Is Children’s Literature Too White?

I was a child with curiosity about the whole world. I made my first explorations through books. Among my early discoveries were these: (1) the world is alive with different people and cultures, and (2) the world of books is created by, about, and for white people of Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Ruby_Reading from mybrownbabyThe collection in my childhood library had a definite homogeneity, and I noticed. Looking back, I am sure I noticed because, superficially at least, few protagonists seemed like me. The girls on the covers had tiny noses and long, straight, light-colored hair. I didn’t mind; I liked to imagine being other than who I was, and I liked those books! I fell in love with The Witch at Blackbird Pond, the Narnia books, and a series about a girl and a dragon in Cornwall, England. When I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I recognized myself…and that was perhaps too much reality.

At the end of the 1960s, when I was hunkering down in the library, “multiculturalism” was barely a whisper in the breeze. I personally knew only a few African Americans. One went to my school, the son of a celebrity athlete. At home, my dad lamented the violent scenes from the black civil rights movement we saw on television and my mom remembered racial segregation in the town where she had grown up, calling it a disgrace. Yet none of this seemed connected to my awareness of who was or was not represented in library books.

Some decades later, I became a mom, and my daughter is a young lady of color. I knew, particularly because I am white, that it was important to provide her with stories and pictures in which she might see herself. I hoped (and still hope!) she would connect to books, reading, and writing in many ways, in her own time…but I determined to help her first encounters with books and stories be somewhat a mirror.

I knew times had changed; I also knew the Disney entertainment machine was still foot-dragging about dark-skinned princesses. I set out with intention. At a book fair in Lower Manhattan, I greedily snapped up alphabet books illustrated with drawings of children posing in the shapes of letters. Adorable, educational, and all the children were of color. Just Us Books, co-owned by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, has published children’s books on black experiences and culture since 1988, and the Afro-Bets ABC Book was their first. I was encouraged.

It turned out to be laughably easy to assemble the home library we needed. Many illustrated books carefully include a brown-shaded face or two in every play group, classroom, and parade. There are now abundant books about brown-skinned children, and the stories are not always focused on diversity, justice, or ethnic cultures; it is not hard to find a picture book about a multiracial family or a family of color living their everyday lives. There are books for children about Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, and Rosa Parks as children.

But, problems remain. In bookstores I still see displayed the same, few, popular children’s books with brown-skinned protagonists, over and over again. Children’s booksellers often promote The Snowy Day, the 1963 Caldecott winner whose protagonist, Peter, is a black child. Recently I was disappointed, and only halfway surprised, to learn that its author/illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats, was not, in fact, African American, but instead a European Jew, like me.

Statistics tell a story. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at UW-Madison (CCBC) has studied racial and ethnic authorship and representation in American children’s literature since 1985. CCBC reported for 2012 that of 3,600 children’s books they received, 119 (3.3%) were about and 68 (1.8%) were by Africans or African Americans. By contrast, in 2012 approximately 14.2% of the U.S. population were African American (including those of more than one race).

We live in a pluralistic society. All of our children will, too. Let’s find, read, support, and share with all children more books by and about African Americans.

Next Steps!

  • Read “I See White People,” a July, 2013 blog post by K.T. Horning, CCBC director.
  • Read “10 Reasons Multicultural Literature is Good for ALL Children,” posted January 5, 2015 by Cheryl Willis Hudson.
  • The annual Coretta Scott King Book Awards, chosen by the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table of the American Library Association, recognize African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. View award recipients since 1970.
  • Brown Bookshelf promotes books written and illustrated for young readers by African Americans. Each February, the website makes recommendations to time with Black History Month.
  • Some children’s books with African American protagonists and stories, created by authors and/or illustrators of color:
    Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Classic Board Books), for ages 2-5
    Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown (2014, Lee and Low), for ages 6-10
    Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel
    , the first book in a series of stories about Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes, for ages 7-9
    Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (2004, Laurel Leaf; a Newbery Prize winner), for ages 8-12
    The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris (2014, Clarion), for ages 10 and up
  • We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots campaign to address the imbalance of racial and ethnic representation in children’s books.
  • Hear E.B. Lewis, award-winning African American children’s book illustrator, describing his approach to a watercolor scene for My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa M. Mollel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999). Teaching Books offers many short videos to share with children, including “Meet-the-Author” movies.

