By Shannon Harper
Working in youth ministry, supporting young people in their search for identity, voice, and calling, is at best incredibly gratifying. It can also be heartbreakingly challenging. Raising two multi-racial young women of my own is equal parts of both, and everything in between, sometimes all in one day! It is with them in mind that I hold in my heart all of our Unitarian Universalist youth of color.
Over the years I have witnessed the struggles to blend in and be accepted. I have witnessed the silence when another youth says something like "You're the whitest black person I know!" or "I think people in our generation have gotten over the whole racism thing." I know about not wanting to be the voice of every [insert your minority of choice]. But, I worry. Although I do not want any youth to have to be a spokesperson, I do want them to add their personal, unique perspective to the vital multicultural conversation going on in our faith.
Recently, traveling to Denver, Colorado for Finding Our Way Home, a conference for UU professionals of color, I was reminded how important this gathering is to my own multicultural identity in work that can sometimes be culturally isolating. Having a safe place to share and learn together; to have hard conversations and to encourage and console one another; to celebrate and become rejuvenated—the conference feeds my ministry and my soul.
But I also thought back to my very first Finding Our Way Home conference. At first, I wasn't even sure I belonged there. A fellow DRE and close friend had told me about it. Like me, she is multiracial, brought up in a predominantly "white" culture. We had shared in the past how our connection to our ethnic culture and heritage was "complicated." I wasn't sure, honestly, that I was really of color enough to attend a special conference. I even questioned why UU professionals of color needed a special conference at all. I already felt very supported by my colleagues in our local and national LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association) chapters.
Once I arrived though, it didn't take long to realize that not only was I exactly where I belonged but that this was what I had been yearning for without even knowing. I needed a place to share my experiences as a person of color in a faith community that is overwhelmingly of European descent. I needed to know that my story was not unique, that many of us struggle with finding our place in a world that wants to label and judge before they even talk to us. I needed to tell my story to people who would not merely acknowledge and give me sympathy but who would truly understand and could commiserate. I needed to hear their stories, which gave a context to my own struggles.
In the same way the Finding Our Way Home conference supports professional UU leaders of color working in our faith, the summer Multicultural Leadership School supports our young and future leaders of color. I feel so fortunate to be part of a faith that recognizes the need for a leadership school specifically for youth and young adults of color. Because, I believe, the more young people of color we have in our communities and the world, equipped with the confidence and tools to give voice to their unique perspectives and vision, the more honest and powerful our vital, Unitarian Universalist, multicultural dialogue will be.
The Unitarian Universalist Association holds an annual, summer Multicultural Leadership School, open to UU youth and young adults of color (people of African Descent, Caribbean, Native/American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latina/o and Hispanic, Middle Eastern/Arab, multiracial and multiethnic). The MLS is four-day gathering to deepen faith, lift spirits, and build critical skills for leadership, hosted on the Walker Center campus near Boston.
About the Blogger
Shannon Harper serves as Director of Religious Education at Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Dayton, OH. Her passion is encouraging and supporting youth leaders. She has served six years as an Adult Adviser and Religious Educator liaison on the Heartland Area Youth Council (previously Heartland District Youth Steering Committee) and more recently as a Youth Consultant for MidAmerica Region. Summer, 2015 will mark her third year on staff at Midwest Youth Leadership School and her first year working with GA Youth Caucus. Shannon and her family enjoy attending SUUSI (Southeast UU Summer Institute) each year where, you guessed it, she also works on Teen Staff. Shannon also teaches art to children and youth at a local community center and is mother to two lovely young women.