Happy 25th Birthday?

I remember my 25th birthday—a quarter of a century! It felt like a major accomplishment. It has been just as significant celebrating each of my daughters’ 25th birthdays, with pride in them both and accompanying gratitude. Somehow a 25th birthday feels like a really special milestone that deserves song and rejoicing.PK11 graphic in paint

Another 25th birthday has just crept up, without much fanfare, and somehow asking you to join me in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” won’t do it. Imagine receiving a beautifully wrapped present, with a gift card that speaks of the great significance of what lies within…

…but when you open this lovely gift, the box is empty.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on November 20, 1989. It was ratified by more countries than any other human rights treaty in history. Only two countries have not ratified this treaty: Somalia (which has no recognized government) and the United States.

I would have missed the CRC quarter-century milestone had I not seen the post, “Children’s Rights are Human Rights,” submitted by Scott Hirschfeld on the Teaching Tolerance blog site. Hirschfeld is Director of Education at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund).

And then I remembered reading about an organization committed to advocating for U.S. ratification of the treaty—the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I was very pleased to see that the Unitarian Universalist Association is a partner organization. It’s too late to celebrate this birthday with the CRC, but let’s work together to make sure that the gift box contains a ratified treaty before another 25 years go by.

Next Steps!

The Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC offers resources online to help you:

Find a child-friendly version of the CRC here (“Article 19: You have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, in body or mind.”). The full, official text is posted on the website of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The goals of the CRC are promoted by these children’s books: For Every Child, by Caroline Castle (2001) and I Have the Right to Be a Child, by Alain Serres (2012).

Websites with more information include Teaching Tolerance and Teach UNICEF.

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of working with the United Nations. The UU United Nations Office began more than 50 years ago, in 1962, and can be reached here.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

4312332671_e73d7c2183_z qiqi eating spaghetti by steven depolo from flickr
“Eating Spaghetti,” by Steven Depolo. Used under Creative Commons license.

Several years ago, I wandered in the Exhibit Hall at the UU General Assembly and found myself standing at a booth where you could make a button with your own personal slogan. I decided to make one that said, “What Would Mr. Rogers Do?” I suppose I had in the back of my mind the slogan then popular among some Christians, “WWJD?”, or “What Would Jesus Do?”

You see, when I was a child, Mr. Rogers was one of my best friends. I rushed home from school so I could finish my homework in time to watch him. As an adult, I learned that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. How appropriate: Mr. Rogers had taught me, when I was a child, more about ethics than any school or church, second only to my family. Mr. Rogers (and Henrietta Pussycat) encouraged me to respond thoughtfully to life’s changes and to remember that my actions affect others and influence how others think of me.

Aside from ethics, Mr. Rogers taught me something about belonging to a neighborhood. I’ve been thinking about that a great deal recently. Last week, I had lunch with a friend at Golden Temple, a café and store about a mile from my house in Birmingham, Alabama. I started to reminisce about an event the café no longer holds. I called it Spaghetti Saturday. On the first Saturday of the month, everyone was invited to a free spaghetti lunch. What a crowd it would attract! While it provided a meal for many who needed one, the event included people like me, who had a pantry and enough food in it, but also lived on the Southside.

There was nothing particularly great about the food. My favorite part was this: The only “price” asked of you was that you take a turn serving. My favorite months were when my sister, my daughter, and I served. Dishing up plates piled with spaghetti and fresh baked bread for my neighbors. Seeing all those grateful, smiling faces. Knowing they might be the ones serving me next month, in a cycle of giving and receiving.

I wonder: Do you feel you belong in your neighborhood? How do you help others to feel this way? What memories do you have of the neighborhoods where you have lived? How are you making memories even now? How do cycles of giving and receiving play out in your neighborhood… or do they?

Before you act as a citizen of the world, first be a good citizen to your immediate community. Before you can love your neighbor, you kinda need to know them.

Next Steps!

This is a great time of year to reacquaint yourself with your neighborhood. Feed your spirit through reconnection and reclaiming. Take a stroll with your camera and photograph fall foliage. Offer to rake a neighbor’s leaves or hire a neighbor kid to rake yours. Bake extra goodies for holiday meals and take them to neighbors you haven’t yet gotten to know. Walk around outside more often, instead of driving. You’ll notice things you had not seen before and meet new people. What other activities will cement the feeling that you belong to this neighborhood and it belongs to you?

