Sent Forth as a Boomerang

October 13, 2002
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

This summer I was made aware that our denominational leadership was launching an effort to create more awareness and support for our youth, campus, and young adult ministries in the denomination. The organizers were calling the project "Mind the Gap," a clever slogan that will be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever been to London and traveled on their subway system; the Underground. When you step off the train and onto the platform in London you hear a voice intone "Mind the Gap" over the PA system. It's a friendly warning so you don't twist your ankle stepping into that tiny abyss where the subway train meets the safety of the platform.

In our case, "Mind the Gap" is a friendly warning to be aware of the relative absence of young folks in our congregations, particularly those between about eighteen and thirty-five years old. The gap we are minding this morning is the generation gap in our churches.

I had not planned to write a sermon for this morning. In my first weeks here in the office, I received some very nice materials from the Mind the Gap coordinators in Boston, asking each congregation to please plan a Sunday service around this topic and to do some fundraising for their ministries. In the process of putting together the worship calendar, I appealed to our Director of Youth Programming, Derek Sulc, to ask if he thought we ought to do this. He was gung ho for it, being a young adult himself, and a son of this church. Well, I'm no dummy. I figured if Derek was enthusiastic, we could do this service together and I could prepare a few short remarks and get Derek up here to testify to the great importance of Unitarian Universalism in his life, and to the importance of this congregation in particular, and I could sit in one of those comfortable chairs back there and take it easy while he preached.

That was the original plan, until A.J. decided to get born on Wednesday afternoon, giving new papa Derek a few other things to think about. And we are thrilled for him and Jennifer, and we are thrilled to have AJ with us, and I think he is very handsome already. So I regret that I was not more on the ball to coordinate a service where you would be hearing from more actual youth and young adults, and this is also because I am new in town and don't know who they are yet. In order to help me with this, I would appreciate seeing the hands of those members of this church's youth programming - 7th through 12th graders. Thank you. You are officially known to our denomination as "youth."

And if you are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 35, we would like to see who you are. Thank you. In case you did not know it, our denomination officially considers you to be "young adults." Last year when I turned 36, my friend Scott gave me a card that said, "Congratulations, you're no longer a young adult!" So I am looking forward to the next category, which might be "mid-life crisis," but I'm not sure.

I confess that I am uncomfortable with those aspects of ministry that highlight our differences. I choose to think of us as being one people no matter what chronological age we happen to be; one community bound by ties of affection and common values. I believe that we are all "one age" in that we are all alive at the same approximate moment in history. And this is indeed so, and there is probably much more that unites us than that which makes us strangers to one another. But if we believe that diversity is part of God's plan, and that a variety of perspectives is valuable as we navigate life together, we do care that people of all age feel welcome among us, just as we hope to provide a religious haven for people of various nationalities, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, physical abilities, economic class and theological beliefs.

What tends to happen in our churches is that we raise up the little ones (the ones who earlier sat on the floor to hear a story and then marched off to Sunday school), send them off to college somewhere, and barely ever see them again until they perhaps have children of their own and come struggling through the doors carrying diaper bags and wearing perplexed expressions. In the meanwhile, they have been getting an education (either in college or in the "school of hard knocks"), traveling and being exposed to different cultures, moving around and learning how to make a home for themselves, falling in love, learning about themselves as sexual and relational beings, earning a living (or not), perhaps getting involved in social causes, paying taxes (or not), getting their hearts broken, and all of those other rich experiences of the younger years - they are doing all of this without the benefit of support and guidance from any religious community.

And why is this?

I spoke to it briefly last week when I related my own religious journey. I think the reason is that for one generation, those who are approximately my age, the answer to the question "What religion are you?" was often legitimately answered as "nothing." We were nothing because our Unitarian Universalist churches failed in the ministry of religious education. In some other cases, congregations enthusiastically taught Unitarian and Universalist heritage and religious principles but again, as they opened the door wide for their youngsters to go find themselves, forgot to say "but after you find yourselves, come on home to us!"

