Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Religious Education Matters

Rev. Kit Ketcham
Oct. 16, 2011

My son was a senior in high school, a longtime member of the youth group at Jefferson Unitarian Church in the Denver area, when the congregation decided to undertake an all-congregation social action project, as the chief community supporter of a local agency called Family Tree. Their mission was supporting families in transition, families whose poverty and crises had made life pretty unstable for them.

The project made it possible for every person in the congregation to be involved with social action work in a hands-on way. Activities with the project included food drives, child care provision, computer literacy training, home repair, transportation to appointments, thrift shop support, auto repair, and that sort of thing.

Everyone in the congregation was excited about it. I even had a chance to act as Mrs. Santa Claus at a holiday party for families served by Family Tree and I did some light gardening and a few other things. Others taught computer skills, did cooking classes, babysat kids, provided gifts at Christmas and birthdays, painted apartments, replaced lightbulbs and bathroom and kitchen supplies for the transitional housing development owned by Family Tree which was shelter for some of these families.

The youth group that year decided to do a paper drive, to restock the supplies of paper products in the Family Tree storage facility. And one Sunday morning, as I sat in the front row of the choir, the double doors at the back of the sanctuary suddenly swung open and a phalanx of disreputable-looking teenage boys, in double file formation, strode into the sanctuary, arraying themselves in a wide V across the front of the room.

My son led the parade and, in his long black leather trenchcoat, holey jeans, tattered shoes, skull and crossbones t-shirt, and long black hair under his backwards baseball cap, he swung around to face the congregation as his pals did the same, hands on hips, fixing folks with their steely gaze.

He dramatically held open one side of his coat and pointed to the items he had duct-taped to the lining: “We’re having a paper drive to support Family Tree”, he said in a gruff voice, “and we want you to bring (as he pointed out each item) paper towels, toilet paper, diapers, spiral notebooks for kids in school, copy paper, note cards, all kinds of paper products.”

He went on to show all the items on both sides of the open trenchcoat, then snapped it shut around him, affixed that steely gaze on the congregation, and then said, “cuz if you don’t, I’m gonna date all your daughters.”

Yes, my son is a legend at Jefferson Unitarian Church for this and other incidents; in fact, one tactless wag remarked, when my son was only about 8 and suffering the effects of a parental divorce and some other limitations, (he said to me )“we need to G...-proof this church.”

I’ve told you, I believe, that my son’s life was transformed by the religious education he got at Jefferson Unitarian Church. He had a very tough time growing up. He was small for his age, too smart for his own good, learning disabled and possibly hyperactive to boot, and had some health issues that got in his way.

And what he got from his religious education had nothing to do with theology and everything to do with being a human being in a world he didn’t create, couldn’t control, and often couldn’t understand.

In RE, which we now call Religious Exploration, he and the other kids in his age group learned about how to treat people, how to treat the earth, and heard the stories of people in ancient times, whose religious leaders, such as Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha, told those stories to make a spiritual and practical point.

My son and Scott and Laura and Bre and Kirk and Camsie and all the other kids had a chance to ask all the questions they could think of about religion and spiritual experience. The adults who spent these hours with them learned who they were and offered the kids their own experience as guides.

When they were small, the stories and experiences included songs about loving, about not being afraid to be who they were, about looking out for other creatures. All families, no matter how they were configured, were okay; it was okay to have two dads or two moms or maybe just one mom and a stepdad or maybe no mom, just a dad. And of course a mom and a dad who lived apart or lived together---that was okay too, as were grandparents and guardians.

As they got older and the inevitable skirmishes between kids or between adults and kids took on greater meaning, they’d have long conversations and make agreements about how they would be together as a group. Their classroom bloomed with graffiti and posters of rock bands.

At one point, all the 8th graders were part of a sex ed class which was explicit, comprehensive, focused on physical and emotional health and safe sexual practices. This group met all during their 8th grade year, with a couple of retreats, all-day sessions, with carefully structured and presented examples of contraceptives, of the variety of sexual identities and preferences in the human population, sexually transmitted diseases, AND the ongoing teaching of waiting until they were more mature before having their first sexual experience.

My son was still struggling with a few issues in 8th grade and his relationships within this group were fragile. Adults who had known him for most of his life worked with him gently and consistently; they didn’t give up on him and kick him out of the program, but he was not Mr. Popularity.

There was a followup program for 9th graders the next year, a much-anticipated coming of age trip to the Four Corners area---Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico---to visit the Native American communities there and learn about their religious and cultural practices.

