When We Get To It: In Defense of Our Youth

This was written for a UU Polity immersion class I took during General Assembly this summer. I’m unsure of if I’ll deliver the actual sermon anywhere else, but I do intend to try the modified bridging ceremony at the church I serve.

Instructor Feedback: “This was a beautiful reflection essay. This is the essay that made me cry. It is a wonderful tweak to a familiar ritual, rooted in deep understanding of UU theology and polity.

Dedicated with love and gratitude to Chloe, who I suspect might be getting tired of hearing me tell this story. I love you to the moon and back, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.

Every year in our congregations and at General Assembly, we celebrate our graduating high school seniors with a bridging ceremony. Traditionally, babies dedicated in the UU church are presented with a rose with the thorns removed, symbolizing how the community will protect them as they grow and learn. Then, when they graduate high school, youth cross a symbolic bridge from childhood to young adulthood and are presented with a rose with the thorns intact, symbolizing their readiness to handle the thorny parts of adult life with care.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to end our commitment to sheltering our young people.

Surveys of Unitarian Universalist young adults show a significant drop in engagement after bridging.[1] Anecdotal evidence and institutional memory say that these young adults will drift away and either come back when they have children themselves, or not at all.

I was in the former category. I joined the church at 17 as a senior in high school. I soon became very involved, especially with religious education. After about a year, I stopped coming. It was hard to make church a priority with college classes, it was hard to get Sunday mornings off from my serving job, and while I loved church and missed going, it was very easy to slip away. In retrospect, I see how I was part of the larger ongoing pattern of young adults whose love for and connection to the church cannot sustain the demands of young adulthood without intentional and persistent intervention from the community.

Like so many others, I came back when I had a child. Actually, I came back when I was pregnant, and I’ll never forget the moment I knew I was home.

I hadn’t been to church in two or three years. The minister and DRE who served when I first joined had both moved on, and as I made my way towards the building, I was worried. I was worried I would be judged for being pregnant with no partner, worried I would be chastised for disappearing, or worse, that I would not be remembered at all.

But I didn’t have to worry for long. Before I even reached the entrance of the church, one of my former religious education students was flying down the steps and into my arms. That hug melted away every worry and left me without a doubt that I was, finally, exactly where I was meant to be. A desire to raise my child in an open, loving, intellectual, and compassionate community brought me back to the church that day – but Chloe kept me there. She kept me there while I tentatively reacclimated to the community, slowly allowed myself to lean into their love, and cautiously learned to love myself through their example. I mean it when I say that hug saved my life, that Chloe changed my entire world for the better that day.

So, when I say our children are our future, when I say that our youth are the ones who will save and change this world – I am speaking from experience. Because I’m not sure any adult could have gotten me back through those doors that day. My faith that endured through what has generously been called my “interim period” was not in adults or the institution as she stands – it was in the brilliant kids I got to serve, and in everything that we could be.

The Rev. Dr. Natalie Fenimore said, “I’m in love with the Unitarian Universalism that does not yet exist.”

Often, we speak about the world we want in such terms. In terms of a bridge we will cross when we get to it, when the circumstances better allow it, whenever we get to point B when we haven’t even put on our shoes to depart from point A.

There is never a good time for such holy disruption of the status quo, there is never a good time for what is difficult and for change that is uncomfortable. So, what is to say we are not now standing at the threshold of the world we dream about? When are we going to cross that bridge into the Unitarian Universalism we know we can embody?

When are we going to take these beautiful principles and put them into real action?

What is stopping us from now?

At this year’s first fully virtual meeting, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly adopted two actions of immediate witness[2] and three responsive resolutions[3]. One resolution called for increased investment in and accountability to our youth. This call came after the youth and young adult volunteer staff withdrew their participation from GA due to their labor being undervalued and unfairly compensated. All but one of the other statements adopted revolved around fighting racism and white supremacy culture in our congregations and society. And we cannot pretend the two causes are not intertwined.

A key characteristic of white supremacy culture is a clear hierarchy of power – a hierarchy that consistently puts white cisgender heterosexual adult males at the top. They are the standard, and everyone else the deviation. Standard medical care is designed for their bodies, safety equipment is designed for their forms, systems of power are designed for their success, and the further away from the “standard” one exists, the more difficulty and oppression they will face. The young hold less power than the old, the feminine less than the masculine, the white more than the Black or brown, and the impacts of holding multiple non-standard identities only compound.

The term “intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe the unique experience of black women who exist in intersecting oppressions for being black and female. The implications of holding multiple marginalized identities cannot be extracted from one another – the systems which perpetuate those oppressions can only be dismantled.

Likewise, the ways we as a society and as a faith tradition undervalue our youth and our Black People, Indigenous People, and People of Color cannot be detangled. And our Black and Indigenous Youth and Youth of Color? What must their experiences be right now? Do you think it is representative of our values?

Polity is how we live our values out loud – these resolutions and actions that were adopted at GA are statements of our values and faith. They are significant, but ultimately inconsequential unless we follow up with direct action, unless we address the systems and patterns in our society and institutions that have made such statements necessary. We all know that inherent worth and dignity of all people should be the default – we have to say it because it isn’t the default in so many ways. The anti-racist and youth-affirming statements all passed with the overwhelming majority of delegates in favor – we all know that affirming and centering young people and people of color in our communities should be the default – we must choose to address the places where it is not so.

Here is the bridge. Here is the moment we can choose to be the people we want to be and build the world we dream about.

Traditionally, bridging seniors will cross a bridge at the front of the sanctuary, symbolically crossing from childhood into adulthood in the church community. They are embraced on the “adult” side with hugs and gifts from their now-peers, who have served as mentors and RE teachers and trusted role models for years.

And then, traditionally, we let them down.

They graduate from church and the world keeps turning. Campus ministries are few and far between, barriers of time and resources keep them from participating in church offerings, they slowly fade away and the next year, we have another bridging. Maybe a few years after that, they bring their new babies to church. We welcome them and shower them with dedications and affirmations, loving and loving them right through the children’s recessional until they are back in RE out of sight and out of mind. And the world keeps turning, still with the majority of time and resources focused on those of us the church deems worthy – those with adult attention spans and wallets and interests and points of view. Those “respectable adults” I suspect many of us swore we would never be. But here we are – at this bridge. This choice point. This opportunity to give our kids better than we received.

So, the next time we have a bridging ceremony we’re going to do things a little differently.

Our graduating seniors are still going to cross a bridge, but instead of across a stage, they are going to cross from where our kids sit for time for all ages, into the center of the sanctuary. And then, I’m going to follow them. And the other leaders in our church community are going to follow them too, and anyone who would like to is invited to follow them in body or in spirit to celebrate and honor their unique paths and visions and to mark a change in how we choose to engage with our children and youth, how we choose to invest in them, and how we choose to honor their inherent worth and dignity and the brilliant light they shine upon the world.

And then, our young adults are going to tell us about the world they dream about and how we can help make it so. And we’re all going to listen.

May it be so.

[1] https://www.uua.org/blueboat/young-adults/why-do-engaged-uu-youth-become-untethered-young-adults

[2] https://www.uua.org/action/process/planning-aiw-ga

[3] https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/2020_responsive_resolutions.pdf

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