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.


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. 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.

Channing Is Still Relevant on “the Noblest Work on Earth”

In a previous Call and Response post (Parents and “Fellow Laborers,” July 2013), we shared advice for parents from the famous Sunday School Address by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842). The Unitarian minister also had lots to say for those who teach in our religious education programs. 1858teaching400In his times, he spoke with urgency, warning, “So great is my dread of tame, mechanical teaching that I am sometimes almost tempted to question the utility of Sunday schools.”

Herewith, some wisdom and inspiration for teachers, from Channing:

  • As the first means of establishing influence over the young, I would say, you must love them.
  • To awaken in the young an interest in what you teach, you must take an interest in it yourselves. You must not only understand, but feel, the truth. Your manner must have the natural animation which always accompanies a work into which our hearts enter.
  • Teach much by questions. These stimulate, stir up the young mind, and make it its own teacher.  They encourage the spirit of inquiry, the habit of thought. Questions, skillfully proposed, turn the child to his own consciousness and experience, and will often draw out from his own soul the truth which you wish to impart; and no lesson is so well learned as that which [an adult] or a child teaches [themselves].
  • Cultivate the power of description. A story well told, and in which the most important particulars are brought out in a strong light, not only fixes attention, but often carries a truth farthest into the soul.
  • Carry a cheerful spirit into religious teaching.
  • Like all schools, the Sunday-school must owe its influence to its teachers. I would, therefore, close this discourse with saying that the most gifted in our congregation cannot find a worthier field of labor than the Sunday-school. The noblest work on earth is to act with an elevating power on a human spirit.

Next Steps!

Read William Ellery Channing’s 1837 Sunday School Address online, in his collected writings on GoogleBooks.

The UUA supports teachers and facilitators, both professional and lay volunteer, with curricula, webinars, the Renaissance program of continuing education for religious educators, and a variety of guide books online and in print. Visit the UUA website’s portal to resources for teachers and facilitators to build skills, find inspiration, and deepen engagement in religious education.


The Place I Am From

When I was six years old, my family moved to a town along the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts. In those days, we talked about living “within smelling distance” of the river. It was a mess, about as close as one could get to an open sewer, with manufacturing plants, homes, and schools all along its banks using it for waste disposal.

Merrimack River spring 2015 from Natl Park Service
National Park Service photo, Merrimack River in spring, 2015

And yet, even then, I was drawn to the river, the way its muddy banks were exposed at low tide and its rapid current pulled sticks and debris toward the mouth. It held me. It was the most significant part of the landscape of the place I now called home.

It was also one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the country. My father, who worked in factory buildings along the banks, watched the waters change color as the textile factories released their used dyes into the river.

When I was in high school, my senior biology project was about the pollution in the Merrimack River. Wearing hip boots to protect our skin, my lab partner and I waded in. We took water samples, observed the toilet tissue and other debris rushing by, and looked for signs of life. There were none, other than worms in the mud. In petri dishes we grew E. coli and other, equally scary things from drops of water. (I can’t imagine anyone letting high school students do any of this today!) That same year, 1972, the Clean Water Act passed in Congress, and people were forced to begin cleaning up the river and bringing it back to life.

As a religious educator, I think about the deep needs and hurts of our world, and how to equip each of us to offer our gifts to make the world a better place. Over time, I’ve come to believe that an important part of our spiritual grounding is tied up in the place where we are from. As we understand the layers of living that have made our place, our hearts will open to the stories and lives–human and not–in our own place and in other parts of the world. As we engage with the wisdom of our place, we will learn to bring our whole selves to justice-making. To deeply know one’s own place is foundational to affirming and supporting the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

So, I’ve spent time learning the stories of my place, the lower valley of the Merrimack River, stretching from the falls in Lowell where the Concord River joins the Merrimack to where the river joins the sea in Newburyport. Stories of fragmentation and fracture, and of hope, reconciliation, and connection. I imagine how we from this valley might repair this piece of the world by reconnecting with the river and with each other.

Next Steps!

Promise of Place, a website dedicated to “enriching lives through place-based education,” offers detailed information and stories to help you understand, plan, and lead place-based learning.

Gather the Spirit is a multigenerational Tapestry of Faith program that teaches stewardship with a focus on water. Circle of Trees is a multigenerational program of eight workshops that nurture deep connection with trees, nature, and all of earth’s living creatures.

For an intimate, place-based learning memoir, read Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World (Beacon, 2010). Author Amy Seidl demonstrates how climate change has altered her daughters’ experiences of their woods and garden and describes engaging with seasonal community events in her small New England town.