But at the end of 8th grade, many of the kids who would have been included in that important trip declared that if (my son) was going, they would not go. What a blow!

Our Director of Religious Education sat down with him to discuss this setback. I don’t know what they said to each other, but at the end of the conversation, he sent word through the DRE to the kids who were rejecting him in this way and apologized for his earlier behavior, said he hoped they would change their minds, and promised to change his ways. Which he did.

The group of teenagers who went to the Indian reservations together that spring for ten days came back changed, more grown up, with greater understanding of another culture, of other people, of other religious practices, of each other and of themselves. They seemed clear-eyed in a way they had not been in 8th grade.

They all, including my son, still had a few rough edges, but they were, after all, 15 years old. The important thing was that their religious education had given them an experience which was life-changing, open-hearted, and accepting of others, while demanding accountability from each other.

This is what we want a religious education to do, after all---expand understandings, make students aware of the validity of other religious paths, help them learn about their own, and develop ways of being in the religious world that are respectful, kind, and accepting of differences.

Not only do our children need this kind of teaching, but we all do! We all need to know more about our neighbors on this planet, in order to live together in peace.

I would never have learned this kind of thing in my Baptist Sunday School years. In fact, I remember the class session when I was in about 8th grade, when a fellow student asked the question of our teacher “what is circumcision and why was it important to the Jews?”

We didn’t get a straight answer; our teacher blushed vividly and muttered something about asking our parents. But those kids in the Unitarian Universalist sex ed class called “About Your Sexuality” would have gotten an accurate and understandable answer. Of course, UU parents being who they are, many of those kids would probably have known that already, except maybe for the religious importance of the ritual.

So many myths and misunderstandings exist about other religions that it’s no wonder we have so much religious conflict on this planet.

Some may have a slight basis in truth but have been circulated and recirculated for so long, particularly if they have gotten circulated electronically, that they have taken on an aura of truth which is hard to dispel even with factual information.

Some emerge from hateful lies and deliberate misstatements. Others arise out of misinterpretation of ritual statements within liturgy.

For example, I sent a note out to my colleagues on our UU ministers’ internet discussion list and got some responses from them. One woman told a story of visiting her childhood church with her children. Here’s what she wrote me:

When our oldest, who is now 33, was about 8, I took her and her younger sisters to a Dutch Reformed church - I grew up in that (church) and my parents were very active and when there was an anniversary celebration, I was invited to say some words about my father's experience there; he had physically helped rebuild it after a fire in 1915 or so...

The service was really wonderful until there was communion. When the Domini (what I was raised to call ministers in that church) said, "this is my body and this my blood," my oldest literally turned ashen and said, a little loud, "They eat people here." Fortunately we were sitting with some family friends so it wasn't all over (the room)... she still remembers that and the fun she had up to that point...

Other colleagues responded with these ideas: that Islam is a religion of hate. That Sikhs are violent. That Jews have horns. That Mormons aren’t Christian. And one woman reminded me of the bumper sticker that rebuts a persistent blaming of women for all the world’s problems: Eve Was Framed!

Some misconceptions and outright falsehoods are completely unbelievable and others have a mixed heritage of truth and fabrication. Some have been deliberately spread about as truths in order to discredit a religion, as well as individuals associated with that religion. I’ll bet you’ve received a few online yourselves.

Here is what the rumor-investigating webpage says about its work:
A familiar aspect of many religions is the use of narratives such as parables and fables to teach and reinforce moral attitudes and religious principles in forms easy to assimilate and remember. Likewise, urban legends are narratives often used to spread and reaffirm societal mores and beliefs, and since much of our moral code is mirrored in religion, the world of parables and urban legendry frequently intersect.

Here are some of the questions the rumor-debunking web page has investigated and sorted out. First the true ones, of which there are only a few: June 10, 2000, was proclaimed by Gov. George W. Bush to be officially “Jesus Day” in Texas; Billy Graham and John Wayne did have a hand in the creation of the song “It Is No Secret”; lightning did strike a church during a sermon after the preacher identified thunder as the voice of God; and some folks do often attempt to avoid monetary amounts totaling $6.66.

And then there are the funny but not true: NASA scientists did not discover a lost day in time; certain symbols displayed on the packaging of a variety of grocery items do not signify that their manufacturers have paid a secret tax to the Jews; scientists drilling in Siberia did not punch through to Hell; and the exclamation “holy smoke” does not derive from the burning of the ballots used to elect a Pope.