Who Said UU History Can’t Be Fun?

The first completely online Renaissance module, UU History, has now been offered four times, including the field test in 2013. Participants have given glowing reports on the online learning format as well as the breadth and depth of the module’s content. It seems that using technology to explore history makes a good match.

Servetus slide from MrBarbGreve timeline
A slide from the interactive timeline on heresy in UU history presented by Mr. Barb Greve and Sadie Kahn-Greene.

Emmie Schlobohm, Director of Religious Exploration for Children and Youth at the Boise (Idaho) UU Fellowship, summed it up nicely:

I definitely learned more and will be able to use what I learned in my work in this module because of the process time and the pace of the class. The webinar format was ideal for connecting across the miles. I feel like I have deepened existing friendships and made a couple of new friends and colleagues over the last few months.

…From the first session (Heretics), I was hooked! During the course of the class, I almost filled an entire spiral notebook with notes and ideas for integrating the stories into my work with children and youth. The gift of this module was to take me out of the daily administrative tasks and allow me to explore the more creative side of my ministry.

The module consists of eight 90-minute webinars; each requires two to three hours preparation and response through reading, writing a 250-word reflection, and exercises.

Like most Renaissance modules, the UU history module has a final project and presentation, which participants may do individually or collaboratively. Projects may be done in any medium, but participants must be able to share them online. The projects have been very creative, with a wide range of ways to make aspects of UU history engaging and meaningful. Here is just a sampling:

Jen Harvilak UU History interactive lapbook
Director of Religious Education Jennifer Harvilak applied learning from the online UU History module to her interactive lapbook project.
  • Mr. Barb Greve and Sadie Kahn-Greene developed interactive timelines when they participated in the field test of the module. Visit their timelines on these UU history topics: Heresy, Founders, Reformers, Humanists, or Making Life Religious.
  • Jennifer Harvilak created a UU History interactive lapbook. Watch the YouTube video.
  • Chris Johns wrote a play, ”UU History Mysteries, or How to Chalice Travel.”
  • Theresa Pizzuto created a Spirit Play lesson plan about Olympia Brown.
  • Katy Siepert created a website to introduce an eight-week religious education program, “The Heretics Parade.”

The possibilities are endless!

A new online Renaissance module, UU Theology, will be available later this spring. And we have begun to experiment with “hybrid” modules (some online sessions and one in-person gathering). The Adult Faith Development hybrid is underway in Maryland. The Curriculum hybrid is scheduled to start in May 2015, with the in-person day scheduled at the close of the UUA General Assembly in Portland OR.

Renaissance modules are open to all those interested in religious education leadership, including seminarians, ministers, religious education committee members as well as UU directors of religious education, professional religious educators, and volunteer teachers.

Next Steps!

Check the calendar for upcoming Renaissance modules, on the UUA website.

Explore the UU History module leader guide on the Renaissance module resources page.

If you are interested in organizing a module, contact








Sharing a Deep Gladness and a Gift

This winter, I met with a florist to talk about flowers for my daughter’s wedding. I entered the shop on a cold, windy morning with no idea that when I walked out I would be so uplifted and inspired.

After our conversation about wedding flowers, the florist, Diane, told me about a project that is close to her heart. It’s called “Vermont Recycles Flowers.” Every week, in her shop, floral designers with the help of volunteers busily work on donated arrangements from weddings, funerals, and other events. They refresh, rearrange, and repurpose the flowers to brighten rooms at hospitals, rehab centers, schools, nursing homes, and more. They create recycled arrangements to beautify non-profit events and fundraisers. Diane’s face brimmed with pleasure as she told me about the for gfv florist blog post

What went through my mind were the words of the contemporary Presbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In a shop in Vermont, the deep gladness of creating beauty from recycled flowers meets the deep hunger of those who need a beautiful reminder that others care.

As a Unitarian Universalist religious educator, I am guided by a vision of helping people to discover their callings in life. What gifts, skills, and passions do each of us have that can help us connect with and respond to the needs of the world? How can we support one another in our faith communities as we discern the ways in which our deep gladness can be offered in service?

