We Read Together: Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the 2015-16 UUA Common Read. This beautifully written book looks closely at the life stories and circumstances of people who have been sentenced to die at the hands of the state or to live out their lives in prison. The author explores ethical, moral, and spiritual questions as he uncovers truths many would prefer not to know. In story after story, he details the horrors faced by people on the margins of United States mainstream society—poor people, mentally ill people, children, and people of color—when they come in contact with the systems we have built to respond to criminal or antisocial acts.just mercy book cover

Stevenson’s central story is of a black man who found himself framed for murder and sentenced to death. Only painstaking effort and skilled legal work by the team led by Stevenson forced acknowledgment of the justice system’s shoddy practices and the humanity and innocence of the person who was sentenced. Stevenson asks not, “Does this person deserve to die?” but rather, “Do we as a society deserve to kill?”

Stevenson writes not only about the wrongfully convicted, but also about some who committed the criminal acts of which they are accused. In each case, he helps the reader to understand the life circumstances that created the conditions leading to the crime. Particularly heart-wrenching are the stories of juvenile offenders. He questions our legal system’s propensity to try children as adults and sentence them to die in prison (since a Supreme Court ruling disallowed the death penalty for children). He tells compelling stories of people with disability, mental illness, or a history of trauma whose lives go terribly wrong in one ill-considered moment, saying, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Stevenson’s is a call for mercy and compassion. Grounded by his grandmother’s wisdom, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close,” the author takes us close. The stories touch us and call out to our own humanity in a way that statistics never can.

The Unitarian Universalist Association discussion guide for Just Mercy provides two options: a single 90-minute session or three 90-minute sessions. It explores values and ideas that are vital to us as a people of faith: justice, mercy, compassion, redemption, restoration, and hope. It invites people to identify experiences in their own lives that connect them to the lives of those incarcerated. It asks readers to stop turning away from the harm that is happening in our name and on our watch and, instead, to act with mercy and compassion toward people less able to advocate for themselves. It urges us to advocate for changes that make our criminal system truly a justice system.

Next Steps!

Purchase Just Mercy or find it at a public library. Invite others in your congregation, group, or family to read it, too.

Organize a Common Read discussion group for Just Mercy. State your intent to move together from reading to discussion into action; suggestions in the UUA discussion guide will help you.

Explore the video and print resources on the website of Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization founded by Bryan Stevenson.

Take part in prison ministry with your local congregation or through the Church of the Larger Fellowship.


Tashlich and the River

Fifteen years ago, when I was the religious educator in North Andover, Massachusetts, we held a tashlich ritual as part of marking the Jewish Days of Awe. People of all ages put bread crumbs in bowls of water to recognize the actions they were sorry for and to symbolize a new start.

Tashlich ceremonies require that the crumbs be put in running water. That afternoon, I put the bowls in my car and headed to a spot I knew on the bank of the Merrimack River, very near my childhood home. river photo pedro j perez morguefile_14410912277vscI brought the bowls of water and crumbs to the river, said a few words, and then emptied the bowls into the current. Dozens of little minnows appeared to eat the crumbs! Where once the river was so polluted that there was no life but E. coli, here were fishes. I looked up, tears in my eyes, and saw the river again as if for the first time. It is tidal at that place, several miles in from the ocean. The smell: brackish water, slightly salty, but clean. Boats on the water. Reflections of trees on its surface. Some debris, but no sewage. A river being restored.

In that moment, I realized the wisdom of the Days of Awe, and the turning, the change of heart, that had allowed people up and down the Merrimack River to repair this part of the world. It required a collective commitment, and a collective new beginning.

When we think of being sorry, making amends, and beginning again, our focus is often on our individual lives and experiences. But sometimes what needs to be acknowledged is collective damage. We may even need to take responsibility for and repair wrongs we inherit from those who came before. So it is with the damage done by pollution and ill-use of the natural environment and the beings that share it with us. The work of repair and restoration must be collective as well as individual, spanning ages and generations. For me, the story of the river near my home offers a beacon of hope and an example of what we can do, together.

Next Steps!