Watch full episodes of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at PBS Kids.

Thanksgiving — Not a Religious Buffet

A couple of decades ago, many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrated a Thanksgiving “seder,” a ritual patterned after the Jewish Passover seder. In my congregation, we retold the story of the “First Thanksgiving.” Tables were decorated with white cloth, bittersweet, and pumpkins. Children asked ritual questions, such as “Why do we have turkey and cranberry sauce?” The seder lifted up a litany of voices from the immigrant experiences of many different ethnic groups who had come to the United States. In William Bradford’s words, we recited the story of the Plimouth Colony’s survival through winter and its three-day feast shared with Indians after a successful harvest. We drank cider and ate delicious homemade bread at designated moments between the readings. The ritual spoke to the experience of being American, as in “United States American,” mixing  our national origin myth with religious faith.

Image used by courtesy of Edmon J. Rodman, from a blog posted Nov. 12, 2012:  http://www.jta.org/2012/11/12/life-religion/for-a-thanksgiving-seder-its-all-about-the-hodu#ixzz3HYdGQ43I
Image used by courtesy of Edmon J. Rodman, from a column posted Nov. 12, 2012 on www.ita.org, “For a Thanksgiving Seder It’s All About the Hodu”

There was, from the beginning, some controversy surrounding the Thanksgiving seder. Was it respectful of the Jewish tradition from which it borrowed? Or, was it an inappropriate repurposing of another faith’s religious ceremony? Did it matter, if those in the congregation who grew up Jewish loved it?

One year, some of us worked to revise the Thanksgiving seder. Aware of Wampanoag objections to the “Pilgrims and Indians” Thanksgiving myth, we grafted on a section of the ritual in which we said that for the Wampanoag, Thanksgiving is not a single day but a regular practice. That Sunday, just as the ritual ended, someone in the congregation rose to say that our script was offensive in its treatment of Indians: We were re-enacting and celebrating an event that Indigenous People mark with a Day of Mourning. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Initially, I felt hurt and angry. We had tried so hard to be inclusive. It took me some time to calm down enough to think about what the congregant had said, and still more time to learn about the damage done. We had sought a kind of cheap grace, a way to skirt the racism of the Thanksgiving myth without giving up our beloved ceremony. Our nod to Wampanoag spirituality, although well-intended, was actually offensive.

Over time, I began the continuing process of filling in the gaps in my knowledge and understanding of the role the Thanksgiving myth has played in cultural genocide of Indigenous people. Also over time, the Thanksgiving seder fell into disuse. As Unitarian Universalists began to recognize and confront instances of cultural misappropriation, many became uncomfortable elevating and sanctifying the Pilgrims’ coming. But the conflict around that Thanksgiving seder and the soul-searching that resulted remain an important part of my faith development as I continue to live into being an antiracist white ally.

Next Steps!

Read the book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This newly-published Beacon Press book is receiving wonderful reviews. It will help you learn about the big picture of Indigenous history in the US. There is also a UUA discussion guide that you might use with others to help process what you learn.

Add these books, appropriate for children and adults together, to your family or congregational library:

  • 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic Society, 2004)
  • Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann (Athenaeum Books, 2009)

Explore on the UUA website:

Multicultural RE Training Offers a Transformative 15 Hours

[Editors' note: Through the Renaissance program, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) offers continuing education for UU religious educators, including musicians, ministers, seminarians, and lay leaders. Each 15-hour module provides basic training in a topic area useful in religious education leadership.]

I first experienced the Multicultural Religious Education Renaissance module as a participant, in 1999, when I was a relatively new religious educator. I was blown away. For many years, I continued to process learnings from that module. My next experience was as a co-leader, during the field test of the revision about 10 years later. The module had had such a deep impact on me as a participant, I was anxious to create a similarly powerful experience for others, as a leader. And again, I was blown away.

MC religious education from uua website asset_upload_file509_15274 So when I started working for the UUA, with Renaissance modules in my portfolio, I was excited to promote this valuable program, and especially to help districts, chapters, congregations and other groups offer Renaissance modules. The revision had been necessary; what it means to be multicultural had changed. In 1999, we focused almost exclusively on race. I don’t think I even knew what “transgender” meant. In 2010, the group discussions were both broader (the many elements of identity) and deeper.