At its best, faith development engages each person, no matter their age and life circumstances, to discover what gifts they bring to share with the world. Such a discovery can be life-changing. Perhaps what they bring is leadership skills, or a gift for empathy, or an ability to connect people one with another. Perhaps they are artists, musicians, orators, carpenters, or teachers. And maybe, just maybe, one person’s gift for flower design and capacity for kindness can help them discover a way make the world a better place.

Next Steps!

Explore the website of Random Acts of Flowers for more about flower recycling. Does an organization recycle flowers in your community? How can you help?

Make time with your family, your circle of friends, or a small group or committee in your congregation to explore the Buechner quote. To guide your conversation, adapt a UU small group ministry session, Saving and Savoring, by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull.

Or, spend time in solitude, in prayer or with a journal, contemplating these questions drawn from Saving and Savoring:

  • Today, or maybe even tomorrow, how do you plan to savor the world, to experience your “deep gladness?”
  • Today, or maybe even tomorrow, how do you plan to help save the world, to play a part in meeting the “world’s deep need?”

Talking About Race: Start the Conversation

By Aisha Hauser

I have found that many Unitarian Universalist parents are very proud of how open and honest they are when they talk to their children. However, the eagerness for clear and explicit conversation comes to a screeching halt with regard to race. No, not for every parent, but for an overwhelming majority of white parents, even those who consider themselves informed and concerned about all things social justice.Kristina from morguefile

The white parents who tend to have those conversations are the ones with children of color. They understand that their children are going to be treated differently than their white peers and so they talk about race, because they have to. White parents of white children have the privilege of opting out of the discussion and I am here to ask that you not opt out. I will use my own life as an example of when, how and why it is important to talk about race.

I grew up in New Jersey, on the border of Newark. My friends were mostly Black and Latino. We were the only Egyptian family. My own experience growing up in a neighborhood with racial/ethnic diversity opened my eyes to how racism affects people of color.

By contrast, my children are the products of a multicultural marriage. My children appear white; in fact, my daughter is a blond. My son has brown hair and eyes and his skin is white. I describe them because in the world they are treated like white children. Unless they tell people, no one knows they are half Egyptian.

When my daughter was a sophomore in high school, one day she came home from school and said a guest speaker had lectured about racism. She said that she chooses not to pick a race for herself. We are all the same, after all.

This was jarring for me. I thought that I had always talked openly to my children about racism in this country, but if my daughter was deciding to “opt out” of race, then I had missed something big. Here was my teachable moment. I sat her down and talked to her about the privilege of her position and the fact that people of color wear that identity on their skin; we never get to opt out. We talked about how Trayvon Martin was targeted by a man who made assumptions just based on his skin color. I brought up statistics about how men of color are more likely to be suspected, arrested, and jailed for crimes that white men are not even noticed for doing. It was a difficult conversation because my daughter’s frame of reference is so much different than mine. She has not grown up with brown skin. While she has friends of color, most of her friends are white. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.

My son’s middle school has 1,400 students and is very diverse. My son has observed that all the kids in the advanced placement program are white or Asian; the kids who are black or Latino are not in advanced classes. He has also noticed that the black children in his school are more likely to get punished for the same infractions he has witnessed white kids do and not get in trouble. So I have had in depth conversations with my son about race.

Children notice when racism happens, when things are not fair for everyone.  It is up to parents to draw out children’s observations and help children process.  Some people who don’t initiate the conversation may be under the impression that their child is not yet aware of racism; they may be hoping to protect their child.  I would suggest that in the age of the Internet, our children are exposed to more than we may be comfortable with. That is all the more reason to initiate the conversation.

Next Steps!

  • If you are white, live in an area that is homogeneous, and have little opportunity to interact with people of color, I would suggest you visit the Teaching Tolerance website for stories you and your family can read and reflect on together.
  • Find opportunities to listen together to news stories about racial disparities and tensions. Talk with children to help them understand and process incidents, including related protests, public debates and the veracity and fairness of the media coverage itself.
  • Familiarize yourself, on the Standing on the Side of Love website, with ways our Unitarian Universalist movement supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Tell children how our religious leaders and communities have been protesting and working toward transformation.
  • Most importantly, talk about what it means to be an ally. Being a white ally means educating yourself about how black people in this country have been and continue to be treated. While the issues are systemic and complex, one step toward transformation is starting the conversation.

