A Ministry Towards the World

a sermon by Rev. Jill Cowie


Religious educator Maria Harris once said, “Religious education is the whole community religiously educating the world to engage in a ministry towards the world.” This sermon and service will honor this call of religious education as central to our ministry. A lunch and visioning session led by UUA Regional Consultant Karen Bellevance-Grace will follow the service. The whole congregation is invited to participate.

The Sermon

Among the most accomplished and tribes of Africa, no tribe is more respected than the Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting between the Masai then and now is still “Kasserian Ingera,” It means, “And how are the children?”

Even Masai with no children of their own always give the traditional answer, “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of nurturing the young are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. “All the children are well” means that life is good.

I wonder how it might affect our consciousness of our own children’s welfare if in our culture we took to greeting each other with this daily question: “And how are the children?” I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared about in our country.

What would it be like… if the minister began every worship service by asking the question, “And how are the children?” If every town leader had to answer the question at the beginning of every meeting: “And how are the children? Are they all well?” Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear their answers? What would it be like? I wonder…

What would it be like… if the minister began every worship service by asking the question, “And how are the children?” I wonder. This morning is dedicated to this question, how are the children? A question that came up a few weeks ago during the inclusivity workshop led by Kelly Taylor, when one person asked what would it be like if children were at the center of this congregation? What would this be like I wonder?

For me the question points to a larger one, what would it look like if children and adults were more connected? Teenagers with elders, children with young adults, middle-agers with toddlers, all of us sharing experiences together. What would it look like if we were truly a vibrant multi-generational community? In 2004, our vision statement said we want to become a vibrant, multi-generational community. And our 1997 mission says we will create a welcoming and nurturing religious community of all ages. How many of you here today aspire to become a truly multi-generational congregation? Hands?

I am not quite sure we have figured out what that means for us. And it seems important we get clarity as we prepare to search for a new director of religious education, our third search in seven years. But, I do know at least one thing. There’s a clear distinction between implementing an excellent religious education program for children and youth, and building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. They are related, but not the same. Implementing the religious education program is the primary responsibility of the DRE and the Religious Education Committee-and over the past several years, they have worked hard. But building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community is the responsibility of all of us. A vibrant, multigenerational community isn’t a program, or one Sunday service a month. It’s part of our identity from which our religious education program flows. Our ability to create an excellent religious education program depends on us being a vibrant, loving multigenerational community. Not the other way around.

Karen Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is here today to help us figure how to fashion this identity. She recently wrote, “The world of church is changing. And why not? The world of medicine is changing. The world of journalism is changing. The way we govern, teach, communicate, learn, the way we buy and read books is changing. There’s no good reason to believe that changes would not also impact the way we understand worship and Sunday School and every other aspect of congregational life.”1

All this is true, and I wonder how will we adapt to change? There is no question that children today are growing up in a different world from the one most of us grew up
in. Today the divorce rate is four times higher than it was in 1960 and back then one in four children had two parents who worked full time, now more than three in four do. Twenty million children and adolescents are growing up with only one parent.2 Add to this a universal pressure to succeed, ubiquitous sports leagues that start in preschool, and changing gender roles. Families today are under immense pressure.

A colleague, who has been a minister longer than me describes the ways his church has changed over the last 20 years. And since I haven’t been here that long, I want to know if that’s true for this church as well. He says “back then, a greater percentage of adults knew a greater percentage of the children’s names and vice versa. Children’s time in general was not as structured and scheduled then as it is today. People brought kids along to church events even if those events weren’t for children. We’d just let them play in some other part of the building, or outside if the weather was nice enough, or even if it wasn’t.” Does this ring true for you who have raised kids here? What a difference 20 years makes.3

Just as I started bringing my kids to church we have witnessed the death of Sunday morning as the one, truly sacred time in the United States, the one time when no other events or activities could be scheduled. I remember being forced to chose between church and activities that demand—as the price of participation—that my
children make that activity their highest priority. Looking back now, I see how much I needed balance, how much my kids needed balance. I wonder, if balance is something we offer here for our families for our children?

Like most of our congregations we have tinkered with a Sunday School model of RE that is based on the public education model, which itself arose from the social and economic context of the Industrial Age. We have made technical adaptations to this model – with the use of Spirit Play and Tapestry of Life, and social justice activities, – but we still center our RE programs – and the expectations of our religious programming– chiefly on 25 hours of Sunday morning a year, and that’s if families come every week. We know the pressure on families today make RE attendance sporadic and teacher recruitment difficult. And for many of us who raised kids in churches, we tell ourselves, that we have put in our hours teaching.