Creating safe space for conversation is something important for any module, but it is particularly critical in this module, where people are dealing with their own identities and feelings, as well as the challenges and opportunities in their RE program and congregation. It can be overwhelming!

One of my favorite parts of my job is to summarize participants’ feedback after a Renaissance module. I know from experience that the Multicultural RE module is one of the most urgently needed in our congregations, but it’s also the least offered in most geographical areas. It has been offered only four times in three years. I wondered how to help people see that the Multicultural RE module can be a transformative experience. And the answer became quite obvious: Share the experiences of participants who have taken the revised module:

To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about taking this module. I had baggage from previous attempts in my congregation to become more multicultural, which haven’t worked so well. However, as I started to read [the assigned text, What If All the Kids Are White? by Louise Derman Sparks], I realized that there was a whole new positive approach that I hadn’t realized…The module…modeled for me a lot of the issues that many of us still need to work through, and how to do that in a respectful and compassionate way.

I expected a program akin to an equal opportunity employment training. I was more than thrilled that I was wrong!

I hoped the workshop would help me make sense of the intercultural communication workshop I attended [Who Are Our Neighbors?, a workshop provided by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association]. Although the topics were so similar, my learning in this module was far deeper, more meaningful, and [more] helpful than other workshops that I have attended.

Overall the module encouraged me to continue to focus on social justice learning in our RE program as well as adding more advocacy to my professional and personal life.

I was expecting a narrow focus on diversity as it specifically relates to race and nationality, but it was both and more specific than that. The tools were applicable for multiple situations, rather than just a classroom setting.

[I] did not anticipate being made aware of the diversity that already exists [in our congregations]. Yes, we went so far beyond my previous ideas about multiculturalism to include issues of gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic class, age, ability, and the power/privilege that may be more prevalent in some groups.

I expected perhaps to be overwhelmed and frustrated, worrying about how to bring back what I’d learned. Instead, I left thoughtful, confident, empowered and positive.

I am very, very glad I took this module and it’s probably the best one I’ve taken.

Next Steps!

Find out more about the Renaissance program. These training modules comprise a major component of UU Religious Education (RE) Credentialing.

Do you know of a multicultural religious education resource that you would like to share? Contact Pat Kahn at pkahn@uua.org.

Teaching Tolerance‘s magazine and website comprise a comprehensive resource for multicultural training for educators. Explore their professional development modules and Perspectives online curriculum.

Louise Derman-Sparks gave the Fahs lecture at the 2012 UUA General Assembly. You can read about her lecture, find handouts, and watch online. Derman-Sparks is the co-author of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009). A new book by Derman-Sparks, Debbie Lee Keenan, and John Nimmo, Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change, is ready for pre-order from the NAEYC.

The Teaching for Change website offers related resources including DVDs; “An Updated Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books” by Derman-Sparks; and free, downloadable (PDF) articles in English and Spanish on anti-bias teaching topics.

The Fall 2014 online edition of Rethinking Schools focuses on resources for educators to understand and confront racism.

Movies, Movies, Movies: Enjoy, Discuss, Connect

I love movies.

Raymond Atterson, projectionist at Film Forum, New York, N.Y.
Raymond Atterson, a movie projectionist in New York, NY, photographed by Joseph O. Holmes.

Correction: I LOVE movies!

I watch them on cable. I watch them on Netflix – streaming and DVD rental. Through my desktop, tablet and Wii (but not on the phone – you’ve got to draw a line somewhere!).

I love to watch them best in a theatre, eating popcorn, surrounded by other people…people watching the same film, but having different interpretations and reactions. I want to be sucked in, to live the movie. Then, when the credits are done and the lights come up, I enjoy analyzing the film: from the story to the actors to the directorial successes and failures. I come by this love honestly, not just because of years spent in college, in graduate school and working in professional theatres but also by living in a family of movie and theatre lovers.

For the past three years, my family and I have attended the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). Canadian residents give us confused looks when we explain that, no, we are not in the business – we just like movies and, yes, we are willing to travel hundreds of miles and spend a lot of money to see movies at TIFF before they hit the theatre.  Last year, I came back crowing about 12 Years a Slave and Half a Yellow Sun, disappointed by Gravity, and unhappy that I couldn’t fit The Lunchbox in my schedule.  Did I mention The Schedule? Every year, I take my and my family’s “Want To See” list, coordinate viewings and put everyone’s schedule in a color-coded spreadsheet, complete with movie title, time, theatre’s name/address and who from our family will accompany you. The Schedule helps you get the most out of your experience. My current record is five movies in a day.