About the BloggerAisha head pic

Aisha Hauser holds a Master of Social Work degree and is a Credentialed Religious Educator at the Associate Level who currently serves the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, WA as Director of Religious Education. Previously, Aisha served as Director of Religious Education in two East Coast congregations; in one, she also held the position of Urban Community Ministry Coordinator. Most recently Aisha served as Children and Families Program Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She chairs the Integrity Team of the Liberal Religious Educators Association. An active member of the Unitarian Universalist community of religious professionals of color, she attends the community’s “Finding Our Way Home” retreat each year.

Beyond the Cliff and the Bridge: Keeping UU Youth Connected

by Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken

“Where have you been all my life?” and “You were here all my life, now where are you?” are two common questions I hear asked about Unitarian Universalism. The first is asked by adult seekers who wish they’d found us sooner. The second is asked by people raised UU who can’t find engaging UU community after aging out of youth programming.800px-Seacliff_Bridge_Pathway

These questions have serious implications for Unitarian Universalists everywhere. How can we become more visible so we can change more lives? How can we make ourselves present to our young adults so they can continue their faith formation?

I think about these questions constantly in my role as Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate. Unitarian Universalism’s statistics for serving emerging adults (18-24) are pretty terrible, as they are today for many religious traditions. To know that we are underserving emerging adults breaks my heart. Tons of transition, the stressors of the economic, social and personal challenges of adulthood, not to mention questions of identity and relationships—they need us. And we need them to make our faith more whole!

So what can we do? Specifically for this blogpost, what can religious educators do about that second question, about making ourselves present to homegrown UU emerging adults?

First, I recommend watching this Prezi, “The cliff, the bridge and beyond in Unitarian Universalism.” It’s a visual presentation; click through by pushing the forward-facing arrow at the bottom of the presentation. (Click slowly if you get dizzy easily!) The Prezi gives lots of tips on how folks can support our emerging adults in staying connected with Unitarian Universalism. If you are a UU religious educator, you very likely have unique opportunities. Can you implement some of the suggestions in the Prezi, and below?

Next Steps! 

Get youth thinking about their UU future and start young. Does your UU faith community have a Coming of Age program for middle-schoolers? This is a great time to remind youth that there are many ways to be UU as an adult. Encourage youth to think about how they might stay connected to UU as they grow older: by keeping in touch with their home congregation; joining virtual UU community; being part of a campus ministry, young adult group, congregation, or other ministry; or serving our faith as an RE teacher, worship leader, or district or even national leader.

Encourage the congregation to intentionally stay in touch with youth alumni. Sending care packages, hosting reunions, and inviting youth alumni into congregational leadership are great ways to stay connected! If your community has the resources to start a small task force to focus on this type of connection, give them some encouragement!

Be a voice for emerging adult inclusion. Whenever your community is planning events or religious education classes, think about ways to reach out to and include emerging adults. Offering rides, hosting events that are accessible by public transit, and thinking outside the weekday 9-to-5 work schedule are strategies that will not only help emerging adults, but also can be great for low income folks and also for aging members who can benefit from rides and often prefer daytime events.

Pay attention to local campuses, even if you can’t start a group there. Starting a campus ministry can be a wonderful rewarding form of missional work! Some UU communities just don’t have the volunteer and/or financial resources to do that, yet there are many good ways to connect even if you can’t sustain an ongoing campus organization. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore local campuses! Let their office of religious life (or equivalent) know about your UU faith community. Networking with their queer student groups and any other progressive organizations. Use faculty and staff connections in your congregation. Target publicity on or near campus.

Affirm non-congregational ways of being UU. Personally I love UU congregations.  I’ve been involved with seven different congregations in my life and each one has been vital to my professional and faith formation. However, I also know that many folks, especially emerging adults, find UU sustenance outside of congregations: in camps, conferences, virtual communities, informal communities, non-congregational ministries, etc.  It’s important that we who are involved with congregations validate these ways of engaging with our faith so that emerging adults don’t feel like “illegitimate” UUs.