Yesterday I performed a baby dedication for Nolan Matthew Anderson, son of (young adults) Jennifer and Tom Anderson at their home in Hanover. I used the "holy water" of the North River to christen the baby, choosing that water to symbolize our hope that wherever he goes in his personal journey, we hope Nolan will come home again.

The Reverend Scotty McLennan, the Unitarian Universalist chaplain of Stanford University, was one of my supervisors when I worked as a ministerial intern at Tufts University, doing campus ministry with UU students when Scotty was the university chaplain there. Scotty told me this story which you can also read in his book Finding Your Religion - When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning. What I recall was that Scotty traveled to India as a young man (either in high school or in college) and had a spiritual awakening. He felt totally transformed by what he experienced and met with a guru and expressed his intention to become a Hindu. The man, to whom I believe we owe great thanks, basically said that there was no need for Scotty to become a Hindu. He was an American young man and a Christian. Why should he abandon his faith and try to be something that would be such impossibility for him to grasp on the cultural level? He should go home and be the best Christian he could be. And so he has been. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we said this to our seeking young UUs? Go and learn and experience, then take the wisdom and the enlightenment and bring it home. We need you. We want you here, in our churches. We miss you when you're gone.

As I said, I believe that we are essentially one people. But there are generational differences among us. Some of you are of what Tom Brokaw called "the Greatest Generation," those people who came of age during World War II era, a generation noted for ethic of self-sacrifice, service and loyalty to institutions such as church and state, the great volunteer-ers. The subsequent generation, sometimes referred to as "the silent generation," shared many of the same qualities. For the Baby Boomers, sons and daughters of the GI Generation, author Tom Beaudoin points out that the essential religious question was (or is), "What is the meaning of life, of my life?" But for the thirteenth generation, also known as Generation X, a group of about eighty million Americans born between 1961 and 1981, the big existential question is, suggests Beaudoin, "Will you be there for me?" (see Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, Jossey-Bass, 1998).

Given that this generation came of age during a time when divorce was at about fifty percent of all marriages, and AIDS the top killer of Generation Xers in many cities, the devastating socio-economic crises for minority communites (including a huge population explosion of young black men in our prisons), an unprecedented level of violence in high schools, and an increasingly alienated society where electronic communication often replaces face to face meetings, that central question makes sense (see Revolution X, Cowan and Nelson). "Will you be there for me?"

When I was a youth in our churches, there was a youth group but no Coming of Age program (and you don't want to know what I though of the youth group). I hope we can strengthen the Coming of Age program in our own church in the near future, as it is a process of religious identity formation that takes youth (usually 12 or 13 years old) into a deeper encounter with their own beliefs and our heritage than they can get in Sunday School alone. When I was in college, there were several UU churches nearby but no campus ministry at my school, which was enormous. I wish there had been a group; I would have joined it. I would have been saved a lot of shoe leather and heartache wandering around trying to find a spiritual community. We do have some good campus ministry programs in this state, at Wellesley and Tufts and at Smith College, for instance (are there alumns from these schools in the congregation?).

Campus groups are challenging to fund in our denomination (mostly because of the old "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome), but they have a clear sense of mission, and that is to provide a campus community of UUs to worship, learn and hang out together. Finding a mission for young adult ministries in our congregations is a bit trickier. After all, what do 20-somethings just out of college have in common with a couple in their mid-30's raising a family? In reality, not much. In theory, they are a population demographic that is conspicuously absent from our churches, so they get lumped together as one big category: young adults.

On one hand, I think it's important to make sure that our church not fall into the trap of feeling that we have to create special programs for young adults based merely on age. I would hate to see us become one of those churches that doesn't know how to welcome younger people without trying to herd them all together into some special needs group, or without identifying them solely as so-and-so's son or daughter. It's so important that we allow the children of our congregations to grow up and be known as their own people (Looking at our own church directory, for instance, I notice that adult children are still listed under their parent's names. I think it's helpful to keep the family together like that, but I also wonder when the children get their own listing. So a special appeal to the sons and daughters of church members who are here this morning: please let us know if you'd like to be added to the church mailing list with your own address).

