A Religious Educator’s Religious Educator
By Judith A. Frediani
[Editors' note: Reverend Dr. Roberta (Bobbie) Nelson died on January 2, 2015.]
In 1997, the UUA’s pioneering sexuality education program, About Your Sexuality (AYS), was under attack on national television. The CBS network had obtained a copy of AYS’s explicit filmstrips. Provocative promos advertised an upcoming “exposé” on Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel. We needed a spokesperson to convince the general public that comprehensive sex education was just plain good sense. Rev. Dr. Roberta (Bobbie) Nelson was the perfect choice. Learned and articulate, confident and wise, Bobbie’s wholesome-as-oatmeal, sensible-shoes demeanor on television helped take the wind out of Gumbel’s sensationalist sails.
For forty years, when Unitarian Universalist religious education needed a voice, Bobbie spoke out. Whenever leadership was called for, Bobbie was called.
At the heart of Bobbie’s religious education ministry was her respect for, joy in, and responsibility to children—hers and everyone else’s, no exceptions. She understood that to protect and support children, we need to support and resource parents and religious professionals. Bobbie saw that UU parents were often uncomfortable with their children’s religious questions. Afraid to impose their beliefs, parents avoided theological conversations. Hence the curriculum, Parents as Resident Theologians, co-authored with Chris, her beloved husband of 54 years. She wrote, “If you don’t answer your children’s religious questions, someone else will—and you may not like the answers they provide.”
Bobbie was a humanist in touch with spirituality, another concept UU parents struggle with. Bobbie defined spirituality as “a yearning for meaning and purpose, a connection to the rest of humanity and life on earth, a sense of existential wonder and mystery.” Enter the Nelsons' curriculum, Parents as Spiritual Guides.
For Bobbie, religious education and social justice were inseparable. In “Religious Education for Social Justice,” she quoted Victor Frankl: “We are doomed to failure if our goal is to find meaning in being happy. Happiness is the side effect of fulfilling the search for meaning.” For Rev. Nelson, meaning-making was the core of religion, calling us “to put that which I value, prize and cherish into action.” Social justice is “caught” not “taught,” she said. Therefore families and congregations must model both the risks and rewards of justice-seeking—and Bobbie demonstrated how, in the curriculum, Parents as Social Justice Educators.
Bobbie, who was way more spicy than oatmeal, served us all as teacher, preacher, trainer, advocate, activist, and denominational leader. She was a religious educator’s religious educator. Like Sophia Fahs, who applied early progressive theorists such as John Dewey to UU religious education, Bobbie Nelson shared with us wisdom from progressives of her time—Parker Palmer, Thomas Groome, James Fowler—enhancing the depth and relevance of UU RE. She knew what liberal religion could and should offer: the stuff of daily life as well as the spirit’s highest aspirations. She modeled living our values with a sense of urgency for the task, but also joy for the journey. I am so grateful for Bobbie’s journey with us.
Read the Bangor (Maine) Daily News obituary for Rev. Dr. Bobbie M. Nelson.
The UUA provides the Nelsons' six-workshop curriculum, Parents as Spiritual Guides, in PDF format to download at no charge. The authors wrote, "The family is as important in the development of the child's faith as it is in their emotional and physical development."
Bobbie Nelson's essay, “On Being Religiously Literate,” appears in Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion, edited by Dale McGowan (AMACOM, 2007).