As congregational leaders and as professionals tasked with faith formation, religious educators have a special role to play in making our Unitarian Universalist communities welcoming for emerging adults. Ultimately, however, this work belongs to all of us, of all ages and all roles. To truly change the landscape of Unitarian Universalism into one where youth find the transition to UU young adult life meaningful and do-able we all need to work together, taking small steps wherever we are, whenever we can. Let’s make our faith movement more whole. Let’s try to serve more of our beloved homegrown UUs as they make their way in the world.

Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken

About the Blogger

The Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist from the Midwest who currently serves as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She recently moved to Boston with her partner, Lucas, and they have been happily involved with The Sanctuary Boston and, more recently, First Parish Dorchester.

Teaching without Terrifying: A New UU Book about Anne Frank

By Rev. Marti Keller

Memoirist Deborah Feldman, who walked away from her Hasidic upbringing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a young adult, went on a sojourn to discover herself as a Jewish person now that she had rejected her ultra-Orthodox roots. Her journey took her through Europe, where she retraced her grandmother’s life during the Holocaust, including time in a concentration camp.

At the Holocaust museum in Berlin, Feldman wandered into a room that explained the Nazi death camps: what they were, how they were run. She saw a little boy, around seven, in an audio booth, listening to the description of millions of Jews being transported to and processed for their deaths in the Auschwitz gas chambers.3674

In her book, Exodus, she writes, “‘You shouldn’t be here,’ I wanted to say. ‘You are too young.’” Later, she reflects that a small child may indeed need to learn about those death camps in order to grow into a decent human being. For this reason, after the war, non-Jewish German children received early, explicit teaching on the horrific consequences of ethnic hatred.

Similarly, as Marjorie Ingall wrote in a Tablet magazine column, for contemporary Jewish parents to sidestep the Holocaust (and Jewish suffering across centuries before) because we wish our children to be carefree and happy is simply an impossibility. “Really?” she asks. Jewish history has not been carefree and happy. Our children need to know the darker side of what it has meant to be Jewish for so many years in so many places. If parents fail to educate children about anti-Semitism and genocide, Ingall reminds us, as with sexuality education, someone else will do it for us. By the time our child is eight years old, Ingall suggests, caregivers must share the unpleasant stories in a way that is neither too graphic nor terrifying for caregivers or children.

Those of us who are self-identified Jewish Unitarian Universalists are more than likely to be aligned with the 73 percent of American Jews recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center who said that remembering the Holocaust is essential to their sense of Jewishness. We need appropriate materials, as do all parents who want to tell the distressing but very real stories of discrimination and annihilation, to teach our kids our history, as Marjorie Ingall proposes, without scarring them for life.

In light of the recent horrendous, hate-triggered events in Pakistan, Paris and Nigeria, it is fortuitous that our own Unitarian Universalist Skinner House Press has just published Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree. This children’s book by a well-known Jewish author, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, with enticing illustrations by Erika Steiskal, uses a clever and effective device to tell about the girl whose diary helped expose the evils of the Holocaust: The story’s narrator is the now famous horse chestnut tree that Anne could see from her family’s attic hiding place in Amsterdam. The tree tells only what it witnessed. So, what happened afterward—Anne’s death from typhus and the obliteration of the others who had hidden in that Secret Annex—is not shared. But the humanity of Anne and her sister Margot, the injustice of their treatment, and the trajectory of hatred are vividly conveyed.

As a parent of three children who are now grown, and as a former UU religious education teacher, I wish this book had been available when my children began to be aware of the Holocaust and other genocides. This is a book to be read with our children or by our children. It is certainly appropriate for group settings where the story of Anne and her family—and of the chestnut tree whose saplings are now planted in so many places, in remembrance and in hope—is unfortunately too much needed today.

Next Steps!

Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree, co-published by Skinner House with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, is available from the UUA Bookstore.

The Sapling Project of the Anne Frank Center USA brings together diverse communities and educational centers in a shared celebration of Anne, her beloved chestnut tree, her appreciation of nature, and her longing for freedom and justice in the world. Since 2009 the Center has awarded 11 saplings of the Anne Frank Tree to sites across the country.

