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 miss.book 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 children.christmas-531030_1280_bells 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.

The “OWL” Has Landed! 2nd Edition for Grades 7-9 Now Available

By Melanie Davis

The newly released second edition of Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education for Grades 7-9 is now available from the Unitarian Universalist Association Bookstore. Like the first edition, this sexuality curriculum is comprehensive, inclusive, and justice-oriented. It is filled with new ways to help youth learn about both timeless and contemporary issues. Online, you can read descriptions of the new edition’s units and workshops and then, order the new edition.

The revision process began with a needs assessment that included a nationwide survey of Our Whole Lives facilitators. We engaged Pamela Wilson, author of the earlier edition, to revisit the curriculum, and we cast a wide net for expert contributors on contemporary issues. The new edition also benefits from the input of Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ (UCC) curriculum developers, critical readers, and editors; feedback from congregations that field tested new material; suggestions from OWL trainers; and ideas that emerged from e-list conversations.OWL 7-9 cover

Every workshop in the original program was updated; many offer new approaches, activities, and readings. To respond to the changing context of being an adolescent, we added workshops on body image; sexuality, social media and the Internet; bullying and bystander responsibilities; consent education; communicating with a sexual partner; and self care. We also updated the curriculum’s introductory material, facilitator notes, resources, and handouts.

Including youth with special needs in an Our Whole Lives program can pose challenges, not only in terms of classroom management but also because these participants may have particular sexual health issues and risks. The new edition has a chapter that describes how the curriculum can support youth who have a variety of cognitive or psycho-social disabilities; it also helps facilitators anticipate and address the learning needs of youth with autism spectrum or attention-related disorders. The chapter explains how Our Whole Lives can help prepare them to navigate the physical changes of puberty and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and communication, while helping to reduce their vulnerability to unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual abuse.

In short, the new edition of Our Whole Lives for Grades 7-9 is an excellent investment because it includes:

  • Updated language and discussion related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and anatomy
  • New workshops related to contemporary youth needs and interests
  • Enhanced focus on justice and inclusivity
  • More multimedia suggestions (however, Internet access is not essential to workshops)
  • Many alternate activities, so facilitators can tailor the workshops to their group’s interests and learning styles
  • Special Needs Implementation Guide

As you can tell from this post, you will notice many changes. However, you’ll also find that the new edition feels familiar—that it embodies the same values and assumptions, has the same workshop format, and includes many facilitators’ and participants’ favorite activities from the first edition.

We anticipate that every OWL facilitator and religious educator will have an opinion about the revised edition. We encourage you to experience the curriculum. We welcome questions and hope you will offer feedback, because we all have the same goal: to create a world full of sexually healthy human beings.

Next Steps!

  • Unfamiliar with Our Whole Lives? The program for grades 7-9 is one component of a lifespan sexuality education curriculum serving age groups from children to adult. Find out more on the UUA website.
  • The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS) published Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Kindergarten–12th Grade, which helped shape the Our Whole Lives curriculum.
  • Looking for an Our Whole Lives program provided by a UU congregation near you? Use the Find a Congregation search tool on the UUA website.
  • Are you currently providing or considering an Our Whole Lives curriculum for your congregation? Use the publicity tools provide on the UUA website. “Sexuality is Honored Here” is a brochure to help congregants and visitors understand why Our Whole Lives is appropriate for use in the congregation. This page provides flyers you can print to promote your Our Whole Lives program.
  • Interested in becoming an Our Whole Lives facilitator? Locate a training event here.

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

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.