The 1960s were a time of turbulent social change. Movements in opposition to the Vietnam War and for the rights of racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and other culturally marginalized groups grew alongside a youth culture that experimented with drugs, challenged social norms, and created new art forms and music.
Many young Unitarian Universalists were deeply involved in both the emerging youth culture and the movements for social change. One of their principal vehicles for engagement was the Unitarian Universalist youth organization, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY). LRY existed between 1954 and 1982 and was organized on the congregational, federation, and continental levels. Federations were groups of congregational youth groups that joined together to hold periodic conferences. Called rallies, or cons, these overnight youth-organized events lasted anywhere from a single night to a week or longer.
Conferences could be life-changing experiences for participants. They were almost entirely youth-organized and -directed and were often the first experience -LRYers had away from parental supervision. One former conference participant described the events this way:
Ask anyone who was involved in youth conferences and they will remark on the intensity of the experience. We were free from all social conventions and labels. It was an experience of revolutionary freedom that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Another member of LRY wrote about his conference memories:
...there was a feeling that years of experience were being compressed into a mere twenty-four hours. There was the getting out of a sleeping bag and discovering fields and the early morning sound of the stream and friends, real friends, stepping out with a shout of morning to each other. Here was everyone in a fresh world, free because we had made our own rules and were building our own society, if only for a week.
The freedom that LRY afforded meant that youth sometimes engaged in behaviors they might not have done under the watchful eyes of their parents or other adults. It was possible at conferences to shed social norms and sometimes, despite community rules to the contrary, experiment with sex and drugs. For some, these experiences were transformative. Others experienced them as unsafe, abusive, or damaging.
At least one intergenerational conference helped spark the 60s drug culture. A group of young Unitarian Universalist ministers calling themselves the Young Turks invited Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to a week-long conference in Asilomar, California. The Merry Pranksters travelled across the country promoting psychedelic drug use, non-conformity, and personal and societal transformation. (In the mid-1960s, substances such as the hallucinogenic LSD had not yet become illegal.) The presence of the Merry Pranksters at the conference quickly divided participants, largely along generational lines. There were those who were "on the bus" with the Merry Pranksters and those who were "off the bus." By the end of the week, some LRYers had experimented with drugs and the Young Turks had become convinced that Unitarian Universalism needed to be transformed to meet the needs of the younger generation. As a movement, Unitarian Universalism had taken a step closer to the counter-culture.
Incidents like the conference at Asilomar were rare. The majority of youth-organized events focused on youth empowerment and autonomy. Rule breakers and drug users were usually prohibited from participating in LRY events. For many participants, including former LRYer and recent UUA President Bill Sinkford, LRY "offered opportunities for leadership, empowered me, and offered me a place where I 'fit.'" It provided a community where young Unitarian Universalists could push the boundaries of both social conventions and their own developing personalities.
LRY was dissolved in 1982, and replaced by a new youth organization, Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU), which served Unitarian Universalist Youth for 27 years. In 2009, the UUA Board and General Assembly received the report of the Youth Ministry Working Group, a report that resulted from a four-year process of re-examining ministry to Unitarian Universalist youth. Among other recommendations, the report called for youth ministry that is spirit-filled, congregationally-based, robust, flexible, and diverse. Much has changed about Unitarian Universalist youth culture since the days of LRY, but youth still long to be part of temporary communities that invite and allow them to live Unitarian Universalist values. In local youth groups, at camps and conferences, at district and regional events, on social action or mission trips, or at General Assembly, the youth community, a temporary autonomous zone, can provide an important vehicle for growing faith and Unitarian Universalist identity.