Ministry of Exploration

I have a passion for this faith, and a great affection for this congregation.  I enjoy communicating the good news of Unitarian Universalism to newcomers and old-timers alike from the pulpit.  But a sermon can only go so far, and it can only reach some people.  To really communicate our faith, we need a comprehensive program outside of worship that reaches EVERYONE from two to ninety-two.

And so I have a passion for Unitarian Universalist religious education, and I think you do too.

You see, I’ve been looking, and listening, getting to know you, and digging into your history.

The earliest history I could dig up comes from Nina West, in response to Rev. Makar’s questioning her about growing up in UUCA.

Nina says, “I will tell you what I remember. There was programming for children at UUCA from the time my family and I started attending in 1961. My earliest memories are of meeting in a couple of houses somewhere around North Avenue and Boulevard, near downtown Atlanta. I would have been four or five. I have dim memories of whatever programming we had involving being able to paint at an easel, something that would have made me happy.  From there, the congregation moved (Gene Pickett was the minister) to meeting at a public school, Clark Howell, on 10th street.

It seems there was an emphasis on science in UUCA’s classrooms.  Nina says, “One class I remember clearly was when a man in the congregation created a volcano and then made it erupt in the classroom, . . . and I thought that was great fun and very exciting.”  She also remembers an RE course that involved learning about dinosaurs and evolution taught by my father and another man.

Nina remembers an RE curriculum that was something like the Church Across the Street and that they visited a lot of different congregations and that her mother was the facilitator for that.   (Her mother, for those who don’t know, went on to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Frances West, ordained in 1977.)

Nina says, “I remember a course that was taught by Dr. Dowdle called Decision Making, which I now realize would be referred to as situational ethics. I was in the 6th grade when we had that class.”  I’m impressed with her memory!

She says, “By the time I was in 7th grade, we had what was called Jr. LRY (LRY=Liberal Religious Youth) and Margo Dixon Smith was one of two teacher facilitators for that. I remember they helped us with a project where we made collages as a group project to illustrate the Simon and Garfunkel song Sounds of Silence.

“I think it was somewhere around the latter part of the 6th grade when Don Jacobson came to UUCA.  Don was a GREAT advocate for children. I gather he was also GREAT at recruiting adults to teach RE.”

However, though the RE program was very active, it formally only provided Sunday morning classes until the end of the 7th grade. After that, a young person went into the high school LRY which and met on Sunday evenings from 7 to 9 pm but there was no Sunday morning RE for high school aged youth. Several of us who were in LRY (myself, Sue Trowbridge, and a guy named Eric Vershon) really liked hanging out together and we extended that to providing a service on Sunday mornings to the church. The three of us, (sometimes there may have been others) would [answer] the phones in the church office on Sunday mornings, so we could give directions to people wanting to come to church or let them know what the service would be. This was actually quite nice, because we got to socialize together and provide a service to UUCA.  One other thing I did with some of my friends when I got to be about 12 or 13 years old was that I would work in the nursery on Sunday mornings, helping out with the babies. Anyway, babysitting was another way some of us youth contributed to the congregation though there wasn’t RE for us as we got older.

During high school, Nina remembers, she also participated in AYS, which stands for About Your Sexuality.  It was the precursor to OWL, which stands for Our Whole Lives.  AYS was developed in the days before AIDS and safe sex, and OWL is much more comprehensive.

Another acronym, one which survives to this day, is YAC, which stands for Youth Adult Committee.  Nina says, “I did serve on YAC, I think at Don’s urging. Don was incredibly supportive of me, especially when I look back on it now. I became president of the Atlanta LRY group and then later was also president of our federation Lower Southern District (LSD, weren’t LRYers clever).  I served in other ways with LRY, too. LRY was an unusual youth group, had incorporated itself and existed independently from the UUA. It was a great place to learn about leadership, planning conferences and workshops. And at the time I was in it (1970-75) it also, unfortunately (to me) reflected some of the times (drug use and some other things that became problematic). Don was a GREAT support to our local group and attended conferences with us, in other cities, at times. He also recruited adults to serve as advisors and looking back on it, he got some good people to serve us. “

Nina remembers this building being built.  She says, “I remember the basement flooded with water before the building was complete, too, and think I remember that continued to be a problem.”  It continues to be a problem to this day, although much effort and money has been expended this year toward fixing it.  Maybe water in the basement will finally cease to be a problem.

Rev. Don Jacobson left in 1987, after serving seventeen years, the longest term any minister has ever served UUCA.  He was followed by Rev. Betty Baker, whose title was Interim Assistant Minister for Religious Education.  I could find very little about Rev. Baker, but it appears she did a two or even three-year interim.

