22 March 2005

Excerpt from "Children of a Different Tribe"

This excerpt is written by Sharon Hwang Colligan and it describes the differences in upbringing for children and youth in our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs:

We Are Children of a Different Tribe

I am not a Native American.

Nor am I a child of the dominant Christian (or anti-Christian) culture of America.

I grew up in the shelter of UU Societies (UU: a European-American free religious community, for tradition's sake named Unitarian Universalist, more accurately understood as Unitarian Universalist Trancendentalist Humanist Feminist Pagan.) I was taught by Jews, Hippies, Asians, Scientists, Montessorians. I learned in Sunday School to be skilled in trance journeying, to visualize myself as a tree, to cast circles invoking the Four Directions, to gather for celebration and meditation on the turning of the seasons, to invent my own ritual expressions as my spirit moves. The word God was not feared, but was translated for children as love, or mystery, or specialness. At thirteen I was gathered in a safe and sacred place with others of my age, and taught that sexuality was an interesting, good, and special thing, well worth making careful decisions about. We were taught about disease and birth control, about shyness and communication, about honoring homosexuality and masturbation, about the goodness of our bodies. We were taught to talk with one another with frankness, care, and trust. We were not divided by gender; I had never heard of a world ruled by an old white man in the sky. I slept in comforting embraces with friends of both sexes, knowing there is safety in togetherness, knowing our elders trusted our wisdom.

I was not taught that my upbringing was unusual; I was not taught that any of this was different from what other kids learn.

But our Youth know that they are different. They give all kinds of names to this feeling of difference: they say, I'm a vegan, I'm a queer, I'm a Pagan, I'm a punk rocker.

I'm here to say: the reason we feel we are different is because we are different. Our formative experiences-- of childhood, of youth, of spiritual transformation-- are profoundly different than those of the dominant culture. We are Children of a Different Tribe.


Jeff Wilson said...

I have a number of disagreements with the "Children of a Different Tribe" essay as a whole. However, they don't appear in this excerpt, which I think for the most part is right. Andrew Greeley made a splash when he asserted that Catholics (even lapsed Catholics) approached the world differently because they are heirs to a Catholic imagination, a formative way of understanding self and world that is unique and pervasive. I tend to believe that there is a UU imagination, at least among those who are raised UU. But I should qualify this be saying that not everyone shares this UU imagination in all ways; in fact, it may be that there are several different but partially overlapping UU imaginations. One thing I don't like about Sharon's essay is I read it as vaguely hegemonic, prescribing a normative UU childhood/youth/young adult experience that in fact is far from universal. But the basic assertion that growing up UU means something different than growing up non-UU in America is something I can get behind, because I've experienced it. In so many ways I've been made aware that I fundamentally understand myself and the world differently than most others because of my UU childhood experiences. Not that my UU childhood experiences were necessarily those of all birthright UUs. But they were substantially different (and, if I can judge based on what others tell me and the impressions I get) and substantially better than the mainstream experience. UUism isn't always a bowl of cherries, but if my experiences are in any way indicative of the norm, growing up as a UU child is a noticably more nurturing and empowering experience than most American children have.

Steve Caldwell said...

Jeff ... even though Sharon's essay talks extensively about impact of lifespan Unitarian Universalist faith development on children raised in UU churches.

Sharon writes the following about the implicit curriculum behind our Religious Education programs:

When a child attends UU Sunday School, this feeling for the Circle is one of the primary lessons that is taught. UU teachers need to maintain classroom order, but they do not want to teach conformism or obedience, and so instead they teach: notice the Circle. Notice that it is something that we love. Notice how it feels when you respect the Circle, notice how it feels when the Circle breaks.

Even if, like most UU children, you never attend YRUU and just drop out at the age of nine or ten, this memory of the Circle leaves an imprint. An imprint that has deep theological, cultural, and personal implications. An imprint profoundly different than that of children raised under systems of hierarchy and competition.

This "circle" metaphor is often literally expressed as a "circle" in youth worship. But the metaphor goes beyond the literal "circle worship" geometry. It reflects back on our cooperative and non-hierarchical theologies that are implicitly expressed in our lifespan faith development programs.

The myths our children grow up with are different than the mainstream culture. The images of God they grow up with are different from the mainstream culture. The messages about sexuality they grow up with are different from the mainstreat culture.

I understand the concern about the "hegemonic" aspects in Sharon's essay. Most of her essay comes from her experiences growing up in YRUU youth ministry and CUUYAN young adult ministry.

We need to remember that YRUU and YRUU-alumni young adults are not the only thread in our lifespan UU tapestry.

The other threads that are woven together come from former UU youth with mostly non-YRUU congregational experiences and also from adult converts to Unitarian Universalism.

But I personally think we lose as a wider religious community when we ignore or discount the gifts that YRUU provides for the wider UU community and UU congregations:

1. Leadership Laboratory for Youth -- a place where they can try on leadership roles and perhaps even export this youth leadership to their home congregations.

2. A Laboratory for Experimentation -- a place where we can experiment and discover innovations that can be adopted by UU congregations. The Unitarian-Universalist merger and the idea that sexual orientation was a social justice concern both happened first in LRY.

3. An Anti-Oppression Safety Valve -- YRUU youth ministry happening in non-congregational settings may appear to conflict with our Congregationalist roots. But this ministry can be a refuge for youth who are marginalized by congregational ageism.

Jeff Wilson said...

I think you've pulled out yet more good aspects of Sharon's essay. Certainly the circle is true in a general sense. Now that it is brought up, I think perhaps every single youth worship/activity I attended or put together was organized in a circle, without any particular conscious effort. I chose the college I did in part because it consisted only of seminars: small groups of people sitting around a table face to face and on the same level, teacher included. I didn't recognize the UU influence until just now but it's undeniable.

I also think the stuff about space for leadership and experimentation are 100% correct. I was a very shy child, a classic wallflower. But I began to blossom in youth group because people kept singling me out for leadership positions. I can directly trace back my current profession (training to be a professor, the sort of person who has to stand up in front of large groups of people) to the end of my freshman year of high school when, totally unexpectedly, I was asked to run for the board of church youth group. By my senior year, I was the president. Those experiences directly set me on course for a more confident, public personna.

The experimentation aspect is obvious too. I've gone through too many religious phases to count, and that doesn't seem like a bad thing to me. Along the way I was able to receive nurturing from whatever source best spoke to my current needs, and now that I'm older have settled into a pattern I have a sympathy for many paths I've left behind because I know how they can be useful to some people in some times and places.