If you're just twenty-three years old and you walk through our doors and want to get involved, I hope you will. I hope you will come to worship and go on church outings and join the choir and go to Women's Alliance meetings if you have that time available during the day. I hope you will consider yourself a potential leader in the congregation. I believe we should be able to integrate young adults into the life of the congregation just as we would hope to assimilate anyone of any age into the life of the community.

I say this because I remember visiting churches when in my twenties. People would greet me at coffee hour and give me this look like "we just don't know what to do with you" before apologizing that there was no young adult or singles group to offer me, as if the church could not be a valuable place to me without those things. I never joined any of these congregations until I got to First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY and someone encouraged me to join the choir, and someone else asked me to be on the UU-United Nations committee. I had no particular interest in the UN, but I had a great interest in belonging. So I joined the committee, and the church.

Why should we be committed to keeping our young ones in the fold of this faith? I think this is a legitimate question. For some Unitarian Universalists, as in any other religious group, church is a Sunday social event, a place to see friends, or perhaps a fashionable place where the town's best or most influential citizens congregate in false piety. We could do that here. As an historic "First Parish" we could definitely do that, and our pews would always be at least somewhat full on Sunday mornings.

But of course we are not called to be that. We are called to be witnesses to the strength of the liberal religion, in a world where fundamentalism is often chosen as the easy road to heaven. We are called to illustrate, together, that unity in diversity is possible, even when diversity goes so deep as our theological convictions. We are called to stand for the value of inquiry in a world where the vast majority ask for, and receive, quick and often shallow answers to life's most difficult questions. We are called to take our religion seriously so that we can speak with authority against tyranny and oppression wherever they may arise. And we are called to know our history so that we do not have to reinvent the wheel anew with each generation.

Unitarian Universalism has always been a religion friendly and welcoming to come-outers, or those who come to our churches from other faith traditions. And so we shall always be, I hope. However, there is a considerable challenge in being congregations almost entirely comprised of converts. Those new to Unitarian Universalism necessarily have questions about our history, our heritage, our ways of governance, our principles, our everything! Young Unitarian Universalists, for each one of you who stays in our churches and can help teach and assimilate those who enter first as adults, our tradition grows not only stronger, but I think deeper and more mature. While our newcomers bring tremendous vitality and insights gleaned from other experiences, there is a Unitarian Universalist experience that we are still waiting to fully hear. Perhaps it has yet to be articulated, as this movement is only forty-one years old (as of the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961). Perhaps one of you will help us tell the story, help us find our mission for this coming era.

So today, the Unitarian Universalist leadership - many of them young adults themselves who are working on this campaign x want to know if we will be there for them. I think we should be in this congregation. I think it's a reasonable expectation that this congregation should send off a check for at least $500, money that they are raising through the Boston office to make grants to campus ministry programs, young adult ministries in our local congregations, and on the district level, for leadership training for youth and youth advisors, and other worthy goals. That is approximately $10 for each person here, which I think is reasonable. Think of it as taking out a young person to brunch. Throw in the basket what you would spend treating a younger to eggs benedict and a cafe latte.

Kahlil Gibran reminded us that our children are as arrows shot forth from bows; they come not to us, but through us. He's right. We all know our children are not our children but life's children, and that we cannot control their destinies. But we should not shoot them forth from our bows without making very clear to them that they are important to us, and that their long acquaintance with life in Unitarian Universalism is of great value to us as a people and as a religious presence in the world. So I would rather think of our children as being shot forth as boomerangs, sent forth as free men and women into the brave new world, but with a special loyalty and love in their hearts that will always keep them returning week after week, and year after year, to their Unitarian Universalist churches.

Please send this message along to those youth and young adults of your acquaintance, and so may it be, world without end. Amen.

(Note: The congregation raised $420 for the Mind the Gap campaign, and deserves thanks for their generosity.)