienced and that many of you did — even for Unitarians in the late 1800s. It was all about memorizing Bible verses and learning doctrines. Things were a little more formal with our faith then.
Her frustration at this approach would linger with her for decades. Dissatisfaction led to increased passion, increased passion led to innovation. And through this she developed new ways of teaching religious education — ways that focused on what she called a child’s “original approaches of their own to the universe.”
It was child-centered, experiential, enlivened, and yes, popular. Nothing like it had been done before. I’d even go out on a limb to say she helped save the Unitarian denomination. Two years before she was invited to shake things up, the American Unitarian Association had dropped to a meager fifty thousand members. From 1937 onward, it grew again.
All it took to reinvigorate the faith was one dissatisfied Sunday school teacher and her passion for lifelong learning.
We are all lifelong learners. Every moment we are living there are opportunities for us to grow into ourselves and our world. To recognize this is to realize that it is ongoing, never ending, and ultimately makes us more well adjusted in our daily lives. To always be learning and fostering curiosity moves us beyond the tired states of conflict, debate, and constant disagreement.
I know in Unitarian Universalist churches we like to say that our uniqueness comes from our debating, arguing, and recognizing we have a million different opinions about everything. But that does not make us unique. There are many opinions about the Prophet Muhammed and Jesus of Nazareth, so many differences in Buddhist practice and, yes, even in atheist and secular world views, there is diversity and debate there too. We are not unique because we debate.
It is not the burning coal at the center of our faith. If anything, what makes us unique just as any community is is our shared history. Even if you are here as a visitor today, you are a participant, at least for this moment, in our history — a history of asking curious and faith-shattering questions and a history of focusing on how we live our lives in this moment — how we lift up life before death.
That is at the heart of how Unitarian Universalist religious education is and continues to be different and why it matters today. To focus on this moment and the one life we know for certain we have is the lifeblood of cultivating lifelong learning as something that is religious — something essential to the human experience.
Sophia Lyon Fahs was famous for saying, specifically about children but for all of us as well, “Instead of helping people to think about religious things, we need to help them think about ordinary things until insights and feelings are found which have a religious quality.”
If we can believe in the power of that insight, we will not only value the programs of this congregation and all that it does for our children, but we can value the need for us to continue on in our own learning. It will also open the way for greater compassion in dialogue with others and a renewed awe and wonder in the ordinary.
If we truly believe that in this faith tradition we are called to continually learn, we can also believe that a vibrant religious education experience does not just belong to the children — it belongs to you also. I am not done learning, and neither are you. But it is easy to say that we are lifelong learners and that it’s beautiful and wonderful that we get to continue on in such a way.
It’s easy until we start to realize that the obligation to ensure the success of a dynamic and multigenerational learning community falls on each and every one of us. Those obligations demand patience, time, passion, success and failure, and yes — resources.
Here in this congregation, we are about to kick off our annual stewardship campaign and while I know you all know the immense value and necessity of generous giving, and it might be odd to say this just as the campaign is about to start, but the heart of stewardship is not just in keeping the lights on. There are more important and vital reasons. To be a steward of something is to care for it.
It is not simply about maintaining a bare bones operating budget but instead it is about the continuation of a tradition that is still unique in how it fosters lifelong learning. You cannot get liberal religious education in most churches today. You cannot get an atmosphere that encourages questions, no matter how silly they might seem, and urges our children and youth to find their own wisdom and truth.
All of you here today are the stewards of such a program. It’s success and growth are up to you. And I know, I truly do, that our Director of Religious Education and Exploration is doing amazing things. She is stretching an already thin budget and should be applauded for doing so. But valuing lifelong learning is not about applauding her for stretching a thin budget.
As important as such gratitude surely is. But what it is about is making sure she has the resources in the first place to carry out the program we envision and hope for. We do ourselves no justice if our director and teachers are counting pennies. We are not observers of the good work of religious education — we are participants in it for the long haul.
To choose this faith means to choose the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, just as our children are doing so right this moment. We are not separate from the programs of this church. You belong, too. But perhaps the best way to realize this is to look at what we already have before us. We have a vibrant program on a shoestring budget, we have passion and love and creativity, we have a richness that is evident.
Imagine how much more could be possible. Imagine what we could do when we admit that we are all learners — that we never stop our religious education as Unitarian Universalists. We have no goals of enlightenment or salvation in these endeavors. The goal is in the process — the method — the asking of constructive and curious questions and the fostering of dialogue in order to mine the wisdom inherent in our hearts.
I like to imagine Sophia Lyon Fahs working on her own shoestring budget, making ends meet, and still changing the face of religious education forever. All she needed was a group of kids and a story worth sharing. Their engagement, their questions, their exploration of the story was all that was needed. The goal was to not make them good Unitarians, but good listeners, responders, and well-adjusted in their interactions with others.
Her legacy is one I am deeply thankful for as a minister every day. Without her contributions we may not have broken out of the old way of religious education for some time. We might still be singing “ABCDEFG Jesus died for you and me” and imposing textbook experiences onto not just the children in our programs but on those of you here today as well.
Unitarian Universalist kids are special. I’ve worked with many of them in the past — I was one of them — and while I’m not patting myself on the back, I recognize that the way we teach our kids is impacting, for the better, how they are in the world. They endeavor to foster dignity and compassion, they recognize oppressions and work to stop them or be there for those experiencing them, they value their bodies, they do not hold the same fears around faith as others, and it shouldn’t stop with them.
It shouldn’t stop period. So in the coming weeks I want you all to reflect on where you belong in this scheme of lifelong learning. You’ve chosen this faith and with it you’ve chosen a history and tradition of looking at the world and cultivating wisdom, truth, and spiritual depth from both the extraordinary and ordinary. You’ve chosen to be here in this room, and you may have chosen for your children to be a part of our program. It is all a part of the enduring and revolutionary legacy of Sophia Lyon Fahs — one woman who knew that the way we approach learning was just as important as what we learned.
In the spirit of that legacy, what possibilities do we have before us? How do we ensure that we all belong in this community of lifelong learning and how do we move beyond the scarcity that is present and celebrate the richness that is possible and present? However you answer, know that you are not just invited to contribute — but you are needed, valued, and a part of it. How will you belong and answer the call?