This year, I was frustrated over Black and White’s glossing over the real issues of white people raising children of color. I cried more than once during A Good Lie, fell asleep watching The Equalizer, and posted on Facebook that everyone should go see Ruth and Alex. Most importantly, I watched movies that were ABOUT SOMETHING. One of my favorites? Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

This animated feature length film is a great way to introduce young people to the wisdom of The Prophet. It is a visual tour de force: nine directors from all over the world use different animation styles to illustrate chapters from the book. The chapters are held together by a new narrative of a young girl who befriends a poet who has been imprisoned by the state because he is dangerous. Yes, the movie says, words are dangerous. Even beautiful words. Even words of peace of love….perhaps, especially words of peace and love. Salma Hayek, the producer, says, “It’s a right time to make a movie like this…It’s extraordinary that there is a Lebanese author who brought religions together, and talked about peace and death in such a beautiful way.” The Prophet doesn’t yet have a distributor, but if it comes to a theatre near you, find a young person and introduce them to the power of words, the power of images, the power of film. You might help encourage a future filmmaker….or just a movie lover like me.

What are some of your favorite movies to discuss with young people?

Next Steps!

In an article in Variety magazine, Hayek talks about how The Prophet reminds her of her grandfather. Add the film to your watchlist on IMDb so you won’t forget to look out for its theatrical release.  There is a discussion guide on the book, The Prophet, on BookRags. If you choose to watch The Prophet with youth, make use of the session on “beauty” in the youth program, Exploring Our Values Through Poetry.

Teach with Movies offers discussion guides for movies to engage all ages.

The UUA’s Tapestry of Faith resources include study guides for movies such as Milk. Also in Tapestry of Faith, find suggestions for movies to teach with. The adult program Wi$dom Path: Money, Spirit, and Life offers this list of “money movies.”

Religion in Life: Engaging Today’s UU Girl Scouts

By Alicia LeBlanc

“I will try my best to be…”
— Religion in Life for Girl Scouts (4th edition)

Do you advise Girl Scouts in your congregation? Were you a Girl Scout in your youth? If you’re a young person reading this, are you a Girl Scout? If you’re not… maybe you’d like to be!girl-scout-history

The newly published Religion in Life for Girl Scouts (4th edition) is a recognition program that connects experiences gained in Girl Scouting with Unitarian Universalist faith values. This program, by Dr. Charlie Groth, differs from the 3rd edition in two ways. One, it is entirely online, and two, it is written for girls themselves. The website is designed to be a girl-friendly, engaging, and interactive environment. Religion in Life for Girl Scouts is a truly welcoming experience for all—girls, leaders, caregivers, advisors, and religious professionals.

In the younger girls’ section (grades 4-8), the Girl Scout Law is examined in-depth. Girls engage in expressing, exploring, and thinking deeply about individuality, responsibility, how to interact with others, and the global community. The older girls’ section (grades 6-12) explores spirituality, world religions, UU history, self-esteem, stereotypes, and challenges girls may face.

During the initial stages of this project, I enthusiastically took on the opportunity to design the website’s pages. Though I was not a Girl Scout in my youth, while working on the website I connected with many of the ideals discussed in the program. In a direct way, being able to create the website design for this program gave me a chance to express myself through creativity, explore a new web-based platform, and think critically about how to make the website engaging for a Girl Scout audience. I learned the value of community and connecting with people around me: My colleagues supported me from start-to-finish, through the process of learning what would or wouldn’t work with the technology we had available. My own faith development grew as I took a step back to reflect on the life lessons this program offers young people in today’s society. Most of all, the project was fun! As a young adult, this program was powerful to read and I look forward to implementing the values in my life.

As you engage with Religion in Life for Girl Scouts—whether as an emblem-earning participant, a leader, advisor, caregiver, and/or religious professional—I hope you express yourself in profound ways, explore the activities with those in your congregation, and think about how you can make a difference in the life of a UU Girl Scout by sharing this program with them.

Next Steps!

