A Chorus of Faiths: Unitarian Universalists as Interfaith Leaders

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Youth High School Youth

Part of a joint venture of the UUA and the Interfaith Youth Core (founded by Eboo Patel) and funded by the Shelter Rock congregation, these sessions develop UU youth as interfaith leaders. Youth explore values of service to our community and religious pluralism through stories from our Sources and personal storytelling, and coordinate an interfaith service.

About the Author

Hannah McConnaughay's work with the Interfaith Youth Core has taken her to campuses and communities to promote religious pluralism and give skills trainings. She has worked with interfaith leaders and service programs in cities from San Francisco to Delhi, India, and at colleges including Yale University, Berea College, Santa Clara University and the University of Illinois. She is a former site coordinator of Inspired to Serve, the first federally funded interfaith service program. Hannah is a United Methodist. She holds a B.A. in Religious Studies and Economics from the University of Chicago and is a student at Harvard Divinity School.

Renee Zimelis Ruchotzke is the Consultant for Leadership Development for the Central East Regional Group of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Renee is a graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School and is in Preliminary Fellowship with the UUA. Renee served as the Consulting Minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton, Ohio for two years. She served her internship in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsburgh. Before that she served East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirtland, Ohio for two years as their interim Director of Religious Education. She has been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent since 1996 and became their affiliated community minister after they ordained her in 2010. She was the 2007 recipient of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Seminarian Award for Excellence in Social Justice, and the 2010 recipient of the Commission on Social Witness sermon award. Renee lives in Kent, Ohio with her husband, two children, and two stepchildren.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to our editor, Jessica York, who encouraged us and kept us focused.

The training and curriculum staff of the Interfaith Youth Core, especially Mary Ellen Giess, Jenan Mohajir, and Cassandra Meyer, gave essential help to our writing process.

Special thanks to the Reverend Kay Jorgensen and Sister Carmen Barsody for sharing the story and pictures of the Faithful Fools. Thanks to the Reverend Rosemarie Newberry, who provided inspiration for and feedback on the stories about Jenkin Lloyd Jones, and to Jan Taddeo, who helped promote the work of the Interfaith Youth Core among seminarians at Meadville Lombard Theological School.

This program represents a collaboration of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Interfaith Youth Core, funded by a generous grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock (Manhasset, New York).

The Program

Only the smallest part of humanity wishes and acts upon the destruction of others. The pluralists are far larger. Those of us who believe in a world where we live together, we're far larger. The problem is we haven't made our case compelling across the world yet. — Eboo Patel, founder, Interfaith Youth Core

In eight, sequential 90-minute workshops, A Chorus of Faiths guides high school-age youth to plan and lead an interfaith service event in their local community. The program engages youth to explore religious pluralism, learn why it matters to Unitarian Universalists, and develop the understandings and skills to do interfaith work.

As inheritors of a tradition with a longstanding commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism, Unitarian Universalist youth are well poised to become interfaith leaders. Our forebears were present at the World's Parliament for Religions in 1893 and marched in the religiously diverse trenches of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Unitarian Universalists join in many interfaith service and justice partnerships. Youth deepen their Unitarian Universalist identity and faith as they discover our rich history of interfaith effort and learn practical leadership and organizing skills such as dialogue facilitation, storytelling to build understanding, and planning a service action with diverse community partners.

Goals

This program will:

  • Guide participants to coordinate an interfaith service event
  • Help youth understand religious pluralism—what it is and why it matters to Unitarian Universalists
  • Prepare participants to integrate interfaith service with a Unitarian Universalist identity
  • Inspire and support youth to make interfaith work a part of their lived faith now and in the future.

Leaders

These qualities are desirable for leaders of A Chorus of Faiths:

  • A commitment to comply with your congregation's safety policies
  • Experience working in interfaith situations
  • A track record of respecting religious pluralism
  • Acquaintance with people in the congregation and wider community who are involved in interfaith work
  • Readiness to be open and authentic with youth while keeping healthy boundaries
  • A level of personal faith development that has worked beyond negative past experiences (i.e. "baggage") with other faith traditions
  • The desire and skills to step back for youth to develop and practice their own leadership skills, and to step in when needed
  • Willingness and ability to spend time outside of the workshops for planning and other activities.

This program is designed for co-leadership. In addition to sharing the work of leading, co-leadership sets an example of collaboration, offers participants more than one role model and more than one adult with whom they can develop trust, and makes less likely a leader's sense of isolation. Co-leaders can regularly evaluate the program and offer creative course corrections. Co-leadership often leads to a deep connection and appreciation between the leaders.

Being a leader is different than being a friend or a workshop participant. A leader need not be perfect nor have all the answers, yet a leader is responsible for keeping everyone emotionally and physically safe and providing a space where all participants can fully experience the activities of each workshop.

Sharing Leadership with Youth

A major goal of the program is to empower Unitarian Universalist youth as interfaith leaders, so having youth practice leadership here is desirable. Leadership opportunities build ownership of and investment in the program, and nurture participants' confidence in developing leadership abilities and taking initiatives.