Watch “Nurturing the Spiritual Imagination of Children,” the Sophia Fahs Lecture given by Rabbi Sandy Sasso at the 2009 UUA General Assembly. More recently, in an interview with the Faith and Leadership online magazine, Rabbi Sasso talked about how stories and art allow children and adults to engage deeply in the sacred.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27, 2015. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has produced a 38-minute film, “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” which you can watch here. (Note: The film is intended for adult viewers; selected segments may be appropriate for younger audiences.)

Explore the Portrait of Jewish Americans provided by the Pew Research Center (2013).

Read the story of Unitarians Martha and Waitstill Sharp, honored posthumously as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel, in the Tapestry of Faith children’s program Toolbox of Faith.

About the Blogger

Rev. Marti Keller is a self-identified, lifelong Jewnitarian. The co-editor of Jewish Voices in Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House, 2014), she is a former president of UUs for Jewish Awareness and a member of the board of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

A Religious Educator’s Religious Educator

By Judith A. Frediani

[Editors' note: Reverend Dr. Roberta (Bobbie) Nelson died on January 2, 2015.]

In 1997, the UUA’s pioneering sexuality education program, About Your Sexuality (AYS), was under attack on national television. The CBS network had obtained a copy of AYS’s explicit filmstrips. Provocative promos advertised an upcoming “exposé” on Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel. We needed a spokesperson to convince the general public that comprehensive sex education was just plain good sense. Rev. Dr. Roberta (Bobbie) Nelson was the perfect choice. Learned and articulate, confident and wise, Bobbie’s wholesome-as-oatmeal, sensible-shoes demeanor on television helped take the wind out of Gumbel’s sensationalist sails.

For forty years, when Unitarian Universalist religious education needed a voice, Bobbie spoke out. Whenever leadership was called for, Bobbie was called.

Reverend Dr. Roberta (Bobbie) Nelson, 1934-2015
Reverend Dr. Roberta (Bobbie) Nelson, 1934-2015

At the heart of Bobbie’s religious education ministry was her respect for, joy in, and responsibility to children—hers and everyone else’s, no exceptions. She understood that to protect and support children, we need to support and resource parents and religious professionals. Bobbie saw that UU parents were often uncomfortable with their children’s religious questions. Afraid to impose their beliefs, parents avoided theological conversations. Hence the curriculum, Parents as Resident Theologians, co-authored with Chris, her beloved husband of 54 years. She wrote, “If you don’t answer your children’s religious questions, someone else will—and you may not like the answers they provide.”

Bobbie was a humanist in touch with spirituality, another concept UU parents struggle with. Bobbie defined spirituality as “a yearning for meaning and purpose, a connection to the rest of humanity and life on earth, a sense of existential wonder and mystery.” Enter the Nelson’s curriculum, Parents as Spiritual Guides.

For Bobbie, religious education and social justice were inseparable. In “Religious Education for Social Justice,” she quoted Victor Frankl: “We are doomed to failure if our goal is to find meaning in being happy. Happiness is the side effect of fulfilling the search for meaning.” For Rev. Nelson, meaning-making was the core of religion, calling us “to put that which I value, prize and cherish into action.” Social justice is “caught” not “taught,” she said. Therefore families and congregations must model both the risks and rewards of justice-seeking—and Bobbie demonstrated how, in the curriculum, Parents as Social Justice Educators.

Judith A. Frediani retired from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2013 after 28 years as Curriculum Director and Director of Lifespan Faith Development.
Judith A. Frediani retired from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2013 after 28 years as Curriculum Director and Director of Lifespan Faith Development.

Bobbie, who was way more spicy than oatmeal, served us all as teacher, preacher, trainer, advocate, activist, and denominational leader. She was a religious educator’s religious educator. Like Sophia Fahs, who applied early progressive theorists such as John Dewey to UU religious education, Bobbie Nelson shared with us wisdom from progressives of her time—Parker Palmer, Thomas Groome, James Fowler—enhancing the depth and relevance of UU RE. She knew what liberal religion could and should offer: the stuff of daily life as well as the spirit’s highest aspirations. She modeled living our values with a sense of urgency for the task, but also joy for the journey. I am so grateful for Bobbie’s journey with us.