Paying RE Teachers Can Boost Attendance …and Attract Volunteers

By Karen Brown

When I started my vocation as a Director of Religious Education twenty years ago, recruiting teachers was in my job description. No problem. Parents and other members of the congregation stepped up and volunteered. I continued to have a positive experience of recruiting teachers in several mid-size Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Three and a half years ago I was hired to serve a smaller congregation of 160 members with 60 children and youth. The Search Committee told me I would have a difficult time recruiting. I didn’t believe them. I was wrong.


After the first difficult year of trying to get people to volunteer, I hired one lead teacher for our Little Lights classroom of preschool and kindergarten children. Some of our leaders thought it was a bad idea, but I had support from the minister and the Faith Development Ministry Team. The classroom blossomed. The children loved their teacher and we had consistent attendance. The following year I hired a lead teacher for our Chalice Children classroom of grades 1 through 5 children. Again, it made a big difference in the classroom. We have good attendance now, the children love having the same teacher every week, and some parents tell me their children are responsible for getting them to church on Sunday when the parents are tired and don’t want to go.

Another great benefit of hiring lead teachers is the increase of parent volunteers to assist in the classrooms. No longer are parents complaining about missing worship, teaching too often, having to buy supplies, and planning lessons. Lead teachers and parent assistants have been a winning combination at the UU Church of Greater Lynn.

Next Steps!

Last year, Katie Covey, Director, School of the Spirit at the Boulder Valley UU Fellowship, Lafayette (CO) and Unitarian Universalist curriculum author, wrote, “I believe the days of volunteer teachers are over. Volunteer mom teachers hark back to pre-feminist days when women with talents volunteered and created superb structures for hospitals, churches, schools, etc. But this is 2014. Women’s talents are not marginalized, they are part of the working society…” Read more on Covey’s blog site and find out about the financial structure of her SpiritJam program.

The Unitarian Universalist Association Fair Compensation Guidelines describe duties of paid congregational staff, including credentialed and non-credentialed religious educators.

image karen brown 18mar15About the Blogger

Karen Brown is Director of Lifespan Faith Development for the UU Church of Greater Lynn in Swampscott, Massachusetts and a co-chair of the North Shore Religious Educator’s Group (MA). Previously, she served other congregations as a religious educator on the East Coast and in the Midwest and has volunteered for leadership roles in a small congregation. She holds a Master’s in Religious Education from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Youth Advising Is a Big Job, but Somebody’s Got to Do It!

[Editors’ note: The UUA Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, in collaboration with a number of UUA regional teams, has published eight Youth Advising Competencies as an optional tool to help Congregational Life field staff, religious professionals, lay leaders, and advising teams identify excellence and assess needs for growth among the people trusted to advise Unitarian Universalist youth.]

By Jennica Davis-Hockett

Youth meet in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age group; photo courtesy Margy Levine.
Youth meet in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age group; photo courtesy Margy Levine.

When I first became an advisor, I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into! I thought being a youth advisor meant hanging with teens and helping them plan a summer service trip. I didn’t realize it could also mean helping youth understand and practice the complexities of covenantal community, being present with youth as they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, processing trauma, or dealing with addiction. Nor did I understand that I needed to be finding my own spiritual community outside youth ministry, deepening my UU theology, and becoming more effective and organized in my communications with parents, teammates and supervisors.

I remember walking home from youth group on multiple occasions with the anxious question “Am I doing this right?” circling in my head. I tried to seek counsel from my supervisor. I did some self-educating and plenty of soul searching to figure out how I could grow into my ministry. Advising youth is an important ministry, and I didn’t want to mess it up.

My religious educator and I did the best we could to synthesize all the information out there for youth advisor development, but it was A LOT! She was new in her position, just like me. I can only imagine from her perspective what it must have been like to figure out how to support me in my growth as an advisor.

Whether you are a youth advisor, a religious educator, a minister, music director, lay leader, or member of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff, at some point in your ministry you, too, may have asked yourself “How are we doing with this whole youth ministry advising thing?”

This is where the Youth Advising Competencies come in. We’ve identified eight vital areas of growth for people who advise and minister to UU youth. The growth areas  are mapped out broadly, so they will be useful within the parameters of how your region, district, and congregation do youth ministry. They have been cross-referenced with the Web of Youth Ministry, the Youth Ministry Renaissance Module and A Complete Guide to Youth Ministry Advising to ensure they reflect the larger vision and established best practices of youth ministry advising in Unitarian Universalism.

  • UUA field staff can use this compilation of advising competencies to support religious educators in building a breadth and depth of competence for healthy, safe congregational youth ministry.
  • Religious educators can use these competencies as a guideline for healthy best practices in hiring advisors and evaluating existing advising teams. We know religious educators aspire to hire the best advisors for their youth. This tool can help religious educators hire and mentor the right adults.
  • Youth advising teams can use the list of competencies to self-assess ways they complement one another and areas in which they can grow. Evaluation matrices for advisors and their supervisors will help assess strengths and improvements in the competencies UU youth need advisors to have.

