My UU Experience
Note: Members of the Franklin congregation who use the "FUSF" abbreviation usually say the four letters in a row.
Leader: What is it like growing up UU? Think about that for a minute. Then listen to what a high school youth had to say about the subject. The youth is Margaret Barthel. This is how she told her story to her own congregation at the First Universalist Society in Franklin, Massachusetts.
What's it like growing up UU? Well, first of all, the Elevator Speech is great in grade school. Imagine this: You're a fifth grader, and a bunch of your friends are all stating their religion. "I'm Catholic," says one. "I'm Jewish," says another. And then someone asks you the question: "Hey, what religion are you?" You smile slowly (milking it for all it's worth) and then enunciate proudly: "I'm a Unitarian Universalist." Of course, your announcement has the desired result: The kids all look at you in awe; they all clamor to know what those really really long words mean; the earth shakes; lightning cracks the sky in two; and you are queening it over all the fifth-grade cosmos, simply because you are a Unitarian Universalist and no one else knows what in heck that means.
Leader: Have any of you been asked similar questions? How have you replied? When somebody else asks what the long UU words mean, what do you say? [Allow some responses.]
All levity aside, this growing up UU question is a poser because being UU is such a personal experience for me. I'm not really sure where the growing up UU piece of my childhood stops and where the vast rest of it all begins, because Unitarian Universalism has always been inextricably tangled with who I am.
So, I guess the only thing for it is to describe snapshots of my life that have UU things in them. You be the judge of whether my experience is accurate or not.
The first thing I remember about growing up UU was my brother and [me] standing up on the pews so that we could see the hymnal over our parents' shoulders, since we were far too short to see anything otherwise. The pews in question were the pews of the first church I ever attended, the Mendon-Uxbridge UU church. . . .
I remember other things about these years: How excited I always was to get to dress up to go to church. How the parish hall was big enough to play games in. How I was a shepherd in one Christmas pageant and an angel in the next.
But all good things, even pew-standing, must come to an end. . . . Eventually we moved to this church, First Universalist Society in Franklin, affectionately known as FUSF.
And so, as a transplanted nine-year-old, I put in my first appearance at FUSF's Marvin Chapel. Church still didn't mean a whole lot to me, other than that it was something to do on Sundays, but now it was fearsome because I had to meet a whole other bunch of people. Nevertheless, I got signed up for UU Journey and Sunday school and the whole bit.. . .
Leader: UU Journey is a program in which FUSF's third and fourth graders learn about the UU Principles. [If your congregation has a similar program, draw the analogy for the youth.]
UU Journey was a turning point for me in understanding what it meant to be a UU. I have always liked when things are written down on paper, assignments that I can check off in an orderly way. So, when I got that UU Journey workbook, I got right down to business. Suddenly, church and the Seven Principles weren't just something that I went and did on Sundays—they were things that I was supposed to live by throughout the week.
Leader: Do you agree with Margaret, that Unitarian Universalism and the Principles are things you should live by even when you are not here together? Does anyone have an example? [Allow some responses.]
... [A]ll in all, it has been a great ride here at FUSF so far, full of self-discovery and happiness. Need some examples? Well, there's how I overcame the idea of being the second little violinist in church. There's how awesome Youth Group is—so awesome that we've all gone swimming in Lake Pearl when it was 65 and rainy and stayed up half the night at lock-ins. There's how I did my Coming of Age credo and lost most of my fear about speaking to large groups. There's how I'm on first-name and hugging terms with our minister. There's how I get to sing in the choir and complain about the high notes before 9 in the morning. . . .
Leader: [Explain, as appropriate, what the Coming of Age program is like and when it is offered in your own congregation. Explain that a "credo" is a statement of belief.]
What good memories do your youth have of their experience in your own congregation? [Allow responses.]
Margaret has some more stories, too.
There's how I get to make you all laugh at the Senior Youth Service. There's how I've found wonderful friends of all ages.
I hope I'm making it clear that I think this is a very special community, one that I can count on to be accepting of me no matter what. As a teenager trying to navigate the tricky social maze of being not quite a child and not quite an adult, this place and this religion are havens. Isn't that what Unitarian Universalism comes down to, after all? Unconditional, respectful, and compassionate acceptance of the individual and their beliefs? It doesn't matter how many people I'm friends with at school, or how I dress, or what my aspirations are. I love that. That's the reason I don't quit coming to church, even when all my other obligations crowd in—because Unitarian Universalism is no-holds-barred love.
Leader: Do you agree that this is what Unitarian Universalism comes down to? Unconditional acceptance of the individual and their beliefs? Are there any limits on that? In other words, could somebody believe something or act in ways that other UUs simply would not accept? [Allow some discussion; affirm that we promote individuals' freedom to find their own beliefs and that Unitarian Universalist Principles guide us to treat others with respect and compassion. Actions that hurt others are not in keeping with our Principles.]
This coming year I'll be a senior, so my days at FUSF as a regular member of the Barthel row are numbered. While I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to find a church community like this when I go to college, you all have made a deep UU impression on me.
I'll leave you with this: at most of the colleges I've been considering, I check around for UU things on campus or in the surrounding area. . . .
Leader: That is the end of Margaret's UU story—for now. Do any of you know older UU youth who have gone off to college or other places? Has finding UU connections in their new locations been important to them?
You are in the middle of your UU youth story right now. I wonder where it will go from here... That is another big question.