Next Steps!

Read the Bangor (Maine) Daily News obituary for Rev. Dr. Bobbie M. Nelson.

The UUA provides the Nelsons’ six-workshop curriculum, Parents as Spiritual Guides, in PDF format to download at no charge. The authors wrote, “The family is as important in the development of the child’s faith as it is in their emotional and physical development.”

Bobbie Nelson’s essay, “On Being Religiously Literate,” appears in Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion, edited by Dale McGowan (AMACOM, 2007).

Transformative Stories: UUs and 12 Step Recovery Programs

Addiction touches many Unitarian Universalist families, congregations, and communities. We know the pain addiction can cause, not only for an individual, but for those around them. We have seen the tenacity required to sustain recovery.

Many of us have heard—or discovered for ourselves—that 12 Step programs offer an important source of recovery support. Recovering addicts and alcoholics testify to a refreshed sense of purpose, healed relationships, and new ability to make space for the holy in their lives. Their parents, partners, children, and siblings speak of supportive community that helps them hold their worry about a loved one, anticipate both the challenges and joys of recovery, and learn to detach as appropriate for self-care. Stories from recovery are stories of transformation, not as a sudden event, but as a long-haul practice. Their power for religious liberals is hard to cover restored to sanity gfv jan2015

However, as a Unitarian Universalist, I have at times struggled with the theology that undergirds 12 Step programs. At first brush, a theology that speaks of brokenness, powerlessness, and surrender to a higher power seems incompatible with our faith that affirms that we are made in the image of God, with worth, dignity, and capacity for goodness as a birthright. Yet, I have known people of many theologies, including humanists and atheists, whose lives have been turned around by 12 Step programs.

I eagerly awaited the recent publication of Restored to Sanity: Essays on the Twelve Steps by Unitarian Universalists (Skinner House, 2014). Edited by Ken and Cathlean (first names only, as is 12 Step practice), it collects deeply personal stories from Unitarian Universalists for whom participating in a 12 Step program is an important spiritual practice. Two different essays delve into each of the twelve steps as each author recounts their own experience. To read the essays is to engage with complex stories of people struggling with addiction; each story is unique in its details and its particular way of lifting up hope, courage, and resilience. Together, the essays illuminate how Unitarian Universalist values and faith work with 12 Step programs to promote wholeness in those who practice.

The book is an extraordinary gift to our faith communities and the religious professionals who serve them, and to our people, both within and beyond UU congregations. May these essays, heartfelt gifts shared by Unitarian Universalists in recovery, help inspire others to be “restored to sanity.”

Next Steps!

Add Restored to Sanity: Essays on the Twelve Steps by Unitarian Universalists to your professional or family library.

Explore resources on the Unitarian Universalist Addictions Ministry website. If you are a religious professional or lay leader in a faith community, the Addiction Ministry Handbook by Denis Meacham offers useful information as well.

In Bringing God Home: A Traveler’s Guide, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dr. Forrest Church (St. Martin Press, 2002) tells his story of addiction and recovery. Explore Church’s theology, which was greatly informed by his experiences of addiction and recovery, in Workshop 8 of What Moves Us: Unitarian Universalist Theology, a Tapestry of Faith program for adults.

Peace, War, and Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

The 19th-century carol “Christmas Bells,” Hymn 240 in Singing the Living Tradition, speaks to us across the ages about the longing for peace and justice in a world marked by violence, war, and pain. The words were penned in 1863, during the Civil War, by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow was a giant in his time, beloved of the reading public. His uplifting and elegant verses spoke confidently to contemporary issues, and his was a life of fame, position, and wealth. After his first wife died following a miscarriage he had a difficult time, but eight years later he married Fanny Appleton, with whom he had five pixabay PD image

In July 1861, Fanny was using sealing wax to seal packets containing locks of her children’s hair when tragedy struck. A spark landed on the edge of her long, full dress, and she was immediately engulfed in flames. Longfellow tried to put out the flames with his own body and burned himself badly. Fanny died of her injuries the next day, leaving their young children in the care of their heartbroken father.