We’ve created three categories for each competency: entry level (critical for an advisor to have on day one), basic (competencies which form the foundation of a healthy youth ministry), and advanced (appropriate for long-term advisors, paid staff, and other highly committed adults). Each category comes with an evaluation tool so advising teams and religious educators can identify areas for growth.

Vital youth ministry and resilient Unitarian Universalist youth begin with healthy, spiritually mature adults. Advising is an important ministry, one that adults might not know what they’re getting into when they sign up. My hope is that, if you choose to use it, this tool can provide some insight into the question we all ask ourselves at times, “How are we doing with this whole youth ministry thing?”

Next Steps!

To explore using the Youth Advisor Competencies in your UU faith community, join Jennica Davis-Hockett and the UUA Faith Development Office (FDO) for a free, one-hour webinar either Tuesday, May 19 (1 pm Eastern) or Wednesday, May 20 (9 pm Eastern). Register for a webinar here. See more FDO webinars here.

View the new Youth Advisor Compencies on the Youth Advisor page of the UUA website! You may also be interested in the Youth Ministry Advising: A Complete Guide, a comprehensive resource for UU youth programs, available from the UUA Bookstore.

The UUA sponsors an email list for youth advisors. Members ask one another questions and share best practices about working with youth. Contact the UUA to subscribe to this email group.

Jennica head shotAbout the Author

Jennica Davis-Hockett, Leadership Development Associate in the UUA Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, began her ministry with youth in 2008 at First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah, her hometown. Since then she has served as District Youth Ministry Consultant (Mountain Desert) and Regional Youth Ministry Specialist (Pacific Western). Her vision for youth ministry is that every Unitarian Universalist youth has a dependable support network that acknowledges their inherent worth and dignity and fosters their potential as a spiritual leader, and that every UU adult in that network has the wisdom, compassion, and support to meet that call. Her spiritual practices include gardening, yoga, rock climbing, playing the ukulele, and nature adventures in the Utah wilderness with her husband Mat.

Learning and Affirmation, When UUs of Color Convene

By Shannon Harper

Working in youth ministry, supporting young people in their search for identity, voice, and calling, is at best incredibly gratifying. It can also be heartbreakingly challenging. Raising two multi-racial young women of my own is equal parts of both, and everything in between, sometimes all in one day! It is with them in mind that I hold in my heart all of our Unitarian Universalist youth of color.

Participants and co-leaders from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2010 Multicultural Leadership School for Youth and Young Adults of Color.

Over the years I have witnessed the struggles to blend in and be accepted. I have witnessed the silence when another youth says something like “You’re the whitest black person I know!” or “I think people in our generation have gotten over the whole racism thing.” I know about not wanting to be the voice of every [insert your minority of choice]. But, I worry. Although I do not want any youth to have to be a spokesperson, I do want them to add their personal, unique perspective to the vital multicultural conversation going on in our faith.

Recently, traveling to Denver, Colorado for Finding Our Way Home, a conference for UU professionals of color, I was reminded how important this gathering is to my own multicultural identity in work that can sometimes be culturally isolating. Having a safe place to share and learn together; to have hard conversations and to encourage and console one another; to celebrate and become rejuvenated—the conference feeds my ministry and my soul.

But I also thought back to my very first Finding Our Way Home conference. At first, I wasn’t even sure I belonged there. A fellow DRE and close friend had told me about it. Like me, she is multiracial, brought up in a predominantly “white” culture. We had shared in the past how our connection to our ethnic culture and heritage was “complicated.” I wasn’t sure, honestly, that I was really of color enough to attend a special conference. I even questioned why UU professionals of color needed a special conference at all. I already felt very supported by my colleagues in our local and national LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association) chapters.

Once I arrived though, it didn’t take long to realize that not only was I exactly where I belonged but that this was what I had been yearning for without even knowing. I needed a place to share my experiences as a person of color in a faith community that is overwhelmingly of European descent. I needed to know that my story was not unique, that many of us struggle with finding our place in a world that wants to label and judge before they even talk to us. I needed to tell my story to people who would not merely acknowledge and give me sympathy but who would truly understand and could commiserate. I needed to hear their stories, which gave a context to my own struggles.

In the same way the Finding Our Way Home conference supports professional UU leaders of color working in our faith, the summer Multicultural Leadership School supports our young and future leaders of color. I feel so fortunate to be part of a faith that recognizes the need for a leadership school specifically for youth and young adults of color. Because, I believe, the more young people of color we have in our communities and the world, equipped with the confidence and tools to give voice to their unique perspectives and vision, the more honest and powerful our vital, Unitarian Universalist, multicultural dialogue will be.