Discover resources from the UUA to help you and your group or congregation start or strengthen your involvement in climate and environmental justice efforts.

Engage your congregation in local water clean-up and preservation efforts. Find program and project ideas in the multigenerational Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Gather the Spirit.

Learn about the history and meaning of the Jewish tashlich ritual from a short article by Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer.



Hand in Glove: UU Faith Development and Teaching Tolerance

I recently had a fantastic opportunity to attend a Teaching Tolerance workshop on their new Perspectives for a Diverse America (free) curriculum. Teaching Tolerance was founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center to help reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations, and support equitable school experiences for children. I was already a big Teaching Tolerance fan before attending the workshop, but came away even more excited about the phenomenal work Teaching Tolerance has done (and continues to do).

teaching tolerance graphicSome of the “lightbulb moments” for me:

  • At the heart of Perspectives is an anti-bias framework, a “set of anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes divided into four domains—identity, diversity, justice and action.” These domains are based on Louise Derman-Sparks’ four goals for anti-bias education in early childhood; Derman-Sparks was the Fahs lecturer at the UUA 2012 General Assembly.
  • Schools in the US have focused on the first two domains – identity and diversity – with the goal of prejudice reduction, which seeks to minimize conflict and generally focuses on changing the attitudes and behaviors of a dominant group. It is far less common for schools to focus on the justice and action domains with the goal of collective action. Collective action challenges inequality directly by raising consciousness and focusing on improving conditions for under-represented groups.
  • In today’s diverse classrooms, students (and teachers and parents) need knowledge and skills related to both prejudice reduction and collective action.
  • Anti-bias texts are different from multicultural texts. Rather than only represent marginalized groups, they discuss action.
  • Critical literacy is the difference between understanding how to operate the lever in the voting booth and comprehending the issues needed to decide for whom to vote and why.

Religious educators can use the amazing Perspectives for a Diverse America activities and resources in myriad ways: teaching RE classes; providing stories and videos for worship; offering resources for parents and training materials for RE volunteers (to name just a few).  But I have a bigger dream. As religious educators, we often wonder how to have an impact beyond Sunday morning and beyond the congregation. What if every UU parent with school-age children or youth talked to the teachers and administrators in their children’s schools about using this amazing (reminder: FREE!) resource? Imagine if all teachers and students learned the skills of both prejudice reduction and collective action and put those skills into practice every day? It might help realize the vision statement of Tapestry of Faith (another wonderful free, online family of programs):

We envision children, youth and adults who realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, and promoting the health and well-being of the planet. 

Next Steps!

Join the UUA Faith Development Office for a September, 2015 one-hour webinar with UU Sarah Neely, member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board, on ways to complement UU faith development with free resources produced by Teaching Tolerance. Details and registration information here.

Perspectives for a Diverse America is a literacy-based curriculum that marries anti-bias content with the rigor of the Common Core. Learn more from this one-and-a-half-minute YouTube video.

Explore the Teaching Tolerance website. Learn more about the Anti-Bias Framework; read about “Teaching with Perspectives”.


“Hybrid” Renaissance Modules: Survey Says… YES!

Last spring, 20 religious educators experienced continuing education that blended online and in-person learning in the first ever “hybrid” Renaissance module, co-led by Pat Infante and Gabrielle Farrell.

The module topic was UU Adult Faith Development. The experiment was a rousing success, offering the best of both worlds. Webinars allowed for unhurried preparation time as well as time for reflection and processing between sessions. The in-person day provided face-to-face support and collaboration with colleagues, including the presentation of final projects, hallmarks of the traditional, in-person Renaissance module.

Infante, the Regional Consultant for Faith Development for the UUA Central East Regional Group (CERG), collaborated with the UUA Renaissance Office on the structure of the hybrid—which portions would be held via webinar and which would be covered in the one-day, in-person session. She and Farrell, Lifespan Religious Educator at River Road Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation in Bethesda, MD led five 90-minute webinars from January through March, culminating in a full day workshop at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda. Because a large number of participants signed up, each webinar was offered twice for two online groups of ten people. Then, all participants joined together for the in-person session.