Two years later, in March 1863, Charley, the eldest child, then 19 years old, ran away to become a private in the Union army, against his father’s wishes. In November, Charley was seriously wounded by a bullet in the back. When his father received the news, he was disconsolate. On Christmas Day, he gave us the familiar lyrics in a poem he called Christmas Bells.

Imagine Longfellow hearing the bells of Christmas while his nation was engulfed in a seemingly endless Civil War, a war which had left his son gravely wounded. Imagine the weight of his son’s injury, after his wife’s horrifying, fatal accident. He longed for peace and comfort, both in his spirit and in his country:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
     “For hate is strong
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then imagine Longfellow pulling himself together, affirming his Unitarian belief in the benevolence of God. This is the image that stays with me, whenever I hear the carol sung:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

At this holiday season, may we find peace within. May we work toward peace and justice in our families, communities, and the world. Blessings of the season!

Next Steps!

Learn to sing or play the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Share its history with others. This video on YouTube, posted by David Amsler, offers narrated history and a choral rendition of the song, with images from Civil War battles and recent wars in Iraq. Although the tune is different from that in our hymnbook, it is lovely.

Explore the website of Longfellow’s House, which is a National Historic site, or make plans to visit if you visit the Boston area.

With family or friends, share your dreams and ideas about peace and justice on earth, and make a New Year’s resolution to work toward this goal. You will find some ideas for giving back and doing good in the Tapestry of Faith Toolkit book, Creating Justice Together by Susan Lawrence.

Social Media Privacy: It Begins at Home

By Melanie Davis

In the October 5, 2014 New York Times article, We Want Privacy but Can’t Stop Sharing, Kate Murphy writes, “The problem is that if you reveal everything about yourself or it’s discoverable with a Google search, you may be diminished in your capacity for intimacy” because relationships develop through gradual and mutual self-disclosure of increasingly private and sensitive personal information.

Murphy notes that the data mining of social media by advertisers has led many adult users to become more circumspect about how much they share online. She posits that the new trend toward more privacy helps our social relationships.

But how about children whose parents share moments as personal as an ultrasound image of a fetus captioned “We’re having a boy!” or “We’re having a girl!” Or a photo of a toddler using a potty seat? Then there are the bad haircuts, first menstrual periods, questionable clothing choices, first dates, and more. For many parents, the urge to share seems to have usurped any concern over their children’s right to control which stories, and when, to share with friends and future romantic partners.

Do Children Have a Right to Privacy?baby-204185_1280 pixabay

Many people cheered the blogger who wrote about teaching her daughter that masturbation is a private, rather than public, activity. I wasn’t cheering; in fact, I was angry. Yes, parents should teach their children that masturbation is a healthy, normal feel-good activity. And yes, parents need to teach children about social boundaries related to sexual activity. But this child’s behavior, which her mother insisted should remain private, has now been made public. By whom? Her mother!

Masturbation is a harmless, healthy sexual activity, and the little girl’s behavior was completely typical. But let’s mentally fast-forward. In adolescence, when even the most confident, happy young person can be crushed by peer ridicule, how might she feel if someone unearths that old blog post about her young fascination with masturbation? Will she feel that her inherent worth and dignity were respected by the person who published that blog post?

The blogger could have shared her sex ed. advice (which was quite good) without exposing her child’s private behavior. She, like other parents who over-share online, failed to respect and protect her daughter’s privacy.

The Importance of Sexual Privacy Rights

Sexuality encompasses core aspects of our being. As such, it presents endless fodder for anecdotes and photos that were once preserved in baby books and are now shared and stored via social media.

Carefully assess the information you share about your children. If they are old enough to have a reasoned opinion, ask for permission to post about them. If they are younger, err on the side of privacy. Your children are likely to thank you for it later in life. When they are ready to begin slowly sharing personal information with potential relationship partners, they will be grateful you did not beat them to it.

As Murphy notes in her article, “…information about yourself is like currency. The amount you spend on a person signifies how much your value the relationship. And that person compensates you in kind. That’s why it feels like theft when someone tells your secrets or data miners piece together your personal history.”

Protecting children’s sexual rights to privacy is an opportunity for parents to practice justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Children deserve the right to determine which stories they want to share, in their own time.

Next Steps!


Melanie Davis is the Our Whole Lives Program Associate in the Faith Development Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association.