Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Joys and Terrors of the Religious Education Volunteer Ministry

A Sermon Dedicated to Janet Lopes, Retiring Religious Education Assistant

Unitarian Universalist Society. Sacramento, CA, Sunday, March 14, 2010                                                                        

Hymns:  #324, Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads; #16, ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple; #299, Make Channels for the Streams of Love.

Reading:  “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs (#657, Singing the Living Tradition)

Today’s responsive reading is based on the words of Sophie Fahs, the minister after whom our Fahs Classroom is named. 

In 1937 the American Unitarian Association hired her to edit the children’s materials in a new series of religious education curricula.  Her books include Tomorrow’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage; Jesus, the Carpenter’s Son; Beginnings of Life and Death; The Old Story of Salvation, and The Church across the Street.  She taught at Union Theological Seminary.  She was ordained a UU minister in 1948, at age 83. 

            

Sermon

            If you haven’t visited our Community Garden (out at the end of the parking lot), I invite you to do so–today or any day.  Last Sunday morning in Religious Education we had a Garden Day, thanks to the organizing efforts of several volunteers.  Children and youth decorated bird houses made out of hollowed-out gourds, which were then mounted on the wooden fence.  They made signs to stick in the raised garden plots or take home for their own use.  Then they explored.    

Children, youth and adults wandered around our enormous garden, investigating, collecting, chatting, wondering, delighting.  A few kids wanted to show me the many ladybugs crawling on a pile of composting weeds–and crawling over their arms and hands.  Others harvested shiny green snap-peas and greenish-yellow broccoli flowers.  One showed me green onions and the skinniest little carrots, with fresh brown dirt clinging to them.  The carrots were a far cry from those uniformly cut mini-carrots  you find in a plastic bag in the supermarket, the ones that look like big orange capsules.  On the last Sunday in April, we will invite youth and children again to the garden–to do a lot more hands-on work, and by then the harvest will have more variety. 

Wandering in the garden gave me a chance to chat with adult volunteers as well as kids—much less rushed than I usually am on Sunday.  It seemed that once you entered the garden, the boundaries between being a teacher and student, between leader and learner, became fuzzy.   People of all ages were giving one another a helping hand.  We showed one another new discoveries.  We learned again about feeling excitement about ordinary things, like plants and bugs.     

Some of you might think this sermon is a plea for volunteers in our religious education program for the summer or next fall.  Not really.  I do hope that you can appreciate the ministry that we do with youth and children, and the ministry they do with us.  Even if you never spend more than a few minutes interacting with a child, your support of our religious education ministry makes possible so much inspiration and insight, so many transforming moments.  Well, to be truthful, I hope you can’t resist stopping by the Religious Education table outside to ask how you can be part of the fun. 

             Often when we say the words “education,” what goes off in the mind is an image of teacher and pupil, of children in rows hearing facts and not saying much in return.  Or maybe it’s an image of kids not staying in rows and not hearing a thing, all talking at the same time, a great chorus of chaos and noise.   Maybe when you hear the words “Sunday school” you think about learning rules, doctrines, dates, famous names, and other forgettable facts.  That’s not really the way it is, and not how it should be, if we are true to our liberal faith tradition.

The late Harold Howe was a professor of teacher education at Harvard and a Commissioner of Education in the federal government.  He was also a UU.  After a church service, he gave this note to his minister: “Here’s a definition of a Unitarian Universalist: a person who can ask children, ‘What is God?’ and listen seriously to their replies.

“P.S.: I once went to Sunday school for about 7 years, but no one asked me ‘What is God?’ Instead, they told me.”

Our tradition affirms the value of hearing what stirs the spirit of every person, at every age and stage of life.  When we ask another:  “What do you think?  What do you feel?” we open ourselves to be changed.  This interchange is the heart of religious education.   

            I asked a few volunters in our own Religious Education program for their reflections.  One writes:  “Given my own Sunday School experiences of expecting to be proper and very quiet, I am constantly amazed that UU kids are … polite, not afraid of adults, confident that their opinions matter and won’t be laughed at, and [that they are ] able to ‘pass’and not say anything as an option.  UU religious education is such a good foundation for children.” 

The Reverend Til Evans is retired from a career as a director and minister of religious education and as a professor of seminarians at Starr King School for the Ministry.  Now in her late 80s, Til says that whoever we are, when we give time and attention to children in our congregations, we are educating them religiously.  It’s not about giving them facts and concepts, she says.  By our actions and by our presence, we’re teaching about relationships, community and love. We’re teaching children and teenagers about their own dignity and worth, and about the value of their own ideas and sources of inspiration.  She adds that when we religiously educate others, we are religiously educating ourselves. We are engaged in the work of transformation, not forthose we teach, but with them. We are all changed by what we do together. 