We would love to receive videos and photos of UU Girl Scouts to add to the Religion in Life website, as well as any feedback you would like to offer. Before you submit a video or photo, please make sure you have each visible photo/video subject (for minors, a parent or guardian) sign a form like this standard media release form from the UUA. Feedback, photos/videos, and release forms may be sent to religiouseducation@uua.org.

Alicia LeBlanc cropped moreAlicia LeBlanc
is the Administrative and Editorial Assistant for the Faith Development Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association.


Teaching About Ferguson: Not “Optional” for White People

[Editor's Update, Nov. 18, 2014—As the nation awaits a Grand Jury decision on whether Office Darren Wilson will be indicted for shooting Michael Brown, many UUs are preparing to respond to the decision by "showing up" in a faithful way. The Ferguson Response Team of the UU New England districts offers wise thoughts and practical suggestions.]

I watched events unfold in Ferguson this summer and followed the discussion that was and was not happening around me. I saw—once again—how awkward and tongue-tied white people can get when the conversation turns to race. And I noticed—AGAIN—that while parents of children of color face heartbreaking conversations about personal safety, white parents of white children often content themselves with generalities about fairness and equality but do not talk among themselves or with their children about the hard stuff that is intrinsic to race in America.

Photo: woodleywonderworks via Creative Commons/Flickr; from www.commondreams.org

How woefully unprepared most white people in the United States are for the deep and honest examination and dialogue necessary to come to terms with our own racial identity and with the racial injustice embedded in our social, political, and cultural systems.

What if talking about race was akin to talking about sexuality? Difficult, yes, but integral to good parenting? What if white people wanted their kids to be not just sexually healthy, but also racially healthy, able to meet, engage, and negotiate complex conversations, relationships, and situations by drawing on a well-formed racial identity based on good information, liberal religious values, and a strong sense of justice? What if white parents believed it was just as important for children to speak for racial justice as it is for them to believe in and speak for the integrity of their own body and sexuality?

For years, we have been telling parents in our congregations and communities that we must talk with our children and youth about sexuality. We argue that if our young people do not receive accurate, values-based information, from their parents, caregivers, and sexuality education programs, then they will “fill in the blanks,” satisfying their need to know by gathering information from whatever source they can find, no matter how unreliable, biased, or devoid of Unitarian Universalist values that source might be.

The same can be said about race: We—parents and teachers of all races—must talk with our children and youth about race, however difficult we may find that to be. We must tell them about race and racism in our country’s history, all the way up to the continuing oppressions of today. We must help them understand what our values teach about how to engage and respond—even if we first need to educate ourselves.

Our congregations and communities need to be partners in the effort, supporting parents and caregivers through faith development programming, worship, and social justice efforts particularly to educate white children we are raising together. We can’t just move into another congregational year without engaging our children in a conversation about race. We can’t. If we do, children will “fill in the blanks” about race by absorbing messages from peers, the media, and the dominant culture. The world we dream about will not be built on silence and avoidance. It’s long past time for white kids to learn about race!

Next Steps!

If you are in a UU congregation with a youth contingent, encourage and support your congregation to provide the core multiculturalism/anti-racism training, Be the Change! Developed by the UUA, the program uses six 90-minute workshops to give young people a starting place for discussions about race, identity, and justice.

See “Do’s and Don’ts for Teaching about Ferguson” by Jenee Desmond-Haris in the online magazine The Root; the editors write, “Process it yourself first, ask students what they want to know and by all means, don’t make the lesson colorblind.”

The nonprofit organization Teaching for Change collected lesson plans and activity suggestions related to the history of racism, police brutality, and civil rights protest in the U.S., in response to the killing of Michael Brown.

In his 2014 Fahs Lecture at the UUA General Assembly Rev. Mark-Morrison Reed presents a revealing look at the ways in which race has been depicted (and often ignored) in Unitarian Universalist curricula of the past.



Remembering Gene Navias

By Liz Strong

[Editors' note: The Rev. Eugene Barnett Navias, who died August 17, 2014, served the UUA as a religious education (RE) field consultant for nearly 20 years, then as Director of the UUA Religious Education Department (1982-1993). He gave us advocacy for professional development for religious educators, a commitment to sexuality education, creative teacher workshops, and song lyrics to teach history and theology.]