Some are truly weird: Alabama did not redefine the value of “pi” to 3, to bring it in line with Biblical precepts; a group known as the “Second Coming Project” is not seeking to clone Jesus from the DNA of holy relics; a man contemplating suicide did not receive a phone call from God; part of the process of determining that a Pope has died do not call for him to be tapped on the forehead with a silver hammer; and airlines are not avoiding pairing Christian pilots and co-pilots out of fear that the Rapture will snatch away both crew members capable of landing the flight.

But the false one that made my skin crawl was this one:
A Saudi Arabian newspaper ran an article claiming that Jews use the blood of teenage Christians and Muslims in foods created to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. Part of this was true---the newspaper did indeed run such an article, describing at great and false length the supposed process of acquiring the blood, preparing it for use in food and then using it as an ingredient in pastries eaten during the Purim feast.

The article itself was a complete fabrication and a continuation of an ancient fable called “blood libel”. It is an outgrowth of the story of the Passover, when the Hebrews were led out of slavery in Egypt after a ritual which involved painting the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a freshly sacrificed lamb. This ritual was distorted into rumors that the Jews use the blood of Christian children in this rite and it is an anti-Semitic story that has persisted for centuries and still arises today.

The publication of this story was roundly discredited and condemned by religious leaders worldwide, but it is evidence of the deep animosity between religious people in the Mid East.

Just as the gift of a comprehensive and unbiased sex education tends to lead to a healthier sexual being, a comprehensive and unbiased religious education can lead to a healthier religious person. And, it seems to follow that healthier religious people are the foundation of a healthier society.

How do we accomplish this? In our small way, here at UUCWI, how can we contribute to a religiously healthy and better-educated community?

The secular community struggles with its own issues of education, as does the religious community. We want to pass along our biases and opinions, whether at home or in a classroom. We want our children to do things our way and it can be hard to see whether “our way” is an honest and healthful way, especially when our own religious education is scanty and incomplete.

Here’s what I think: I am encouraged, this fall, by the plethora of educational opportunities for adults in our congregation: in addition to Sunday services that provide spiritual uplift and challenge our thinking, we have opportunities to learn about the ancient roots of religion as revealed by archaeology, to be part of a discussion group focused on ethical living and character development, to consider the pillars of our individual theologies, to be in a group of spiritual companions, and to learn more about our own faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism.

Quite a lot of you are involved in these classes, and after the first of the year, we have a similarly interesting and challenging slate of opportunities available.

Our own religious education is a critical element in our ability to change the world. If we neglect our own knowledge and understanding of religion, ours and others, we are less able to counteract the false messages of those who would demonize and persecute those of different faiths. And if our own understandings are not well-thought-out, we run the risk of giving misinformation to our children, grandchildren, and others.

So my first recommendation is that we each undertake to increase our understandings and knowledge of religion, not only our own but the religions of our neighbors and friends. Instead of labeling Mormonism a cult, let’s learn more about it. Instead of shooing the Jehovah’s Witnesses away from our door, let’s invite them in once in awhile. Let’s counteract the hateful messages of anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim proponents with a message of tolerance and reason.

And my second recommendation is that we become actively involved with the religious explorations of our own young people, here in our congregation. Let’s visit their classrooms, get to know the children and their parents and teachers. Let’s help out in some way, whether by volunteering in the classroom or bringing treats or offering to chaperone an activity. Most importantly, let’s share our increased knowledge with our children, communicating with them at their own level but emphasizing the importance of learning about the world and the world’s religious faiths.

This is not easy stuff. Learning new ways can be hard; this congregation has tended to leave religious education in the hands of our professional educators. But it is not just the job of our DRE Vanessa or our teachers Natasha, Kim, and Evan. It is the job of every one of us to help educate our children, to give them accurate information and loving guidance.

Religious education means changing our own attitudes, looking at our values, and adjusting our behavior. This is hard, challenging stuff. And it’s also religious education to the core, according to Tandi Rogers, our district program coordinator.

In closing, I’m happy to tell you that the teenage boy whose challenge to our Colorado congregation was the topic of our opening story, has become a young man with a family, active in his Reno, Nevada, UU congregation, where he serves as a worship leader, and where he is (Ithink) a credit to his own religious upbringing.

Mike learned the things he learned because the adults in his younger life cared about him, cared that he become a man with values he’d thought through, values that helped him find his way in a complicated world, values that shape his actions and responses to the challenges he faces today.

Might all of our children have the same wisdom and guidance from us here in this community.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our lives have benefited greatly from the religious education we received, whenever we received it. May we strive to give the children of this congregation the best religious guidance we can, that they might go forth in life with greater understanding, greater compassion, and greater sense of purpose. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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