Comments from participants were enthusiastic, for example:

  • I experienced a model of combining online and face-to-face education which may be useful in my congregation; I’m inspired to explore hybrid models for adult faith development classes.
  • This format of the webinar and one in-person session is definitely a good idea. I appreciate that it was offered because the lower cost allowed me to be able to take the class which I very much wanted to take.
  • I thought there was a good balance between webinar sessions and in-person meeting time. The webinar sessions offered time to absorb the reading and other materials, while the in-person time offered a wonderful opportunity to connect and focus on ways to use ideas we discussed during the module.
  • I would like to take more classes like this.

Next Steps!

If you would like to sponsor a hybrid Renaissance module in your area, contact Pat Kahn in the Renaissance Office at pkahn@uua.org to discuss the possibilities.

Find out more about the Renaissance continuing education program here.The Renaissance Module calendar lists upcoming workshops.


Bedtime Stories

As parents and caregivers, we sometimes have to hold difficult conversations with children. I have had a few of those while raising my daughter. One that I will never forget happened in January, 1998. My daughter was seven and a serious book lover. Though she could read for herself now, she still looked forward to a nightly bedtime story, as did I. As a busy working mom, I cherished that nightly ritual of mother-daughter time.

racism is still with usFor African American History Month, her school library had displayed a number of books for checkout. She brought one home on the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As she nestled into her bed, I turned pages describing civil rights rallies that ended with police turning hoses and dogs on peaceful demonstrators. She turned to me, her sweet, brown eyes round with fear. “I thought the police officer was our friend?”

I froze. I did not remember ever talking to my child about the police, yet, I knew that in school and from television shows, she had absorbed the standard civics message that the police officer is there to keep you safe. How could she reconcile that message with this new knowledge?

I took a breath. I took my time. I knew that this was a “teachable moment.” What would I teach her?

I worried about stealing my daughter’s innocence. But, as Mark Morrison-Reed made clear in his presentation at the 2014 Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Professional Day, black parents have to choose between protecting innocence and protecting lives.

I explained that just as there were people who do good things and people who do bad things everywhere, there were some police who do good things and some who do bad. Most police officers, I assured her, do good things and protect us. But during that time in history, many people felt threatened by the demonstrators, and people sometimes do the wrong thing when they feel threatened. It was wrong of those police officers to attack the protestors.

I had the luxury of couching the police attacks in the past. Today, we do not have that luxury.

We know that the violent interactions between black people and the police in the headlines today are not new. Social media; 24-hour news channels; widespread use of camera phones, body cams, and dashboard cams; and a public more aware of these events are bringing them to our attention in a way that has never happened before. Our children may hear about and even see these attacks and deaths. It is still true that some cops do good things and some bad. I believe it is still true that the vast majority of police officers put their lives on the line to keep all Americans safe. What is coming to light is that police violence against blacks is not always fueled by fear. Sometimes, the fuel is simply hate, and hate-plus-power is a dangerous combination.

When my daughter was just a litle older, I talked to her about hate: “Some people hate black people,” I said. “They think black people are different from white people, not as good as white people. Maybe they were raised to believe that. People who think this way are racist. But I know it is wrong to think this way. I know it is not true that black people are not as good as white people, or not as smart, or in any way not deserving of the same respect and rights as all people. Racism and racial hatred is always wrong. When we see racism, whether against us or someone else, we need to say it is wrong, even if the police or the government are the ones being racist. If we suspect that a black person has been mistreated because of racism, we need to say it is wrong.”

As my daughter grew, we had many conversations about standing up against oppression of all people. We need to have these talks. Our country’s relationship with black people is unique. If lumped together into a conversation about how “all lives matter,” that unique aspect of American life and culture is obscured, harder to recognize, easier to ignore. My black ancestors did not come willingly to this country in search of a better life: They were forced here, in chains, to work night and day in subhuman conditions for a better life for other people. Our nation has never adequately acknowledged or recovered from this foundational act. Older children need to know about our country’s history with slavery and be shown how to recognize oppressions black people still face today. They need to know we do not live in a post-racial society, and that the playing field is not level and never has been. As a black woman, I can testify that my race affects almost every aspect of my life in America. If our children are going to be effective towards further dismantling racism in our world, they need to know what they are up against.