You may be wondering, with all this, can we truly adapt at all? I believe it is our moral imperative to try. Studies show that teens who participate in religious communities tend to be physically healthier with lower rates of sexual activity and alcohol use. Brain science tells us that young people need caring adults to help them set limits, and that high functioning youth spend 1-2 hours a week at their faith communities. Young people say that participating in faith based communities enhance their overall sense of well-being.4

To make this more tangible, I asked a handful of young people from three different UU congregations, including this one, what being a UU means to them. I changed the names unless they told me I could mention them.

–Todd age fifteen and adopted, said “Coming from a difficult childhood, I found a place of peace. A place where I can relax and trust people.”
–Jessy, 13 years old and also adopted said, “I like the socializing and appreciate that it’s a place where people can confide in one another.”
–Eliza, age 11, said being a UU means having people who support you, care about you, who are there for you when you are questioning, and when you want to have fun.
–Lisa age 19, looked back on her early teenage years and said, “during a time when I felt very isolated from the rest of the world, going to a UU church exposed me to a space where community was foundational and possible no matter what.”

Growing up in a UU faith community give these young people the experience of belonging, a place to trust, a place of being seen, held, and valued as their most authentic selves. For the young adults I talked to their UU church was for them a place where spirituality, ethics and social action formed foundational, life sustaining values that guide their engagement in the world.

–Brigit, age 23 says, “While I couldn’t see it for what it was in my youth, retrospectively I know going to church was very informative in shaping the way I view love and spirituality. This helps me today to search out communities founded on respect and reciprocity.”
–Tom, age 24 says , “Without church I would have never taken the time to think about many of the questions church has asked. I liked being challenged to ask those questions.”
–Sarah, age 18 says, “Being a part of the church has taught me about other people who have a different life than my own, and that it is not right to turn away from people in need.”
–Brenton says, “being a UU has grounded me in values of universal compassion. To be raised in a community that praised not my service to God but my service to men and women is something I will always be grateful for.”

My daughter Morgan remembers the first time she went public as a UU. It was during her senior year in college, and she had returned to college after six months abroad and was not adjusting well. She writes, “I felt depressed, lost and dissatisfied. I began to go to UU Campus Ministry every Sunday where a small, intimate group of students gathered for dinner, laughter, reflection, joys and sorrows. There was an ease and sacredness to our being together. Each of us had different expressions of faith and we held all of them with equal respect. Being a UU means to me that ultimately each of us chooses what is sacred to us” and I am sure my practice of UUism will continue to be dynamic, shifting inward and outward through my life.” Ah..music to my mother ears. Can you hear how life sustaining- our congregations are in the lives of these young people? This testimony says we are good at affirming young people. And its true. Yet I also know there are youth whose testimonies we will never hear because they left us, this church, not feeling not welcomed, not feeling seen with worth and value and that as a community we have work to do. What if we took a step back, with Karen today, to acknowledge that every time we gather we are truly multi generational, and to see the possibilities in that reality? What is we paused, to consider the plethora of different ways and times we can connect to build authentic vital relationships that takes some of the pressure off Sunday mornings? And to acknowledge how radical, how counter culture this is, in a society so age segregated? To ask, how can we embody multi- generational learning?

I love that we send valentines to our college kids. How about the idea to hold a camping weekend in late spring, or the idea of dedicating one of the FB rooms as an arts space— not only for kids, but for anyone who wants to be creative and get a little messy. Or what if when the youth go to City Year, more adults go or when adults volunteer for Glean team, the youth go? What if when the youth are walking so many miles against hunger in Boston, the elders and children walk for hunger together around the common and we sponsor them? What if when the social justice committee is organizing an action, the children go too. What if when the elders are planning a game night, the youth and young adults join in? What if when we all gather for worship the children feel this space is their home too?

What if we all take responsibility for building and sustaining a vibrant, loving multigenerational community by asking everyday how can we connect across the generations, then make the invitation, and say yes. What if we took the risk to try new things, to fail, and then to try again. My hope is if we do all these things and more that in a few years we will have a beautiful, blessed mixing of ages, week in and week out, holding us, teaching us, challenging us, inspiring us. And when our new religious education director needs volunteers to help teach a 5th and 6th grade class, ten people will raise their hand and beg to be given this opportunity. This is what a vibrant, loving multigenerational community looks like to me. But I’m just one person. We need your vision, wisdom, and compassion. My sense is that we value how we fashion a people so much that we will together take the risk to adapt to this changing world. And that when we center the children, we will all thrive. Let us begin today and every day to ask, Kasserian Ingera, how are the children?

1. [http://fullweekfaith.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/2/9/12293877/finalto_web.fahs_fel

2. [Debra W. Haffner “What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know” 2008]

3. [Josh Pawleck, “The Meaning of Multigenerational” sermon]

4. [Debra Haffner, pg 66.]