Spiritual growth and learning is a life long journey that begins in childhood. A child is already a spiritual being; to be honored and listened to. We can learn much from our children as they can learn much from us. As Emuna Braverman writes: “We can learn a lot from our children if we are receptive. Their perspective is clear and pure, unclouded by “experience” and cynicism. They haven’t learned to be self-conscious and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. We’re touched by their vulnerability and we can learn from their simplicity.” We are spiritual companions with our children. We learn and grow together. This is the nature of our spiritual cooperative.
The children have classes and programs each Sunday and it begins when they are in the nursery and come to feel that this is a place that people care about them and want to get to know them. They make friends and have fun. And their journey continues in preschool where they are introduced to ritual and come to understand that this is their church and religious community. They celebrate holidays and share their emerging thoughts and feelings as we celebrate how each and every one of us is special. They come and sit on the labyrinth in the center of our round sanctuary and each week listen to a story for all ages. And when they get a little older they light the chalice that begins each service. It is a child that leads us into worship each week.
In the elementary years they learn the stories of remarkable people that made a difference in this world and are then given opportunities to do likewise through acts of service and social justice. They learn about the faiths of the world and how we are different and what we share in common. We get out of the classroom and meet people of other faiths and experience their worship life and spiritual practices. We make interfaith friendships and in the process find in the diverse religions we study what might be true for us.
When a child enters into middle school s/he goes on the yearly backpack trip in the summer and learns what it means to be in community where we depend on each other. We experience the deep satisfaction of accomplishing something we thought we couldn’t do. And away from the distractions of the plugged in modern world we get to know each other and experience the beauty and magnificence of nature. There are the youth retreats throughout the year with youth from other churches. There is the human sexuality program where youth learn how to make good choices for their health and happiness. And then as an 8th grader youth spend a special rite of passage year going on retreats and having an adult mentor from the church who helps him/her with the process of their coming of age. And then we have a big celebration at the end. There are also the monthly fun nights going bowling or playing games in the park with friends.
When you get into senior high you are now up in the youth room looking out above our social hall, where youth share their lives, joys and struggles with their peers and youth group advisors. Here is a safe place where youth can be themselves and know that they will be loved for who they are even if the world outside the church seems to be a hard and cruel place.
After church they go out to lunch with friends most Sundays. They spend weekends throughout the year with other Unitarian Universalist youth in conferences where they experience a youth empowerment culture that is organized and led by youth with adults serving in advisory roles. Here they make friends that last a lifetime and it becomes that one place that practices a radical hospitality no matter what color is your hair or what group you’re in or out of at school. There are the summer trips to the Channel Islands and to our partner church in Romania every four years.
Of course there is much more to the spiritual journey of a child through our faith community that happens through the course of a child’s growing years. But as religious educator Maria Harris says: “The church doesn’t have a religious education program. It is the religious education program.” This is what we offer children and their families: a religious community that partners with them through all that life offers.