What are you saying to your children in your home, your congregation, or community about racism against black people? Would you be willing to share it, in the comments below?

One of the jobs of a faith community is to support each other in hard times. What support do you need to help young people understand the need for the Black Lives Matter campaign? Do not let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you silent. As Martin Luther King said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”

Next Steps!

The Institute for Humane Education has a short list of children’s book about race and racism.

One organization, Do Justice, a Christian social justice group, has a series of blog posts about talking to children about Dylan Rule’s shooting attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. This post is from a black mother. While she writes from a Christian perspective, we as Unitarian Universalists have a theology of love and justice that is just as strong, so please do not let the theology stop you from hearing the stories told here.

The Anti-Defamation League has a blog post about Charleston.

Here is a PowerPoint from the presentation by Rev. Morrison Reed for LREDA’ in 2014.

This mother’s approach might feel too bold for you, but I’m including it because there are a couple of good resources mentioned and this approach might work for older children.

A blog post from the Dayton Children’s Hospital may be a bit light on advice, but it includes links to other useful resources.

From Long Ago and Many Lands….to Here and Now!

A fine way to celebrate August 2, the birthday of Sophia Fahs, is to take a look at her classic story collection, From Long Ago and Many Lands: Stories for Children Told Anew. It is now available on the Unitarian Universalist Association website, at no charge (PDF, 288 pages).

Sophia Lyon Fahs, born in China on August 2, 1876.
Sophia Lyon Fahs, born in China on August 2, 1876.

Originally published in 1948 by Beacon Press with a small teacher’s guide by Florence Wolff Klaber, From Long Ago and Many Lands was reprinted six times before its second edition was published by Skinner House Books in 1995. In the forward to the second edition, Pat Hoertdoerfer, then UUA Children’s Program Director, wrote, “Sophia Lyon Fahs and Florence Wolff Klaber…were truly pioneering in many ways. They envisioned religious education as a lifelong experience, integrated wisdom from many religions and cultures into their work, promoted values that are currently stated in our Principles and Purposes, nurtured a religious harmony of spirituality and ethics, and cooperated across the liberal religious community in educational pursuits and publications.”

Reverend Dr. Barry Andrews endorsed the second edition: “These tales, culled from cultures and wisdom traditions the world over, deal with timeless themes – life, death, faith and human diversity. The teacher’s guide contains discussion questions and suggestions for program enrichment, making this a valuable resource for parents, teachers and leaders of worship. Ideal for children and intergenerational groups. Heartily recommended.”

For twenty or so years since then, From Long Ago and Many Lands as remained a valuable and relevant resource in our congregations and beyond. Some contemporary uses include:

  • stories from the book being shared in worship services;
  • stories providing a basis for children’s, multi-age, or multigenerational RE sessions, using a variety of models including small group ministry and workshop rotation;
  • congregations developing summer or winter day camps using selected stories;
  • interfaith gatherings making use of the stories beyond the congregation; and
  • parents using the book for bedtime stories or as a basis for homeschooling activities.

One UU grandparent found From Long Ago and Many Lands was the perfect gift to share her faith and religious values with grandchildren being raised in a different faith tradition! Fahs and Klaber’s pioneering spirits live on in the varied and creative ways people are using From Long Ago and Many Lands. Share your ideas with us.

Next Steps!

Learn about Sophia Fahs and her influence on liberal religious education from biographies provided by:

You Don’t Gotta Catch ‘Em All

For several years, my family and I participated in the Birmingham Hospitality Network, a non-profit that worked to provide shelter space for families who lost a home. The families are hosted by congregations. Congregation members volunteer to provide meals. My family would pick a night, bring dinner, share the meal with the families housed in the shelter, and provide some entertainment: movies, games, etc.