Several years ago, in my former congregation  I interviewed some Religious Education volunteers.  I asked, “How has doing this work changed you?  What have you gained?”  One volunteer said: “Doing this teaches humility! The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” Another said that helping with kids, even on an occasional basis, teaches patience and self-confidence.  One teacher said she became more flexible and observant: “I listen better now.” Another said he was learning to use his intuition, especially when a dry lesson called for some spicing up.  A fairly new member of the church said working in religious education has “Made me more accountable to working thorough my own journey in becoming a Unitarian. These kids are so sharp. They want to know how this material relates to their lives. Teaching has made me do my own reading and walk my own path.”

A religious education volunteer here at this church says this:  “I … know from watching my own kids that having adults other than your folks take an interest in you is so important.  It gives the kids another perspective and an opportunity to see themselves in others’ eyes.  (School) teachers are helpful, but at church we can serve in a personal way for the kids. I also believe it’s important to give parents a break and allow them to be in roles other than mom and dad all the time.  I remember as a mother of small children, I really needed adult contact, interaction and accomplishments.  I’m pleased that I can give back to my church community by being with the kids.”

Often when we talk about volunteer work, teaching, or other kinds of service, it can have a sense of duty about it.  We want to think well of ourselves, so we might think we should be of service, should help out.  How about if we approach our altruism… selfishly!  How about asking: What’s in it for you? What are you getting out of this experience?  How is it changing you?    

You could ask these questions to anyone, about any of their chosen activities, in or out of the congregation.  How has joining this venture changed you?  What do you gain from giving?

Our growing group of Religious Education volunteers here ranges in age from 18 to 80, and older.  They must be getting something out of it. 

One of our newer volunteers writes this: “The RE kids always enrich me with their honesty, openness, confidence, and humor (even if they don’t mean to be funny).  I go away feeling like the future will be okay.”   

            I myself never wanted to work in Religious Education.  When I was asked to teach Sunday school for the first time,  I was 26 years old.  It was a year or two after I had joined my first UU congregation, in Springfield, Illinois.  I didn’t want to work with kids; I had barely spoken to them.   Why would I want to give up hearing the speaker every Sunday or give up mingling with adults?  To be honest, I was afraid. But somehow, I said yes. 

It was a small class of early elementary-school aged kids.  My co-teacher was a guy named Steve, older than I was, and the father of two children, one of whom was in our class. I forget the topic of our curriculum, but one Sunday we learned about Harriet Tubman, the black slave in the American South who escaped from slavery and then risked her life by going back to help many other slaves to escape.  For this we made a house out of a cardboard box and crawled in and out of it on the floor.   

One day I led a discussion that included pussy willow branches. The thin branch of a pussy willow tree has buds covered in a furry skin—hence the name. The size of a vitamin capsule, the buds are fun to hold and feel. As I sat there talking to the kids, a girl named [Annie] said: “Roger?” “Yes?” I said. “[Jenny] has been playing with a pussy willow bud that she took off the branch. And she put it up her nose and now she can’t get it out.” Sure enough, tears were rolling down Jenny’s little face.  She was poking in her nose, pushing the bud up farther as her panic increased.  Those were the days before churches had two adults in the classroom all the time, so I was there alone.  To the other girl, I said, “Would you please go upstairs to the service and get Kathleen?” She did. Kathleen was not the girl’s mother, but a woman I knew who had seemed to be a take-charge kind of person. Either I didn’t know who the girl’s mother was, or I was afraid of getting into trouble. Kathleen came downstairs and held the girl in her arms. She spoke easily to calm her down. She coaxed her to blow gently till the alien object came out. Crisis over.  Jenny must be over 30 now. I don’t know if she has remembered that traumatic experience, but I know I’ll never forget it. 

Last year I spoke to a group of seminarians at Starr King School.  One of them was Annie, the helpful girl from that class.  She’s going to become a minister!  

That same year that I began teaching Sunday school, my aging mother’s  health declined fast.  One Thursday evening, a few days after Mom had been hospitalized, I received a call that I should come home right away. It was a four-hour drive to Indianapolis, and I wouldn’t get there till after midnight.  I was scheduled to teach the coming Sunday.  While packing to leave I called my co-teacher to tell him. I offered to drop off the lesson plan and supplies on my way out of town.         Steve was more than willing to cover for me on Sunday, and happy to come to my apartment to pick up the materials.

 We had a brief exchange at my door, and he wished me well. He didn’t say much, and all we did was to shake hands. But it made a difference to have some friendly human contact before setting out on that late-night journey to the hospital.  Had I not been in a teaching relationship with Steve, I wouldn’t have had his kind words to take with me on that long and lonely drive.