Gene Navias interviewed me in 1977 for acceptance in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Accreditation Program for Directors of Religious Education. Through the years, he was there as a mentor and friend with compassion, humor, and intellectual challenge. His leadership of the Religious Education Department at the UUA benefited—and was deeply appreciated by—hundreds of religious educators, including me.

Rev Gene Navias 1928-2014Gene developed the Religion Making Model to revamp the boxed curriculum kits of the 1960s. I shall always remember him at the Ferry Beach conference center when he co-led a program on that Religion Making model. He guided us to adapt “Man the Meaning Maker: Kung of the Kalahari,” to bring it to life for a new generation. Role playing was part of the plan and we became members of a Kung tribe for a day’s experience in the Kalahari Desert. As we set out across the sand dunes at Ferry Beach, Gene played the role of a little boy of five. Hopping and skipping along, he thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the role. I thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of a girl about that same age frolicking across the sand in cahoots with him. He taught me that even the “high UUA brass” could have fun and enjoy the company of novice religious educators. I hoped that Gene’s ability to interact as his joyful self with all whom he met would always remain. I know that that child of five always did hop and skip within him, because, later in our friendship, Gene would hop and skip up Roslin Street in Dorchester to play Scrabble with Jim and me.

Gene, In my times of crisis and pain you gave condolences, comfort, and insight into my struggles. For that I thank you. Your support will always remain a powerful part of why I cherish you as I do. You served Unitarian Universalism with your heart and soul.

Dear friend, admired colleague, esteemed role model, you are now my cherished memory. Rest in peace, I loved you living and I love you now.

Next Steps

See the obituary posted by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, online.

liz strong head shotRev. Dr. Elizabeth M. Strong, a third generation Unitarian Universalist, is a retired minister of religious education who has served congregations in Rochester and Syracuse, NY; as program consultant for the Mass. Bay District of the UUA; and, as consulting minister for the First Parish Church in Ashby (MA) where she was named Minister Emerita. A recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education and the Meadville Lombard Alumni Board Service Award, Liz is a past president of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) and a member of the Meadville Lombard Theological School Board.

A Rock, the Earth, the Universe, and a Child’s Biggest Questions

By Kari Kopnick

For seven years I served as the religious educator for a wonderful Unitarian Universalist congregation in West Seattle, Washington. During my early years there we would trek down to the rocky beaches of Puget Sound for an annual “Solstice by the Shore” celebration. We would collect a pile of rocks and bring them back to our little, rented church space. The big, green bucket of rocks from Alki Beach was always there to be drawn on, glued to, or used for whatever our classroom volunteers came up with. We added to it each year until our congregation grew too big to pile kids in our cars and head to the beach.Chalice KARI Kopnick & rocks

For many kids, rocks are the perfect physical connection to the earth. It’s like a little piece of the earth’s crust can fit right in your hand, because that’s exactly what it is! In learning about rocks, the earth, and the seasons there were always analytical kids who asked about the rotation of the sun and the earth and how the whole gravity thing works. There were the young mystics who felt the turning of the seasons in their bodies and wanted to mark the time with silence, the lighting of a chalice, and some guidance on thinking about the big questions in life: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens when we die? I had to be careful, though, because even the six-year-olds do not want the answer given to them. They just want to sit together and ponder.

Our children liked to learn how much of the matter on our earth was formed when stars exploded. Even more, they were amazed to learn that our bodies are made from star stuff, matter formed from the explosions of ancient stars. It’s simple science, really. We eat food and it becomes “us,” but that food is also made of exploded stars. The heft of a stone in the small hand of a child is a real, physical reality. A child can quickly understand, “This rock is made deep in the earth and the earth makes the food that grows and I eat it and that becomes me.” It seems like magic, but it’s not, it’s just what science teaches us! The perfect heart and mind connection!

The wide, open hearts and minds of children are humbling. In the blink of an eye, a child can go from thinking that a rock is just a rock to connecting with the grounding spirit of where the rock came from, imagining that journey, and relating it to themselves. Children have much to teach us about being whole and open spiritual beings—just as we are, just like a humble, small rock.

Next Steps!