One night, my seven year-old daughter brought her Pokemon cards with her. She and a young boy played with them all night. That night, we were also the overnight volunteers, so we spent the night at the congregational shelter. In the morning, immediately upon arriving home, my daughter disappeared into her room. She came out several minutes later, with a bag full of Pokemon cards. She said breathlessly, “Can you take me back to the shelter?” When we asked why, she told us that the boy she had met loved Pokemon, but had been forced to leave all his cards when they lost their home. “I’ve got lots of cards and can’t play with them all at once and I want to give him some of my cards.”

Of course, we drove back to the shelter so she could give the young man the cards. I was thrilled that my daughter understood the concept of “having enough” and just as happy that she was exhibiting empathy.

Empathy is one of those feelings many of us hope to nurture. It is identified as a theme in Tapestry of Faith; the high school program, Heeding the Call, has a workshop on empathy, and either empathy or its close relative, compassion, are mentioned in at least half of the Tapestry of Faith core curricula. But is a strong empathetic nature enough to help heal the oppressions and conflicts of our world?

A New York Times magazine story, “The Empathy Gap,” features the work of Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at M.I.T. Bruneau’s research seeks to determine why empathic people can still condone activities that oppress particular identity groups, such as racist policies against the Roma in Hungary and Israeli policies toward Palestinians. The scientist hopes to develop strategies to lessen the empathy gap. In one discussion, a peace activist thinks she has a small empathy gap because she experienced being “the other” at an early age and so can empathize with other marginalized people. But she warns that this could have the opposite effect. (Think of Felicity Huffman’s character in American Crime.)

Storytelling seems to be a possible way to grow empathy. I have always believed it is important for us to tell our story and listen to the stories of others.

At General Assembly this year, I facilitated a workshop with Rev. Kristen Maier, the author of A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story. In the workshop, Rethinking “We,” several UUs told personal stories of times when their idea of who is included in “we” was challenged. I hope you keep telling your stories and listening to others’ – especially the stories that help us understand life on the margins.

Next Steps!

If you did not catch ABC’s American Crime, find episodes on their website or On Demand, Hulu, or Google Play. The series was created by John Ridley, writer and producer, who wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave and Undercover Brother. It is an intelligent, mature drama that touches on race, class, and people who are marginalized in our society. It is not the easiest TV to watch for it does not claim any easy answers. I found it Shakespearean in scope, both heartbreaking and redemptive.

Heeding the Call: Qualities of a Justice Maker, is a Tapestry of Faith program written by Nicole Bowmer and Jodi Tharan, for middle school youth.

The Empathy Gap was a featured story in The New York Times Sunday magazine, 3/22/15.



Let Us Worship Barefoot

Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips;
let us love the world through heart and mind and body.
— Reverend Kenneth Patton

In May, my daughter was married in an outdoor ceremony in Vermont. She and her new husband walked barefoot over a grassy pathway marked with hyacinth petals to reach the waiting officiant. It was lovely and appropriate; their bare feet symbolized both the solemnity and the playful joy of the occasion.bare feet (2)

There is something profoundly spiritual about touching the earth with bare feet. There’s a solidity there, and an unmediated connection with the Spirit of Life, with all that is.

In Hebrew scripture, when Moses approached the burning bush he heard the voice of G-d telling him to put off his shoes. The place where he was standing was holy ground. I AM was present there, the Ground of Being, and Moses, in awe, removed his shoes.  When I tell that familiar story in multigenerational worship settings, I ask people of all ages to remove their shoes, to feel their feet against the floor, connecting through it to the earth below. In that act, I ask them to understand that when we are in worship, experiencing the call to be fully present, fully loved and fully loving, that place is holy ground.

Many of us spend a good deal of time barefoot in the summer, enjoying the playfulness and ease of moving across or through grass, sand, smooth rocks, and shallow water. Can you imagine moments of barefoot family worship? Wiggle your toes, the whole family together. Feel the air against your foot, the warmth of the sun, the dampness of the grass or sand or stones. Remember that the air that touches you, that moves around your wiggling toes, is the same air that has been cycling through the breath of animals, plants, and other creatures for millions of years. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Is it smooth or rough, warm or cold, damp or dry? Feel your connection with the whole earth and with all that is. Imagine that through the earth you are connected to all beings and to the Ground of Being, the Spirit of Life, G-d.