Meanwhile, there were other Associate Ministers, both Interim and Called, who seem to have not had educational responsibilities.  On September 10, 1988, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that UUCA had its top three positions filled by interim ministers and all were women.  They were the Reverends Betty Baker, Joyce Smith and Emily Palmer.

In 1990, Rev. John Mackey, who was a member of the congregation before being ordained into the ministry, became Associate Minister for Lifespan Religious Education, with primary responsibility for children and youth.  The most interesting thing I can find about his ministry here is a program called “Nifty Gifty”, when children would make gifts from recyclables.

It was in the mid-90’s that UUCA’s all-congregation commitment to an inner-city school switched to John Hope Elementary and became the Hope School Project.  Now the Hope-Hill Project, it is still going strong.  We serve children and youth both within and outside our walls.

Also in the mid-90’s UUCA became a Welcoming Congregation, earning the UUA’s designation after working through a program to become more accepting and inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Much of my information comes from a document called Rebirth of Liberal Religion in Atlanta.  This document consists of brief facts ordered by date.  In the year 1999, it first says, “June 1—Pat Kahn hired as RE Director.”  Then it says “the Reverend John Mackey, Assistant Minister, takes a sabbatical leave and does not return.”

I don’t know what to make of that!   If anyone knows anything about that, please see me at coffee hour!

I do know that one person who was instrumental in bringing Pat Kahn here was Robin Kottman.   The Kottmans found UUCA when their daughter, Jaclyn, was two.  You heard their story in the reading just now.  Robin got immediately involved with the childcare committee.  Dr. Edward Frost was the senior minister, and the congregation felt centered around the adult worship.  John Mackey was Minister of RE and did the programming piece, but he was part-time, at least in RE and the Religious Education Council did all the rest.

Robin was on a task force with Beth Stevenson and others to study the idea of bringing a dedicated Director of Religious Education.  Of course, there was no money to fund a new position.  Luckily, Robin was (and is still) married to Stacey, who was on the board, president at one point, and involved with the pledge drive.  What Stacey found was that nobody was canvassing the families!  So they did, and they raised $60,000, which convinced the board that we could afford it.  After a national search, Pat came over from Northwest UU, where she was serving only part-time.

From all that I’ve heard about Pat Kahn since I’ve been here, she was Wonder Woman.  I do understand she was an overachiever who worked way more than the hours the congregation was paying her for.  (It’s a common thing among congregations and the dedicated people who work for them, but it is not a healthy pattern.)  Pat brought the children into the sanctuary for the beginning of the service every Sunday, started educating the congregation (or at least the families) about our RE program, introduced children into worship as chalice lighters and with their families as greeters.  She did a lot of teacher training, set up ministry teams for each class, added community service as a responsibility of each class, and a social event as a group twice a year to give parents a chance to bond just as their children were bonding, and thus giving them a reason to come out on Sundays.

It’s too much to go into all the ways Pat brought new life into UUCA’s RE program, but I will mention that after she left, the area where the RE people greet families every Sunday morning was named the Pat Kahn Family Ministry Center.

But Pat was called to serve our greater movement, to be of service to all UU’s, not just us.

So Mr. Barb Greve has given us the gift of two years of interim educational ministry.  Now Barb takes his interim work quite seriously, and has helped us move into new ways of seeing and doing Religious Education, or Religious Exploration, as we’re now calling it.  With Barb’s guidance, we’ve let go of some things tat were no longer being supported by the congregation, and we’ve added some new things that will bring greater strength to the core programming.

Perhaps the most significant change under Mr. Barb’s leadership has been a shift to a quarter system.  This has been a help to the many volunteers that are needed to help our children explore religious concepts on Sunday mornings.  It means a shorter time-frame commitment, but a more constant presence for our kids to have continuity in that time-frame.  I understand that the teachers who start in the fall enjoy it so much, they sign on for another quarter.

For summer, we’re trying a new model that accommodates the lower attendance in a creative and fun way.  Although I understand it’s gotten off to a rocky start and could really use some volunteers who are committed to giving our children an opportunity to explore and learn this summer.

So the torch passes once again.  Mr. Barb will be leaving us at the end of the month—be sure to be here on the 22nd to say goodbye—and I will take on the leadership of our educational ministry.

A “ministry of exploration,” I will be exploring with you the ways we can all explore the deeper existential questions of life that are often called religious.  I will be ministering to families with or without children, single or coupled, old or young.  That is, all of you, insofar as you want to learn and explore together and help guide others in their learning and exploring.  And I will still engage with you once a month from the pulpit, and I will still oversee the pastoral care needs and our wonderful Lay Ministry program.  My official title will be the Interim Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth.  At the end of the next program year, I will leave you and you will have hired a new, permanent Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth.  (That is, permanent to the extent that it is not an interim.)

