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UU youth emerging as leaders and catalysts

by Donald E. Skinner

Mandy Jacobson, part-time youth ministry coordinator at Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, Maryland, remembers the Saturday night last fall when the congregation was gathered for the annual canvass kickoff event.

An Irish band was trying valiantly, but without success, to energize the crowd. Then 15-year-old Meghan Barnes, who had taken Irish dancing lessons for years, got up with a little encouragement from her friends, and began dancing.

The response, says Jacobson, was electric. "People began to move and clap and sway, encouraged by one 15-year-old girl. It was great. And, the next morning, Meghan lit the chalice and spoke about how she hadn't been making time to dance for months, and that this church helped her find that love again. It was such a moment!"

All across the continent UU youth are creating such moments. They are leading worship services, engaging in social justice work, serving on governing boards, and attending General Assembly in record numbers.

Not since the early '70s have as many youth, known collectively as Young Religious UUs (YRUU), been involved as they are now. Here's why:

  • GA '96 in Indianapolis included a "Youth Focus" which attracted 300 youth, compared to 40 to 50 in previous years. Last year 358 youth attended GA, almost 10 percent of total participants, and this June the number is expected to be higher.

  • Congregations are starting youth groups and involving youth in intergenerational activities, including worship.

  • Social justice activism among youth is growing. The annual protest at the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Georgia, drew many UUs last November, including about 30 youth. Many UU youth also participated in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

"In many congregations youth are leading the way in social action as well as new ways of worshiping together," says Kate Kidder, Ft. Collins, Colorado, a YRUU Steering Committee member and youth leadership trainer. "Youth also provide a great example of how to form meaningful communities and create lasting bonds."

A UU social justice conference for youth, Tear Down the Walls: No More Prisons, drew 50 participants in March in Washington D.C. Participants dedicated themselves to mobilizing through YRUU and their congregations on that issue.

All of this has meant greater visibility for youth. In June the UUA Youth Office staff will add a third YRUU program specialist to focus exclusively on social justice issues. Also in June, delegates to GA will vote on adding a youth member to the Board of Trustees. Currently there are two youth observers on the board. In addition, the Youth Caucus at General Assembly will present one of the seven social action issues -- prison reform -- which GA delegates will consider in June.

Each year delegates pick one issue as a Social Action Issue (SAI) which is recommended to congregations for study and action for the next two years or more. This will be the first time that youth have proposed an SAI. "Before, we've primarily just reacted to the ones that adults proposed," says Abbey Tennis, a YRUU programs specialist in the Youth Office.

YRUU has a GA staff that includes a dean, chaplains, worship coordinator, special events coordinator, and a working action manager to supervise social justice issues. Youth, now a major presence at GA, add unexpected moments. For example, last year when they discovered and helped a homeless person outside the convention center and subsequently raised hundreds of dollars for a local Nashville shelter, their benevolence captivated GA and made its way into the local newspaper.

In 1995 the Board of Trustees commissioned a review of youth programs at the request of the Youth Council of YRUU. The report determined that youth programming was at its highest point in 25 years. It also noted that keeping it strong required adult support. "A failure on the part of adults to participate in that relationship amounts to abandonment of the youth," the report said.

What determines why some congregations have youth groups and some don't? Jennifer Harrison, UUA youth programs director, says, "Partly it's demographics and partly it's how much a congregation makes the effort to be youth-friendly. It does take a community to raise children and youth. You can't do it in isolation in the basement on Sunday nights."

About 35 members of the youth group, WUSY G, gather each Sunday afternoon at the 368-member Winchester, Massachusetts, Unitarian Society. The group is deeply involved in the life of the church. A WUSY G member has a part in the church service each Sunday morning. Youth have an annual Habitat for Humanity project, explore anti-racism, and serve on committees. They organize the congregation's winter holiday party, provide childcare, and expose adults to a broader range of worship services. In turn, the congregation supports the group's social justice activities, built a larger room for the group, and encourages intergenerational activities.

"The group is an extremely important part of my life," says high school senior Barbara Seymour. "It's a place outside school that we can define as our own. The church has really supported us and I think we've improved the church. If it weren't for the youth group I'd still be involved, but not nearly as much."

The youth group at the 560-member Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, has tripled in recent years, to 50 or so members. "I'm constantly getting feedback about how wonderful it is to see the youth group around the church," says Bob Perry, youth programs staff member. "It's really dramatic when 20 of them are up in front, during a Sunday service, or when 25 of them take up two tables at a fellowship dinner."

Perry attributes the growth to "committed, consistent, appropriate adult advisors" and to youth having created a place that's comfortable enough that they can work through the occasional rough spots that come along.

Stacy Duffy is part of the youth group at The Peoples Church UU, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "It's a really strong community," she says. "We do check-in every week and sometimes it takes two hours. You can really get to know someone that way. That's what keeps me coming back."

A year ago the group aided in getting a nondiscrimination ordinance passed in Cedar Rapids and helped the 226-member church become a Welcoming Congregation to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Adviser Rick Roehlk, who helped start the group 10 years ago, says, "The group adds vitality to the church, as well as conscience, and an ability to take a fresh look at things and be passionate about them."

UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 48-49.

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