Walk, run, or simply remain in one place, the flesh of your feet against the solidity of the earth. Be fully present, fully loved, and fully loving. Enjoy the moment in silence, in awe, and then in playful joy.

Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips – and with bare feet! Happy Summer!


Makerspace: A New Way in Religious Education

By Joy Berry

Ask adults what they remember from Sunday School and you’ll hear memories of doing. That convinces me that religious education (RE) should be as hands-on, innovative, and creative as possible. Like Makerspaces.

Illustration by Michelle Hlubinka
Illustration by Michelle Hlubinka

Around the country, “Maker Culture” is developing. Communities, libraries, and schools have installed “Makerspaces” that encourage kids to design, collaborate, and create. According to the Makerspace Playbook: “Makerspaces serve as gathering points where communities of new and experienced makers connect to work on real and personally meaningful projects, informed by helpful mentors and expertise, using new technologies and traditional tools.”

Tony Wagner, at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab, says this new way is “the future,” doing what “instructional” models cannot: teaching children to innovate. In a recent book, Wagner says kids supported in creative play, problem solving opportunities, and allowed to learn from failure grow up to change the world.

But can we do that in RE? I think we have to. William Ellery Channing said, “The great end in religious education is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.” Perhaps the best way to do that is to hand them tools now and give them the opportunity to grow knowledge and skills, becoming problem-solvers who really can change the world.

My work in a children’s museum convinced me that kids love to create, build, and invent because these activities are so engaging and FUN. They end up learning a great deal, by default. But is it faith development? Does it reflect and teach our theology?

  • By teaching early that there are problems in the world that need our combined focus, we teach, like Forrest Church, that deeds, not creeds, are of great value.
  • Problem solving and project planning in RE are developmentally appropriate ways for kids to encounter challenging social justice issues in a safe space. They will be better prepared later to engage in social justice work.
  • By asking kids to help solve problems, we teach that we can “choose to bless the world,” as Rebecca Parker describes. This reflects our Universalist belief that we are all in this together, so we should figure out our shared human challenges.

Makerspace projects for young children can be positive. If we want a young person to be able to understand the ecological consequences of deforestation when she is older, let her work to DSC03896a_morguefileget the church grounds certified as a wildlife habitat when she is 8. This lays the groundwork for an integrated understanding of the issue. She learns she can be an active, not passive, seventh Principle steward.

Likewise, an RE container garden invites a child to understand the value of water and soil and organically demonstrates how producing food is a fundamental human experience and right. A social justice project on hunger or water scarcity will be more meaningful to him if he has experienced planning, preparing, planting, tending, harvesting, and sharing a garden’s bounty.

Our kids thrive on DOING. It changes their brains and the way they see themselves: When we make things, we are more confident, more open, less anxious about perfection. We naturally collaborate and take risks, and we begin to see ourselves as creators of the world around us, not passive consumers.

We know our children need RE experiences that help them “take it home” every day of the week, in all their activities. Makerspace work lets them bring skills and passion into their daily lives. We can bring our UU values and theology to life when we build capacity in our kids for imagining, doing, helping, healing. We say we are the church of the open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. Makerspace work in RE programs can help make that a reality.

Next Steps!

Read more about Maker Culture on Wikipedia.

Why are Makerspaces so popular? Read “The ‘maker movement’ creates D.I.Y. revolution,'” a 2014 article in the online Christian Science Monitor, and learn what young people do in Detroit’s Mt. Elliott Makerspace.

Want to explore the possibility of Makerspace in your program? The Makerspace Playbook (School Edition), available online as a PDF file, provides detailed how-to and why-to information.

About the Blogger

IMG_7957Joy Berry is a professional religious educator in Asheville, NC, where she raises chickens, tinkers, and dreams about her future permaculture homestead. She is terminally excited about UUism and her favorite thing ever is witnessing children fall in love with the world around them.