Next Steps!

The Unitarian Universalist Association holds an annual, summer Multicultural Leadership School, open to UU youth and young adults of color (people of African Descent, Caribbean, Native/American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latina/o and Hispanic, Middle Eastern/Arab, multiracial and multiethnic). The MLS is four-day gathering to deepen faith, lift spirits, and build critical skills for leadership, hosted on the Walker Center campus near Boston.

FB_IMG_1424694881100About the Blogger

Shannon Harper serves as Director of Religious Education at Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Dayton, OH. Her passion is encouraging and supporting youth leaders. She has served six years as an Adult Adviser and Religious Educator liaison on the Heartland Area Youth Council (previously Heartland District Youth Steering Committee) and more recently as a Youth Consultant for MidAmerica Region. Summer, 2015 will mark her third year on staff at Midwest Youth Leadership School and her first year working with GA Youth Caucus. Shannon and her family enjoy attending SUUSI (Southeast UU Summer Institute) each year where, you guessed it, she also works on Teen Staff. Shannon also teaches art to children and youth at a local community center and is mother to two lovely young women.

Encouraging UU “Spiritual Osmosis”

By Richard S. Gilbert

Liberal religious educators have for centuries sought to help people grow, spiritually and morally. How do we do that? That is one of those questions that empty the room. No one really knows. However, I believe what happens is “spiritual osmosis.”

Osmosis is that chemical/biological process “by which molecules of a solvent tend to pass through a semi permeable membrane from a more concentrated solution into a less concentrated one, thus equalizing the concentrations on each side of the membrane.” celery-experiment-day-2 from teaching-tiny-tots_dot_comSpiritual osmosis might be defined as that process by which values, meanings, and convictions are learned and lived—transferred back and forth between and among persons.The process can be conscious and it can be unconscious. It can be sudden and dramatic; it can be slow and gradual. It can be how a baby learns basic trust in the universe and it can be how an elder takes stock of a life lived.

The teaching-learning process is a mysterious business. We can, however, create opportunities for this process to happen and help shape how it unfolds, thereby helping to transform people and change the world.

I have long felt that Unitarian Universalists needed a fundamental 21st century book on faith development (aka religious education) for preachers and teachers, seminarians and parents, and everyone interested in transmitting values, meanings, and convictions from one generation to another. It should be intellectually respectable, yet user-friendly. That is why I have spent the last several years creating an anthology on UU faith development (In the Middle of a Journey: Readings in Unitarian Universalist Faith Development) and then summed up my own philosophy of religious education in Growing Up Absorbed: Religious Education among the Unitarian Universalists.

Using Walt Whitman’s “A Child Went Forth” as a text, I explore the history of UU faith development and raise some of the central questions for liberal religion. My provisional answers to those questions shape a philosophy of faith development for the 21st century. The practical implications of this line of thinking lead to the termination of “silo” thinking and improve our ability to see faith development at the heart of all that we do.

Confidence in spiritual osmosis is clearly not enough. Religious educators must clarify, symbolize, give words to the values, meanings and convictions that are being absorbed. The church teaches by what it does and how it does it.

Next Steps!

Further explore the author’s ideas on Unitarian Universalist faith development by engaging with one of his books, Growing Up Absorbed or In the Middle of a Journey. The UUA Bookstore also carries two books of meditations by Rev. Gilbert, In the Holy Quiet(2012) and Thanks Be for These (2013).

If you are a UU religious professional, take the Renaissance Program module on UU Identity to strengthen this aspect of your faith development leadership.

Looking for more tools to facilitate the osmosis process? Browse Tapestry of Faith curricula focused on building our spiritual identities such as Signs of Our Faith (grades 2/3), A Place of Wholeness (high school), and What Moves Us (adult).

The stories, readings, and activities provided quarterly in the pull-out Families section of UU World magazine are tools for all ages’ faith development at home; online, you can browse and download (PDF files) archived Families sections on various themes.

Show the world your UU identity with items from the UUA Bookstore: a UU mug,onesies for a new baby, or a chalice for home use.

Dick GilbertAbout the Author

Richard S. Gilbert writes books of meditations while sharing his perspective on social justice and religious education. A retired Unitarian Universalist minister, he holds degrees from St. Lawrence University, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Starr King School for Ministry, and Colgate Rochester Divinity School. For over a half-century Gilbert has ministered to people of all ages; today, he views “retirement” as just one more opportunity to be absorbed in life. Richard and Joyce Gilbert live in Rochester, NY, where they enjoy time with their three grandchildren.

Is Children’s Literature Too White?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Steps!

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

Who Said UU History Can’t Be Fun?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The possibilities are endless!

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

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

Next Steps!

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

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

If you are interested in organizing a module, contact