  • An all-ages project: Collect stones from your travels about your own town and beyond for a rock garden filled with meaningful stones. Then, when something important happens, you will have a place to go and be with the rocks that hold your history. A physical place to be spiritual can be powerful for children and allows us to bring to the front of our minds a part of us that isn’t often recognized in our busy days. For more ways to nurture children spiritually through interaction with rocks, see the Families section of the Fall 2014 UU World magazine.
  • Introduce the children in your life to “star stuff.” Explore the We Are All Star Stuff curricula, videos, and other resources for kids, on Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd’s The Great Story website. Here you will find pages (PDF) from The Kids’ Book of Awesome Stuff by religious educator Charlotte Brotman; this book is available for purchase at Amazon.com.
  • Watch on YouTube: The Most Astounding Fact, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Find a good Pebble Meditation, also on YouTube.

head shot Kari Kopnick DSC_0296Kari Kopnick is serving for a year as the Family Ministry Specialist at the Church of the Larger Fellowship working closely with Family Quest online resources. Previously, Kari served as the Director of Religious Exploration at the Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Seattle, WA. Kari has three grown sons and two crazy little dogs. She writes a Unitarian Universalist-themed blog.

Deepening in Faith Together, with Theme-Based Ministry

Theme-based ministry is happening in more and more congregations throughout our movement. What is theme-based ministry? According to Rev. Scott Tayler, the UUA’s Director of Congregational Life, theme-based ministry “is a powerfully engaging way of focusing the life of a congregation on monthly themes through worship, religious education, small groups and other activities.”theme based words

Last June, many attendees at the UUA 2014 General Assembly (GA) in Providence (Rhode Island) learned this, and much more, in an SRO (that is, standing room only!) workshop, Deepening Our Faith through Theme-Based Ministry.

Why themes? Rev. Matthew Johnson, minister of the UU Church of Rockford (Illinois) and one of the workshop presenters, says it is a way to create multigenerational connections across the congregation. His article, “Theme-Based Church and the Workshop Rotation Model: Putting It Together,” describes a way to integrate worship themes into religious education programming.

Another workshop presenter, Sheila Schuh, director of religious education at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester (New York) shared her ‘Deepening Our Faith’ Top Ten!” benefits of theme based-ministry:

1. Lifts positive energy and engagement of volunteers

2. Tailors to congregation (traditions/ history/mission)

3. Worship 4u! Provides developmentally appropriate engagement and a whole experience

4. Builds cross-generational ties in family (parent/child), congregation, humanity

5. Ties seasonal events to a spiritually grounding liturgical calendar

6. Offers, with each theme, a base for creativity and curiosity

7. Stretches spiritual focus in direction may not have considered

8. Allows economies of scale in preparation, media

9. Invites spiritual connection with DRE et al., for program and  pastoral

10. Invites leaders to balance a deeper level of internal work with the duties of administration

Rev. Jan Taddeo of the UU Congregation of Gwinnett (Georgia) and Kathy Smith, director of religious education at the Community UU Church in Plano (Texas) described the evolution of monthly themes in their congregations. Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh of the UUA staff shared resources for congregations to explore theme-based ministry.

Next steps!

Want to learn more? Online, watch the GA 2014 workshop Deepening Our Faith through Theme-based Ministry or view the presenters’ slides.

Get inspired by learning how various UU congregations use themes:

  • Read how a variety of UU faith communities use themes in small group ministry in stories collected by the Small Group Ministry Network
  • The Church of the Larger Fellowship invites members to connect around a theme each month via the Quest for Meaning newsletter.
  • See how themes “help congregants go deeper” at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa (Oklahoma) in in an InterConnections artlcle or on the congregation’s theme-based ministry website.
  • First Unitarian Church of Rochester (New York) structures worship around monthly spiritual themes for ten months of the year; see the calendar of themes here. Another congregation using themes is Unitarian Universalist Church West in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

More “Theme” Resources

  • The Soul Matters Sharing Circle is a group of UU congregations that follow the same monthly worship themes and share material for small group worship and children’s religious education as well as sermons and music. Membership is open to additional congregations.
  • Congregations in the UUA Pacific Western Region can subscribe to the “Touchstones” journal with worship and discussion resources for monthly themes, following the theme-based ministry of the First Universalist Church of Denver (Colorado).
  • The Vibrant Faith Ministries/Faith Formation Learning Exchange discusses themes and how to use them in “A New Way to Approach Faith Formation” by Joelene Roehlkepartain.