Welcome to the Spotlight Series! Each month we feature a different Unitarian Universalist congregation or community that is doing effective, innovative or otherwise interesting ministry with young adults – Ed.
“Bishop Yvette Flunder says her approach to church membership is ‘you welcome someone, you make them feel loved and then you put them to work.’ Well that’s what I try to do!” says Alex Haider-Winnett. He’s the outgoing coordinator of the young adult group at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland (FUCO) and he’s been a member there for about four years. It looks like his strategy is working.
First of all, young adults feel welcomed at FUCO. Aaron Hinde, a young parent, started attending six months ago, hoping to find a place for his son Cameron to explore religious ideas and was surprised at how the young adult community immediately drew him in. One of the newest FUCO young adults, Michael Rush, also found instant welcome from the young adults at here when he decided to return to the faith of his childhood after years away from Unitarian Universalism. He was impressed by how friendly folks are both in person and online, commenting on how quickly the UU Oakland young adults “friended” him on Facebook. As a young adult member of FUCO myself, I have to agree that it was extremely easy to find one’s way into this inclusive group.
Samantha Ames, a lifelong UU who’s been at First Unitarian Church of Oakland just over a year admits that the young adults have a reputation of “pouncing” on the new young adults who walk in because, as she puts it “we’ve all had experiences at other churches where we didn’t know how to break into the community.” Though pouncing can have a negative connotation, Aaron affirms that without the enthusiasm he’d probably be “sitting in the back of the services, twiddling my thumbs and walking straight home after.”
The warm welcome is just the beginning with this crowd, however. The next step is making them feel loved. Samantha attests that the group has done that for her. She arrived in the east bay a year ago having just moved across the country and in the midst of a difficult break-up and a complicated situation with family members. “The young adult community has been the one stable thing in my life this past year, it has been my family.” And this love isn’t restricted to the young adults of FUCO. For example, young adults at the church have organized holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas this past year that were attended by people of many ages who may not have had anywhere else to go for the holidays. “Young adults are good at building second family,” Samantha notes.
And then there’s putting folks to work, which these young adults excel at. Samantha was just elected to the Board of Trustees, while Alex is part of the Transition Team that is guiding the congregation through their current interim ministry. Even newcomer Michael got involved right away, serving drinks at the church auction and helping plan our monthly Tuesday Vespers services.
The Tuesday Vespers services are one of the newer projects the young adults have taken on. Starting in January of this year there have been ritual and song based evening worship services on the second Tuesday of each month, led by young adults and attended by folks of all ages. Laila Ibrahim, longtime member of FUCO and Director of Children and Family Ministries, appreciates the simplicity and repetition of the services and how they involve embodied worship. Samantha calls the worship style “inclusive, quiet, centered, intentional and open.” And, as Alex points out, the organizational process for the services is non-hierarchical, fluid and organic. There’s a main organizer for each month’s service and they bring their own flavor while inviting in the voices and musical talents of others in the community. The worship feels distinctly UU to Samantha, who grew up in UU youth communities and finds participatory worship in the round a good fit for her spirituality.
Of course, as with any young adult group, the UU young adults in Oakland struggle with the instability brought on by the frequent transitions in our lives. Laila says it’s an ongoing issue and the congregation has difficulty investing in young adults because they have seen so many come and go. Alex agrees that this turnover is a challenge. “We welcome and focus on hospitality but we don’t know if they’re leaving in three months or not.” Of the 125 people in their Facebook group Alex estimates that the majority are folks who have since moved away from the group but like to stay in touch virtually despite not being a part of the FUCO community any longer.
Still, given the transitory reality of young adult lives, it seems the young adults at First Unitarian Church of Oakland have hit upon an excellent formula for sustaining their ministries. Providing exuberant welcome, supportive love and plenty of opportunities to get engaged with the work of the church has helped this group flourish, for the benefit of members and friends of all ages in Oakland.
Special thanks to Alex Haider-Winnett, Michael Rush, Laila Ibrahim, Samantha Ames and Aaron Hinde, whom Annie interviewed over burritos in order to write this piece!
Does your UU congregation or community do exciting ministry with young adults? Email Annie at email@example.com to set up an interview and get your group in the Spotlight Series!