I did receive more than I gave in that volunteer job. We cannot predict how we will be changed, enriched or blessed by the experience when we decide to participate.

How might being involved in this congregation change you?  Or has it already?  I believe that any kind of activity can be a source of insight and growth, if we only take the time to reflect on why we’re doing it, what we’re experiencing, what it makes us feel, how it stretches us, how it affects our outlook.  What are we getting out of it?

What is your participation giving back to you?  This is not a cost-benefit analayis.  It’s a question for spiritual reflection.  Giving and receiving, speaking and listening, lending a hand or reaching out for one, we are changed by what we do together.  We are changed by making this congregation our home. 

Another one of our religious education volunteers writes this:  “Working with the kids feeds my soul.  It’s so wonderful to see them learn and develop.  I learn so much from them and gain insights about myself.  I’ve also been blessed with great teaching colleagues and have learned from them as well…. I truly believe that helping children grow into fully functioning adults is the most important thing I can do.  Thanks for letting me do that.”

As Professor Til Evans says, when we work with youth and children in our churches, we are educating religiously—educating ourselves no less than them.

            In my early 30s I was a member of the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago.   After many years doing other kinds of church work, I started helping out  with our teenage youth group.  It had meetings on Sunday mornings as well as service activities in the church and local community, field trips, and weekend parties.  My role was to show up, be present, and sometimes be a chauffer.

I rarely got any evidence that my presence made a difference or that I might be a valued source of advice.  Little did I know that many parents have the same experience with their own teenagers.  That church’s Minister of Religious Education told me not to worry—many teenagers don’t like to show what they are thinking, especially if they appreciate something you’ve done for them.  This advice has given me the courage to reach out and greet the youth of any congregation, including this one. Even if the expressions on their faces look as if they would prefer to do anything else in the world than talk to me, I force myself to ask them what’s going on.

One year I was a  chaperone for some of our Chicago teens at the General Assembly

of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  After our return, I helped them to put on

a service about their experiences.  Both were funny and full of passion. Willy,

a classical pianist, played music in that service. In his remarks he said he had been inspired by the social action discussions at General Assembly, including a vote in favor of same-gender marriage equality. This was 1996, and he was only 14.  Ten years later I was a minister in California.  I flew back to Chicago for a national conference of religiously-based advocates for low-wage workers, especially for the right to organize a union. It was interfaith, with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, UUs and Muslims participating. And it was inter-generational. Many of those faith-based activists were in their 20s and 30s. They were sharp, optimistic, and passionate. They spoke well, sang well, and could articulate practical strategies and long-term goals. 

One of these activists was Willy, the kid from my former church. Now a college graduate, he recognized me before I figured out who he was. By this time he was no longer Willy, but Will.  Tall, with a mop of reddish brown hair, he was cheerful and energetic, speaking to people of all ages with confidence and conviction. After graduating from an Ivy League university, Will had volunteered for an election campaign in Ohio—his side lost.  Then he moved back in with his parents in Chicago. He told me that in college he had he let his piano practicing slide so he could do a little studying and a lot of activism. Now he was looking for a job as a labor organizer. His mind was set on being an overworked, underpaid activist on behalf of low-wage working families.

Now, I can’t be sure that Will would be any less visionary, self-confident, hopeful and

happy if he had not gone through years of Unitarian Universalist religious education activities

with not-so-confident volunteers like me. I cannot be sure of that. But I am sure that I wouldn’t have come to know him if I hadn’t been one of those volunteers. If I had not stretched myself to do what I felt awkward about–to do what I thought wasn’t sure was making a  difference– I wouldn’t have been able to witness the development of inspiring young Unitarian Universalists.  

In the words of another volunteer:  working in religious education “makes me “optimistic about life in general.  It gives me hope for humanity.”

Last Sunday in the garden, I chatted with a few kids who have recently begun visiting the church.   One recent young visitor had been dragged here—I know that’s true because his grandfather told me he had dragged him here personally.  This young man showed me a handful of green peas he had collected in a Ziplock bag.  He said to me, “You know, this church is 100 times better than I thought it was going to be!  You have a garden… and all these other things to do!” 

“I’m glad to hear that!” I responded, and told him about the program that we would have waiting for him on the following Sunday.    

My hope is that before long he won’t say “You have a garden and all these other things to do”—he will say, “We have a garden and all these other things to do.”  If we convey only one thing to youth and children here, let it be that this community is theirs.  In this congregation, we belong to one another.   May we teach this lesson to them, learn it from them, learn it from one another. 

Giving and receiving, speaking and listening, lending a hand or reaching out for one, we are changed by what we do together.  We are changed by making this congregation our home. 

So may it be. Amen.

             

 

 

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