If we haven’t met before, there’s a few things you should know about me. First, I make lots of bad dad jokes. I find them funny, mostly because of the eye rolls, and they are usually safe for work. I joke with visiting Coming of Age groups, after saying that our pens are clicky but not “cliquey” like their schools, that I’m practicing for the far future, for when I have my own teenagers to annoy. The second thing you should know about me is that I love children. I can’t pinpoint when or why, I’ve always had this “baby charisma” and always chalked it up as my glasses being extremely dirty. The third, I deeply value family. I grew up with a single mother, with only occasional visits from my biological father, and my ex-stepfather had his moments, but yeah, that’s who I am. I have this huge, amazing extended family that loved and loves me. The one thing I really want to be when I grow up is the father I did not have.
There’s something about all of these things that adds up to this weird situation where many small children and kids love me. They will raise their arms to be lifted and carried, they’ll take my hand to show me their favorite book, toy, or climbing tree. It happened my first Sunday as DRE at First UU Church of New Orleans when a toddler could not be consoled and only wanted to be held by me. I was introduced to the church with tear-stains and snot covering the shoulders of my ill-fitting suit. “It looks like Bart has already been baptised by the little ones,” the minister joked. Being able to connect with children and babies is like this weird superpower I have, but its not a really awesome or impressive superpower like flying, laser eyes, being rich, or being able to control sea creatures.
It also leads to this phenomena where I am constantly mistaken as a parental unit for other people’s kids. Recently, while at Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach, I was mistaken as a child’s parent five separate times. The first time it was a religious educator who asked me if my wife and children were there with me. Confused, I responded my wife had to work in Boston but we don’t have any children. “Oh, when I saw you at General Assembly, you seemed to always have a baby on your hip.” I smiled and replied that I love kids and have a bad habit of “borrowing” other people’s children.
I think it has something to do with my dirty glasses, yes, but there’s another explanation. I greet children when I meet their parents, I ask them curious questions, and listen. I squat to match their height. I make eye contact. I acknowledge their presence. I offer high-fives and fist bumps. It’s not (only) “baby charisma”, but welcoming and inclusive actions that show they matter.
Really, though, I think it has to do with how few men and male-identified religious educators and volunteers we have in our communities. My first paid religious education position was as the lead teacher for 5th/6th grade and the first thing I noticed is that I was the only teacher who identified as male. The second thing I noticed was how the young folks responded to me, particularly the male students. Kids I had been warned about turned out to be fine. Energetic and a little sassy, but I was expecting worse. While discussing this in a staff meeting one day, we realized that some of the students had never had an RE teacher who was a man. They had one-day classroom volunteers who were men, but no one had spent the full year journeying with them.
My presence, as a younger male person, showed them that boys do teach religious education classes, talk about covenant and love, and sing (poorly, but I do it) while also cracking goofy jokes, playing video games, and listening to the music they listen to. I showed up and tried to be my best self. Honestly, 90% of youth and young adult ministry is just showing up as you and putting on your best self. When the rest of the world is showing off and putting on airs showing up and embodying love is an act of resistance, especially when men do it.
I know there are men in our congregations who teach religious education, serve as volunteers for youth overnights, and mentor young folks in Coming of Age. We need more. Our young folks need healthy male role models, especially our young men. Our world demands they perform a harmful form of aggressive - in all the ways - stoicism and Unitarian Universalism offers an antidote. We offer accountable love and compassion, a place to share your struggles, and healthy community. I’ve noticed that young men are usually in the minority (with notable exceptions) in our congregations and its especially profound in congregations with a lack of male volunteers.
#Squadgoals is usually used in hopeful, aspirational ways for your group of friends, like you want your friend group to be a bunch of rad older lady activists fighting for what is right.
For me, my #squadgoals include more men in caring roles in our congregations, showing that we don’t need to brick ourselves to be masculine.
Will you join me in this?
After all, if we don’t have any dads for the dad jokes, then they are just bad jokes.