Earlier this spring I spoke with my kindergarten-age daughter about holidays and stories. I explained that many different religions and cultures have holidays that celebrate spring, and that Easter is our culture’s spring holiday. I also talked about the history of Easter, and the religious significance the holiday has for Christians. I explained that we as humans create stories about the world around us, and drew parallels to other religions and other cultures.
“Can you think of any stories we tell in our culture today?” I asked her.
“The big bang!” she replied excitedly. “We learned about that in church.”
Yes, in church. The Unitarian Universalist church, to be specific.
A few weeks ago I was a bit late getting Sally in to her religious education class. When I got there the teacher was leading the other students through their weekly opening.
We are Unitarian Universalists. We are the church of the open mind, the loving heart, and the helping hands. Together we care for our earth and work for friendship and peace in our world.
We first attended our local UU church nearly five years ago. Over the years we have gone through periods where we don’t attend, mainly because staying home on a Sunday morning is easier than getting ready and making it out to church. And yet, this is what always brings us back. I know I want my children to grow up here, in this congregation. This is where we belong.
While my husband Sean and I are not religious, we both grew up in religious homes. My children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and so forth, are all religious. Sean and I don’t want to be the only ones encouraging our children to think for themselves and form their own beliefs. We want to bring our children up in a community where they can feel comfortable to express themselves and explore, a community that values critical thinking and self actualization. And here in our local UU church, we have found that community.
This past Sunday our church had a coming of age ceremony for students who had completed the religious education program. Each student stood in turn and presented their own “faith statement” or “credo statement”*—not a statement of the church’s beliefs, but rather a statement of their beliefs. One student spoke about beauty, and another about friendship. Others spoke about the environment, or about the potential of each person to change the world in some way. Each statement was personal, heartfelt, and meaningful.
Before the presentations, the director of religious education explained that the student’s professions were not meant to be the end of their journeys but rather the beginning. She explained that our faith is a living faith. In other words, she said, our beliefs are not meant to be static, but rather to develop and change over time. She finished by saying that the students’ professions were not meant to tie them to the UU church, but that she nonetheless hoped that they would always feel at home in our community. In other words, she placed the onus of belonging on our community, not on these young teenagers teetering between childhood and adulthood.
I sat in the congregation with tears streaming down my cheeks. It was so beautiful. In the evangelical church of my youth, parents spoke with apprehension of teens and young adults “straying” from the church and risking their eternal souls in the process. Nothing was considered worse than falling away from the church. In Sunday school and youth group and Bible club and daily devotionals at home, we were told what beliefs to hold—and that if we did not hold these beliefs we would burn in hell for eternity. And yet here, in the UU church, children have an entire community encouraging them to form their own beliefs and create their own meaning.
Could anything be more beautiful?
This is what I want for my children.
When Sean and I shed our families’ religious beliefs, I had thought that we would have to go it alone in encouraging critical thinking in our children and supporting their moral development. Now I know that’s not true—and I couldn’t be happier.
* When I first published this post, I called the students’ presentations “professions of faith.” Some of my readers asked why the word faith was used, so I double checked official UU terminology for the coming of age ceremony and found that these presentations are technically referred to as a “faith statement” or “credo statement.” I have edited my post to reflect this. I should note that I disagree with many of my readers’ definition of the term “faith,” and so does Merriam-Webster dictionary. Faith does not have to be either religious or without evidence.