Why This Young Adult Won’t Give Up On Religion
Fort Worth. Seattle. Denver. Arlington. Columbia, Missouri. Five of us, young adults from across the South and West, huddled in the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church office at one in the morning and strategized for the big Sunday morning service just hours away.
As I looked at each face, all betraying exhaustion, yet each still filled with determination, a simple message permeated the room.
We’ve got this.
Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you
All weekend our quintet, along with fifty other young adults, had been working to build community at our Winter Gathering—no easy task considering attendees’ birth years ranged from 1979, or the year of Village People and Gloria Gaynor, to 1996, when Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ ruled the airwaves.
In Unitarian Universalism (UU) much has been made about the dearth of Young Adult (YA) programming, with graduating high school folks feeling they are not being “bridged out” of youth group but rather “pushed off a cliff” with no support waiting for them. Youth rallies and “cons” touched their souls; adult worship services leave them cold.
Trying to build a young adult worship community—or a spiritual space truly welcoming to young adults–has always been a challenge. We’ve read the articles. Millennials are less likely to go to church, to identify as religious, and to believe in God. Often our generation gets blamed for our absence from religious spaces. We’re told that we are too self-absorbed, too focused on our cell phones and individual lives to aim for anything greater.
It’s easy to believe such statements, to accept them as fact—even as a member of this generation. Often we are quick to believe the worst about one another, and ourselves. Perhaps, though, we ought to heed wisdom from one of my generation’s favorite movie characters, The Lion King’s Rafiki, and “look harder.”
Four months ago a team of young adults, some of whom had never met, united virtually and planned worships, justice actions, workshops, discussions on religious covenant, and more. Over fifty people took time away from their families to travel to the Houston area on the day after Christmas, and to make a statement: we are about something. Some left before dawn just to make part of the event, this YA Gathering.
The late men’s basketball coach Jimmy Valvano said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.” And so, for three days, we did. It was an unapologetically spiritual, religious space. We danced, we laughed, we stayed up late. We sang ‘Amazing Grace’ tearfully arm-in-arm at midnight, and ‘I’m On A Boat’ at 1:30 am another night. Both were spiritual experiences for many.
We listened as people found their voices, in some cases for the first time in years. We encouraged others who loved their voices to use them less. We were called to action, and to live out our UU values, and to work for environmental, racial, and economic justice. We struggled through covenant building and then through covenant following. What most of us found was something profoundly messy, and imperfect, and beautiful.
Many of us, we found grace. We found hope. And through struggle, we found home.
That word—home–undergirded our time together. For many in our age range, home eludes us. Perhaps we have gone away to school. We are where we grew up, and it no longer feels like home. We may not be fully welcome at home anymore, or we have grown beyond it. Perhaps we are forging new homes with families and friends of our own.
It was this exploration of home that brought five Unitarian Universalist young adults together, poring over worship outlines at one in the morning as friends danced the Wobble two rooms over. Our goal was to bring two messages to the suburban Houston congregation the next morning.
The first message, and the stated theme of the service, was to lift up justice work as this country’s citizens striving to make this nation, our home, live up to itself. Speaking truths at home, as Jesus did at the synagogue in Nazareth and Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni did/do right here in America, likely means being hated and reviled. We argued that we must combat such hatred with support and love and solidarity.
Our second message—our latent statement of purpose—was, to quote another classic millennial film, to bring it. Through song and impassioned readings and poems and story and laughter and silent meditation and fiery preaching, we strived to show what multigenerational, multicultural worship can do. Can be. Can feel like. Worship—and faith community more generally– can do more than make us think—it can make us laugh, make us cry, make us sing. Worship can call us to action, call us to justice, call us home.
Home was never meant to be easy.
Our faith is hard. People who don’t or can’t agree, who struggle to understand one another, nevertheless stay together and covenant together.
Through these experiences—an oft-challenging yet ultimately rewarding young adult gathering, and a YA-led, boomer-musically-supported Sunday morning service full of tears, laughs, and energy—I find myself with some hopes for Unitarian Universalism going forward.
I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more…A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.
Emerson believed “The true preacher can be known…that he deals out to the people his life,–life passed through the fire of thought.”
May we bring our minds and willingness to reason; may we also bring a willingness to laugh, to weep, to dance, to share our stories. May we truly come alive. May we bring a willingness to listen and be silent together. May we be willing to make some noise. May we be willing to work for justice and change our ways when needed.
Home was never meant to be easy. Home is hard work. All over I see Unitarian Universalists of all ages and races and backgrounds working to find home. To build home.
Home is wherever I’m with you.