Youth Groups Embrace Interfaith Work
Maggie Tirrell spent a day in August doing physical labor at a middle school in Tulsa, Okla., along with other members of her youth group from All Souls Unitarian Church and youth from United Methodist, Catholic, and Jewish congregations.In addition to the work the youth did together—painting lockers, planting flowers, mowing grass, and moving furniture—helping prepare the school for opening this fall, they also had a sleepover the night before, held a worship service, did community-building exercises, and ate together.
The event grew out of a recent initiative by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Youth Office to train Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth to organize and implement interfaith events in their home communities.
“As Unitarian Universalists we are well-suited to do interfaith work,” said Jessica York, Youth Programs director for the UUA, “because of our theological diversity and our acknowledgement there is more than one path.”
She added, “We’re trying to train people for interfaith leadership. This is also another way to get youth interested in social justice work. And because we’re a fairly small religion, most of the time when we do social justice work we are going to be doing it with others.”
Tirrell, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, said she liked working together with other youth. “It gave us a chance to work toward a common goal. I wish we’d had more time, though. It was hard to get to know everyone.”
She added, “Some people think it’s impossible to work with other religions because of our different beliefs. But I found it a really good learning experience and definitely worth it. Next time we hope to get more groups involved.”
The Youth Office organized three trainings, in Tulsa, Atlanta, and Ohio in partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago nonprofit founded by Eboo Patel, whose book, Acts of Faith, was published by Beacon Press in 2007. Patel’s group is working to build an interfaith youth movement. Teams from 18 UU congregations attended one or the other of these trainings.
Two people from the Greenville UU Fellowship in South Carolina attended the IFYC training in Atlanta, then went home and organized an interfaith vigil in April in downtown Greenville to raise awareness about needs in Haiti, shortly after the earthquake there.
The event didn’t start out with much interfaith involvement, but it grew, said Greenville youth group member Michael Robinson. On short notice the UUs had managed to recruit two friends, one Catholic and one Jewish. The Catholic teen had Haitian roots. Then, as the event progressed on the street corner, something unanticipated happened: passersby joined in. “The interfaith aspect was totally preserved in that way,” said Robinson.
Robinson said the group learned several things at this first event. “I learned the value of stories in getting a message across. Instead of debating religious viewpoints, we had people sharing stories from their lives and how they were called by their own perspectives to care about others. It was just a beautiful thing.”
Bruce Cable, a member of the fellowship, helped guide the group. “The idea is that doing service work helps tear down boundaries between people. The event was very moving. This was a big stretch for us but we prepared ourselves by role playing and dialoguing with each other.” He added, “This was a dress rehearsal for what we do next. We’re hoping to organize the fellowship for another attempt to bring awareness. This time we’ll do a better job of working with other churches. We know what to do next time.”
Of the many UU groups that held events across the country one constant they reported was the need to start early in recruiting interfaith partners. Mother and daughter Lauri and Samantha Nandyal of the First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, organized about 40 Muslim, Presbyterian and UU youth to do a spring clean-up day in an inner-city neighborhood after attending an IFYC training.
They were hoping the event would attract more diverse participants. Several conservative Christian churches in the neighborhood were approached, but did not participate. On the plus side, they did make a connection with an existing Ohio interfaith group, the Interfaith Center for Peace. “In the future,” said Lauri, “we’ll be more intentional about diversity.”
The lack of conservative Christian participation in the UU-led youth events, including the one at Tulsa, was a constant across the country. Kate Starr, youth director at All Souls in Tulsa, observed, “Our faith has the most interfaith work to do around Christianity. It’s easy for us to be open-minded and accepting of Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and the liberal Methodists and Catholics who chose to participate in our interfaith event. These aren’t the fundamentalists who are condemning our children to hell at school. Our mission as a church is to do more healing work around our own Christian stereotypes. Interfaith work, especially with Christians, helps us really see each other as individual human beings and not as institutions or dogmatic formulas. But for that to happen both parties have to be willing.”
She added, “Interfaith work is a hands-on way for our youth to experience other faiths who are trying to do the same thing they are––that is: live a moral life, seek insight and ultimate truth, perfect their spiritual nature, live in community and harmony—without trying to convert anyone else or tell them they're wrong. This is, after all, the essential gospel of Jesus.”