Youth can practice leadership by:

  • Providing program input. As a group, youth can help shape the program. Soliciting youth input about activity choices is respectful and appropriate when leaders are ready to act on participants' ideas. Like adult leaders, youth provide the best input with sufficient time and resources to prepare. For example, if youth are planning a chapel service, they may need a hymnbook or other sources for meditative words. If you invite youth to choose a workshop activity, give them enough information to make a good choice.
  • Co-leading a workshop activity. With advance planning, youth can co-lead workshop activities. This challenge is often very appropriate for older adolescents, yet adolescents are seldom in communities that welcome their leadership; our congregations can be an exception. Solicit youth interest in potential leadership roles and follow up. It is the adult leader's responsibility to support youths' leadership success. Be ready to show flexibility about style of leadership; youth, like adults, will have their own style. Encourage all interested youth to co-lead; participating in leadership builds individual and collective identities, and hesitant youth may be more willing after observing peers' success. Support youth by modeling attentiveness and cooperation during youth leadership and managing the aspects of the program the youth are not leading.
  • Assisting in small parts of the program. Youth of all ages can easily do tasks that require little preparation, such as lighting the chalice, greeting participants at the start of the workshop, or acting as scribe during group generation of ideas.
  • Planning a retreat. Youth can practice planning, cooperation, and leadership skills by using the program's pool of alternate activities to create an all-day or overnight retreat, perhaps including worship.
  • Participating in overall program leadership. Consider inviting experienced, senior high youth to join the leadership team. Youth who have previously led workshops or who participated in this program when younger could co-lead the entire program with an adult. Some youth might effectively co-lead whole workshops. Make sure youth leaders have time to prepare: Adult and youth co-leaders should read the workshop in advance, then together choose activities and determine each co-leader's responsibilities. The adult must both mentor youth co-leaders and support the program participants. You may wish to have a discussion with youth who are leading at this level about peer ethics, modeled on the Code of Ethics for Peer Leaders in Young Adult and Campus Ministry.

Participants

A Chorus of Faiths works best if the group includes a critical mass of older youth (16 to 18 years old), as the program requires time commitments outside the workshops. Obtain the support of your congregational leadership and the youths' families. Work with the religious educator when planning outside activities to ensure your compliance with congregational safety policies.

This program would best follow Coming of Age and/or A Place of Wholeness faith development programs.

Developmental Norms, Ages 14 to 18

You may find it useful to think about developmental norms for this age group. Not all youth arrive at each developmental stage at the same time, but knowing what to expect overall from 14- to 18-year-olds can be quite helpful, especially for first-time leaders.

In her book, Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd discusses developmental characteristics of older youth:

  • practice increased cognitive skills
  • express growing interest in abstract values and moral principles
  • engage in moral relativism
  • become less egocentric and more interested in the larger society
  • struggle with gender and sexual identities
  • continue to develop ethnic or racial identity
  • need to belong and have a sense of self worth
  • demonstrate empathy
  • conceptualize religion as an outside authority that can be questioned
  • question faith, sometimes leading to deeper ownership of personal faith or disillusionment
  • deepen or attenuate religious or spiritual identity
  • explore sexuality
  • navigate greater risks relating to alcohol, drug use, and unsafe sexual activity
  • sustain the personal fable that "it couldn't happen to me"
  • consider friendships and peers important, with some shifting of alliances.

Integrating All Participants

Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive religion and A Chorus of Faiths an inclusive program. No one should be excluded from the program or its activities by real or perceived physical or other limitations.

The program provides suggestions for adapting some activities under the heading Including All Participants. By changing approaches as suggested or substituting alternate activities, you can help make every workshop inclusive of youth with a range of physical and cognitive abilities, learning styles, food allergies, and other sensitivities or limitations.

Be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for youth who are differently-abled. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to anyone who might be in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes. When meeting in small groups, ensure the accessibility of all meeting spaces.

Most workshops invite participants to read aloud. Allow participants the opportunity to pass on any roles that require reading. Be prepared to support young people who wish to read but need assistance. Be alert to group dynamics; be ready to do what is needed so it is safe for participants who need assistance to ask for and receive it.

Find out about participants' medical conditions and allergies, particularly to food. Make sure all the youth can eat the food you plan to provide. Workshop 1 has an activity that uses Cracker Jack(R), which contains peanuts. Workshop 2 includes a game with a snack and an alternate activity with oranges.

The program mixes active and quiet, expressive and listening, and whole group and individual activities. It offers alternate activities to substitute for core activities if they better suit the group or if you have extra time. Let your knowledge of different participants' learning styles guide your selection of activities.

In the Teacher Development section of the UUA website, find descriptions of a helpful resource book, Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs. Another helpful resource is Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. The congregation's religious educator is another resource for adaptations to make workshops as accessible as possible.

Families

Our families are often where we first learn about our religious identities and values, and where we first find examples of how to interact with those who are different from us. In recognition of the important role of families, this program encourages active family involvement.

Each workshop has a Taking It Home section, addressed to participants, with resources, activity ideas, and further research suggestions for the youth, their family members, and their friends. Consider emailing Taking It Home to participants’ parents/caregivers after each workshop.

Many program activities can involve congregation and community members—for example, a panel, the interfaith service event, and most Faith in Action activities. When these opportunities occur, extend a special invitation to parents/caregivers.

For more information contact religiouseducation@uua.org.

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