UU youth emerging as leaders and catalysts
by Donald E. Skinner
Mandy Jacobson, part-time youth ministry coordinator at Paint Branch
UU Church, Adelphi, Maryland, remembers the Saturday night last fall
when the congregation was gathered for the annual canvass kickoff
An Irish band was trying valiantly, but without success, to energize
the crowd. Then 15-year-old Meghan Barnes, who had taken Irish dancing
lessons for years, got up with a little encouragement from her friends,
and began dancing.
The response, says Jacobson, was electric. "People began to
move and clap and sway, encouraged by one 15-year-old girl. It was
great. And, the next morning, Meghan lit the chalice and spoke about
how she hadn't been making time to dance for months, and that this
church helped her find that love again. It was such a moment!"
All across the continent UU youth are creating such moments. They
are leading worship services, engaging in social justice work, serving
on governing boards, and attending General Assembly in record numbers.
Not since the early '70s have as many youth, known collectively as
Young Religious UUs (YRUU), been involved as they are now. Here's
- GA '96 in Indianapolis included a "Youth Focus" which
attracted 300 youth, compared to 40 to 50 in previous years. Last
year 358 youth attended GA, almost 10 percent of total participants,
and this June the number is expected to be higher.
- Congregations are starting youth groups and involving youth in
intergenerational activities, including worship.
- Social justice activism among youth is growing. The annual protest
at the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Georgia, drew many UUs
last November, including about 30 youth. Many UU youth also participated
in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
"In many congregations youth are leading the way in social action
as well as new ways of worshiping together," says Kate Kidder,
Ft. Collins, Colorado, a YRUU Steering Committee member and youth
leadership trainer. "Youth also provide a great example of how
to form meaningful communities and create lasting bonds."
A UU social justice conference for youth, Tear Down the Walls: No
More Prisons, drew 50 participants in March in Washington D.C. Participants
dedicated themselves to mobilizing through YRUU and their congregations
on that issue.
All of this has meant greater visibility for youth. In June the UUA
Youth Office staff will add a third YRUU program specialist to focus
exclusively on social justice issues. Also in June, delegates to GA
will vote on adding a youth member to the Board of Trustees. Currently
there are two youth observers on the board. In addition, the Youth
Caucus at General Assembly will present one of the seven social action
issues -- prison reform -- which GA delegates will consider in June.
Each year delegates pick one issue as a Social Action Issue (SAI)
which is recommended to congregations for study and action for the
next two years or more. This will be the first time that youth have
proposed an SAI. "Before, we've primarily just reacted to the
ones that adults proposed," says Abbey Tennis, a YRUU programs
specialist in the Youth Office.
YRUU has a GA staff that includes a dean, chaplains, worship coordinator,
special events coordinator, and a working action manager to supervise
social justice issues. Youth, now a major presence at GA, add unexpected
moments. For example, last year when they discovered and helped a
homeless person outside the convention center and subsequently raised
hundreds of dollars for a local Nashville shelter, their benevolence
captivated GA and made its way into the local newspaper.
In 1995 the Board of Trustees commissioned a review of youth programs
at the request of the Youth Council of YRUU. The report determined
that youth programming was at its highest point in 25 years. It also
noted that keeping it strong required adult support. "A failure
on the part of adults to participate in that relationship amounts
to abandonment of the youth," the report said.
What determines why some congregations have youth groups and some
don't? Jennifer Harrison, UUA youth programs director, says, "Partly
it's demographics and partly it's how much a congregation makes the
effort to be youth-friendly. It does take a community to raise children
and youth. You can't do it in isolation in the basement on Sunday
About 35 members of the youth group, WUSY G, gather each Sunday afternoon
at the 368-member Winchester, Massachusetts, Unitarian Society. The
group is deeply involved in the life of the church. A WUSY G member
has a part in the church service each Sunday morning. Youth have an
annual Habitat for Humanity project, explore anti-racism, and serve
on committees. They organize the congregation's winter holiday party,
provide childcare, and expose adults to a broader range of worship
services. In turn, the congregation supports the group's social justice
activities, built a larger room for the group, and encourages intergenerational
"The group is an extremely important part of my life,"
says high school senior Barbara Seymour. "It's a place outside
school that we can define as our own. The church has really supported
us and I think we've improved the church. If it weren't for the youth
group I'd still be involved, but not nearly as much."
The youth group at the 560-member Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut,
has tripled in recent years, to 50 or so members. "I'm constantly
getting feedback about how wonderful it is to see the youth group
around the church," says Bob Perry, youth programs staff member.
"It's really dramatic when 20 of them are up in front, during
a Sunday service, or when 25 of them take up two tables at a fellowship
Perry attributes the growth to "committed, consistent, appropriate
adult advisors" and to youth having created a place that's comfortable
enough that they can work through the occasional rough spots that
Stacy Duffy is part of the youth group at The Peoples Church UU,
Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "It's a really strong community," she
says. "We do check-in every week and sometimes it takes two hours.
You can really get to know someone that way. That's what keeps me
A year ago the group aided in getting a nondiscrimination ordinance
passed in Cedar Rapids and helped the 226-member church become a Welcoming
Congregation to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Adviser
Rick Roehlk, who helped start the group 10 years ago, says, "The
group adds vitality to the church, as well as conscience, and an ability
to take a fresh look at things and be passionate about them."