But I can’t do it alone.  I am so grateful to have Michelle Bishop on the staff to manage the Children’s Ministry, with her years of experience in this congregation and her dedication to Unitarian Universalist Religious Education.  I am also very grateful to have Rev. Jonathan Rogers on the staff, who is already himself a Unitarian Universalist minister and will continue his ministry to our youth from 7th grade and up that he has so ably managed this year.  I look forward to working with both of them directly in the year to come.

I am likewise grateful for all the many volunteers without whom this program could not function.   That means all of you—because I know how many it takes to communicate this faith to our children and youth, our newcomers and our old-timers as well.  It takes all of you; you all have something to offer and communicating our fabulous faith needs your gifts.

In particular, I want to invite those of you without children or whose children are grown to take part in this ministry.  You have an advantage during the regular program year that those with children don’t often have—you can be in the classroom during one service and attend worship during the other.  You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.  And why let the parents have all the fun!

When I first found Unitarian Universalism, I wanted to explore every facet of it.  I had to choose, though, between singing in the choir and teaching Religious Education.  I was torn.  I love to sing and we had a great choir.  But I opted to teach because I wanted to get to know those people—children and adults— who spent their Sunday mornings in the RE wing, in addition to those I knew from other aspects of congregational life.  And I’m so glad I did.  I chose to start with 5th grade because I figured they were old enough to be able to start thinking conceptually, yet young enough still to know that they didn’t know it all.  It’s a narrow window, that.

Then when a member of the youth group—Mary Sherman’s son, Joe—approached me to go to a youth con with them, though I couldn’t go, it planted the seed and the next year I started as a youth advisor.  I went to cons all over the district and learned a lot about our faith, our congregations, and our UU youth culture that way. (as well as enjoying engaging with the youth and seeing them blossom)

So where do we go from here?  I am committed to carrying on the great heritage that my predecessors in this role have created.  I ask for your commitment in return to carry on the great heritage that your predecessors have created.  I ask for this commitment from parents to get your kids here, whether they want to come or not—whether YOU want to come or not, and from members and friends who serve on the Children’s Ministry Team, the Youth Ministry Team and the new Adult RE team I will be forming this summer.  (See me after if you’re interested!)  I ask for this commitment from anyone who wants to learn and grow by teaching and sharing in a classroom setting with any age group, and I ask for it from everyone who has affection for this congregation and a passion for – or even a passing interest in – this life-changing faith of Unitarian Universalism.

Charlie Beech’s time in our RE program began during Pat Kahn’s tenure.  Charlie recently was awarded the Reiman award for outstanding graduating senior.  There was an article in the June issue of our newsletter, and I’ll share some since I’ve heard nobody reads it.  It says:

“Charlie’s journey into UUCA culture began shortly after his birth in 1996, when his child dedication ceremony was performed by Rev. Edward Frost and R.E. Director, Pat Kahn.  Through his early years, he collected pleasant memories of annual activities such as the Christmas Eve children’s services, Easter egg hunts with our own Easter bunny, and occasional Wonderful Wednesdays when his mother, Terri, was helping to serve dinner.  But when it came to Sunday attendance in those early years, she says “Charlie was probably like most kids, asking why he had to go to church.”  And he admits that up until 8th grade he “never really got into the whole church thing,” but then something changed.  “Coming of Age was my favorite part of the whole R.E. program.  It was a real eye-opener for learning the message of UU-ism.  The Seven Principles started making sense to me, so once I opened my ears to the message, that was a good foundation.”  That Coming of Age group, including many who’d grown up at UUCA together, bonded even closer through their classes and retreats.  Terri says, “when Charlie’s Coming of Age class did a week-long service project in New Orleans, he discovered how UU values could be realized in real life.”  (UUCA newsletter, June 2014)

If you only dip your toes in the water, you never experience the joy of swimming!  Children, youth and adults of all ages alike get more out of it when we put more into it.  When we dive in no matter what our fears, no matter what is holding us back, we find the water holds us up, the community holds us up.  It’s like any spiritual discipline: you’ve got to just keep showing up.

I want to finish with some words by Rev. Donald Jacobson.  In a publication called “Unitarian Universalists in Atlanta—100 Years,” produced for the centennial celebration in 1982, Rev. Jacobson is quoted about educating children on Sunday mornings:

“Thirteen groups of children are in our building and something of significance is going on in each group.  Observing the satisfaction of the teachers is a special joy.  There are college professors challenged by the high energy levels and short attention spans of bright 4th, 5th, and 6th graders; attorneys, administrators, architects, psychologists and research scientists excited by the level of sensitivity of our older children; social workers, physicians, sales reps, market analysts, and computer programmers experiencing the tender wonder of creating a nourishing religious environment for preschoolers.

“The resources are there, the caring is there, the concern is there; the teachers feel it, the children feel it.  For me it’s very frequently an experience of worship.”