Reflections from a UU College Chaplain
Rev. Pamela Barz is the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Chaplain at Wellesley, a Womens' College outside of Boston. Below is an edited portion of a sermon she delivered at The Eliot Church of South Natick on January 20, 2013. – Ed.
Students at Wellesley come to talk to me for a variety of reasons.
Some for ones you’d expect. They’re homesick. They have roommate problems. They’re overwhelmed by papers, exams, and stress. They think Wellesley made a mistake and they’re not really as smart as everyone else. They have financial difficulties. They’re dealing with grief, or family issues, or romantic concerns. They’re questioning their sexual identity. And they do come for all of these reasons. But they also come to talk to a chaplain about spiritual questions. Sometimes these students are Unitarian Universalist. But often they’re not. Often they’re students I’ve never met who’ve heard about the Unitarian Universalist tradition from a friend or read Emerson and Thoreau, and hope I might be able to help them think through their questions and difficulties. Usually these students have been raised in a conservative Christian tradition and coming to Wellesley has introduced them to new and challenging ways of approaching the world. Perhaps their roommate is Muslim, praying five times a day, covering her hair, incorporating acts of charity into her life, and the student in my office can’t understand why her roommate should go to hell for following Mohammed rather than Jesus. Perhaps the caring House President of her dorm who listened to her the first week when she was overwhelmed with homesickness and lost on the campus paths turns out to be a lesbian, and as she gets to know her and sees how this young woman is no different from herself she doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t be allowed to marry and have a family like the student in my office. Perhaps she has questions about the doctrines of her faith and feels there’s no place for question and doubt in her church.I talk with these students about the traditions they come from.
How they address the questions they're bringing me. How at home the students feel in their traditions. Sometimes we talk about ways they can stay in these traditions with these differences. But sometimes that doesn’t feel right to the students and they ask about other options, and so I tell them about the Unitarian Universalist tradition. For our churches offer a welcoming sanctuary for students grappling with questions of faith.
Last October, the Pew Research Center released a study, 'Nones' on the Rise, that takes a closer look at the 46 million people who answered “none” to the religion question in 2012. According to Pew, one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation. But the percentage of Nones is even higher for people under 30: one-third of them have no religious affiliation – the highest that percentage has ever been.
In January, NPR’s Morning Edition explored this trend. Over two mornings they broadcast interviews with six young adults, all of whom were raised in religious traditions and all of whom have now left those traditions. One of the women, who was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and attended parochial school, talked about how the church’s stand on social issues had caused her to leave the church. She said, "Starting in middle school we got the lessons about why premarital sex was not OK, why active homosexuality was not OK, and growing up in American culture, kids automatically pushed back on those things, and so we had some of those conversations in school with our theology teachers. The thing for me — a large part of the reason I moved away from Catholicism was because without accepting a lot of these core beliefs, I just didn't think that I could still be part of that community.”
Another young woman, who was raised by a Jewish mother and a Christian father, and whose brother died of cancer, talked about her loss of faith:
I wanted so badly to believe in God and in heaven, and that's where he was going. I wanted to have some sort of purpose and meaning associated with his passing. And ultimately the more time I spent thinking about it, I realized the purpose and meaning of his life had nothing to do with heaven, but it had to do with how I could make choices in my life that give his life meaning. And that had a lot more weight with me than any kind of faith in anything else…. I still feel like I would benefit from that community, and I still, I think, struggle feeling like I cannot be a member of it. And so I think if I found a religious community that made me feel accepted for who I am that I would be very open to pursuing that.
As I was listening to these interviews, I started talking back to the radio (as I sometimes do), trying to tell them that they could find a religious community that would accept them with all their doubts and question in UU churches. Here they wouldn’t be told that people are going to hell for choosing to believe or live in certain ways. Here we welcome all people, whomever they love. Here we try to make meaning in light of our experiences rather than impose a set meaning on our experiences. I know the people on the radio couldn’t hear me, but why aren’t other young adults finding our churches?
Even students at Wellesley who do find their way to the UU community from other traditions or from the “nones” may not end up finding a spiritual home after Wellesley.
Except in some urban settings, they find that often churches don’t know what to do with them. They often don’t come with partners and children; they aren’t interested in serving on committees; and they don’t want to provide childcare or guide the youth group. Just like the rest of us, they want to be greeted warmly at coffee hour by members of the congregation and the minister and offered opportunities to be nourished and stimulated in worship and to be offered ways use their gifts to serve the larger world. But this doesn’t seem to be happening in most of our churches.
Our congregations are aging faster than the country as a whole. In 2008 according to American Religious Identification Surveys, the median age for US adults was 44, but in UU churches it was 52. Only 11% of UU church members were between 18 and 30. If our tradition is to remain living faiths, we need to figure out how to welcome and include the people who aren’t here.
Why is it so hard for us to do this? Are we victims of our own diffidence? Do we not feel we have life-giving good news? Or do we not want to be changed?
Change is scary. To make churches more welcoming to young adults might make them feel less welcoming to others. Music might be different. The order of service might change. Committee structures and the way things work might change. The way things look might change. Even what we believe and the ways we see the world might change. We can’t welcome people in hopes that they will become more like us. Who knows, we might become more like them.
So how can you welcome the seeker? How will welcoming the seeker change your church? How will welcoming the seeker challenge and change your faith? And how will welcoming nourish us and our churches and increase our joy?
Rev. Pamela Barz serves as the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Chaplain at Wellesley, a Womens' College outside of Boston.