How to Help First-Year College Students Be Sexually Smarter

By Melanie Davis

Many parents will spend the next few months packing college dorm-bound boxes with bed linens, ramen noodles, and laundry soap. I hope they will also include condoms, dams, and personal lubricant; a book on sexuality; and encouragement to make smart sexual decisions as well as smart academic choices.

A few years ago, a college first-year and Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education program graduate told me: “Living in a dorm gives you a live lesson in how STIs (sexually transmitted infections) can spread. In the first week, one person on my floor slept with four people!”

10805587915_56407fd90c_k by COD newsroom Flickr Creative CommonsA parent may consider their live-away college freshman a newly minted adult, but, biologically, teens remain in adolescence until about age 25. While their brains are still developing, they are more likely to take risks, use poor impulse control, and be self-conscious. These are all risk factors for unhealthy sexual decisions.

But, there is good news: College offers a time of great learning, exploration, and social development, all of which contribute to healthy sexuality.

Parents often warn their children to “stay safe” or “be smart” about college drinking and sex, but I have yet to meet a student whose parents taught them how to negotiate sexual activity in a sexually healthy, non-coercive way. Every 21 hours, a rape occurs on a college campus in the U.S. All of those rapes were committed by someone’s child, against someone else’s child.

As a professor of undergraduate Human Sexuality, I’ve observed that each class has several students who:

  • regret at least a few of their sexual decisions;
  • have not engaged in sexual intercourse;
  • have sexual health concerns;
  • wonder whether or how to disclose their sexual identity;
  • are in abusive relationships;
  • are having sex that, while consensual, isn’t pleasurable;
  • have experienced their own, a partner’s, or a friend’s unintended pregnancy;
  • aren’t sure whether they’ve been coerced or assaulted, due to excessive drinking;
  • aren’t sure whether they’ve sexually coerced or assaulted someone.

Use the time before college starts to educate about healthy sexual behavior. Say it unequivocally: Sexual activity should never occur unless a potential partner gives enthusiastic, on-going consent while clear-headed, that is, not pressured, drunk, drugged, or cognitively/developmentally impaired in any way.

Other ways you can help prepare a sexually smart, new college student:

  • Encourage your young person to schedule a physical exam with their primary care provider. This is a good opportunity for them to find out about protection against STIs and unintended pregnancy. Prior to the visit, discuss whether you’re OK with your family insurance coverage being used for contraceptives and STI screenings.
  • Tour the campus health center together or encourage your young person to visit early in the semester, before they need help. Kurt Conklin, an instructional specialist at Montclair State University, says “Obtaining preventive sexual health services will feel more routine if your young adult has prior acquaintance with how to use the health service. You can sit with them at a computer and do a dress rehearsal of how to schedule an appointment online or by phone.“
  • Buy sex books when you buy textbooks. Good resources for college students include Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era, 4th edition, by Judy Norsigian and Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (New York: Touchstone, 2011); Guide To Getting It On, 8th edition, by Paul Joannides (Waldport, OR: Goofy Foot Press, 2015); S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, by Heather Corinna (Boston, MA: De Capo Press,2007).

Iman Messado, 18, a staff writer for the popular Sex, Etc. website, tells new college students, “Besides checking out Sex, Etc., I think it’s good to know that you have all the time in the world to be sexually active. Hooking up might be a prominent part of the stereotypical college experience, but you still have to deal with the possible consequences. If you really do want to be sexually active, go ahead! Only, be as safe as you can: use condoms, contraceptives, get tested for STIs, etc.”

Next Steps!

  • Encourage your young person to locate a Unitarian Universalist congregation near their campus and ask whether they offer Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education for Young Adults. Use Find a Congregation on the UUA website home page.
  • With your young person, watch sexuality educator Al Vernacchio’s TEDTalk offering a new way to think about sexual decision making. Forget baseball metaphors; bring on the pizza!
  • Discuss with your young person what they can do if they or a friend is sexually Melanie Davisassaulted. Many colleges have specially trained advisers for this purpose. NotAlone.gov lists resources in every state.

About the Blogger

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