One of my favorite UU sermons includes this gem from Reverend Dr. Patrick T O Neill, First Parish Unitarian Universal Church in Framingham, MA:
Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have more warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warrior s “Kasserian ingera,” one would always say to another. It means, “and how are the children?”
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer. “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless are in place, that Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities.
Soon after taking the position of DLRE here I learned that the Board of Trustees was reaching out to “build access” for the whole congregation, making sure they heard from and considered the input from all stakeholders. Being a mama hen, probably from birth, my first response was a less than graceful “That’s wonderful. Have you asked the children?”
Now I’ve been a professional religious educator for six years now, and have worked with kids my whole adult life, and I’ve gotten used to asking that question, and having the answer be a less-than-satisfying, sometimes vexing, often vague one. Boy, was I surprised to hear from the board just a few days after I asked, with a note that indicated they too had been considering how to do just that. We began planning the best way to get feedback from our kids. We used an approach based in Appreciative Inquiry (read about that here: https://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/intro/whatisai.cfm) and modified the questions the board was asking the whole congregation, making them a little more sensible and accessible for kids. Finally we decided that having an adult the kids feel connected to would elicit the best results. We had a plan!
On Easter morning, between Time For All Ages upstairs and an Easter Egg hunt downstairs, we gathered the K-5th graders in RE Commons and welcomed members of the Board of Trustees to join us in considering three questions:
1) What is your best memory of church?
2) If you were in charge of church, how would it be different?
3) What would you like to do more of in church?
Even with the small group there for holiday service, we had a great conversation. I wanted to share with you some of their answers–some of them are surprising.
Best Memory? Fun, All Ages, Food, Making Art, Play, Contemplation, Stories
Kids mentioned Game Night right away, talking about the fun of everyone, all ages, playing games together and eating. Some remembered a Seder Feast at Passover, and told about the fun of multigenerational story and food. Food came up again with a mention of Stone Soup, a story we heard and then engaged more deeply with by making and eating soup in our science classroom. Art came up, with kids talking about how exciting it was to make things with their own hands after hearing a story, and the feeling of pride they experienced at seeing their creations. A particular memory was that of making Social Justice signs that showed what they believed in and were willing to work for. They mentioned making choices and being able to play in RE, and not be told exactly what to do all the time. They mentioned the Contemplation Center, a favorite classroom with a structure that supports their learning healthy habits toward peace and self-calming through activities that are deeply engaging and creative. They didn’t say all that–they said they liked how peaceful the classroom is (it’s one spot in the church on Sunday morning that is almost always silent, with children working hard on their own chosen activity).
But then the conversation turned to STORIES. They said they like the stories upstairs in Time for All Ages when I use the Wonder Box to get everyone thinking and listening, and they like the stories we enjoy weekly in Spirit Play as our centering, guided element for the day in RE. Asked why they liked stories so much, they got into a fairly deep philosophical discussion about how how, yes, they are fun and interesting, bt that you really learn things from them. After some back and forth, they decided they were talking about how stories tell us how to live, and they think those stories are very good, because we learn more deeply from them. We talked about how stories, especially the ones we enjoy here together, are moral tales, helping us orient our thoughts and action toward the good.
If They Were in Charge…What Would They Change?
I expected lots of requests here for candy and ponies, but only the trampoline seemed like a crazy idea. They edited themselves quickly on this, talking about how this would be a blast, but trampolines would mean lots and lots of rules, which would take time and would have to keep us safe. Then they voted (almost unanimously) that we need to figure out how to have more time outside, maybe not on a trampoline, so they can be more active. (We can absolutely have more outside play: I began plans for a nature classroom to support the container garden and vermiculture plans already in the works!)
Then they focused in: could they have more, bigger, signs showing the UU Seven Principles in the RE Commons (Yes!) They would like big posters with each of the Seven Principles printed n large letters, so we can talk about them and see them more. (Working on that now–great idea, kids!) Could we have a circle of light surrounding us sometimes, to make it seem really special when we worship or have stories? (Maybe; that sounds lovely). Could we have MORE CHURCH? (Ask your parents! We’re here more than you may think.)
And then they turned toward a brilliant idea: What if we did REVERSE CHURCH? Could we have the adults come downstairs for a day, while the kids go to worship? What would that be like, I asked them? They said adults would learn what we learn downstairs, and when prompted they said that would be all about chalices, stories, and morals. And what would they do upstairs, I wondered, in the adults’ place? They said: Sing, worship, talk about God, share ideas for change (like we do downstairs, one said), talk, and drink coffee. They wondered about being separate so much, and what might happen if we were together more. I told them this was a BIG IDEA and needed some serious contemplation, but that I was impressed and excited by it.
What Would They Like to See More of in Church?
They said they’d like more art, with many votes in that category, and a few kids wanted more talk and learning about God and about Jesus. They had already shared they wanted more time outside. But the runaway winner in this category was STORIES. Every child in the room shared or voted for more stories. They like stories told to them, they said, by a storyteller, and not on paper. Why? Because a storyteller can help you learn more, make you see the details more clearly, ask you questions that make you think, and help answer questions you may be wondering about. A story told to you makes you FEEL, they said.
I was so grateful to be part of this amazing conversation with our youngest kids. I’ve already taken some of their requests and worked to bring in their ideas to our Summer and Fall programming. I know the Board was pleased to be part of this important conversation too. Our kids are learning from us every day, and what we do in church to include, welcome, support, and listen to them helps US to learn from THEM too.
And so now, if someone asks you “How are the children?” you’ll know better how to answer, because we asked them. As always, I hope you’ll consider how your own spiritual journey would be enriched by joining us in Religious Education, in some way.