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Liberal Religious Youth merged fifty years ago

Universalist and Unitarian youth organizations merged eight years before their denominations did.
By Deborah J. Pope-Lance
November/December 2003 11.1.03

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At my first youth group meeting back in 1966, we listened to Frank Zappa on vinyl and played “sardines” in the darkened church, a game of hide and seek where once a seeker finds the hider he or she must hide there too until everyone has found the tightly-packed bunch. Many who joined local Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) groups like mine were found there in ways that changed lives and, one could say, saved their adolescent souls.

Every Sunday night the group, drawn from three churches in Massachusetts, met with our advisor, Charlie McGlynn, a middle-aged state employee, father, and possibly the only person over twenty-five we trusted. Charlie let us run the group and—only when necessary—saved us from youthful errors in judgment. We sat around a candle in the church basement and talked about spirituality, sex, war, equality, freedom, responsibility, and the pressures and pleasures of coming of age in the late 1960s. Like other local LRY groups, we hosted coffeehouses and conferences, repaired low-income housing and protested the draft, and annually offered a Sunday service. One year, we conducted a funeral for the “death of God,” complete with casket and pallbearers. For many, LRY was our first experience in self-governance and self-expression.

LRY was formed fifty years ago with the merger of Unitarian and Universalist youth organizations in 1953—eight years before the consolidation of the denominations. Its history began with the Universalist Young People’s Christian Union in 1889 and the Unitarian Young People’s Religious Union in 1896, youth and young adult–led organizations largely independent from their denominations. LRY inherited this philosophy of youth autonomy and grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s into a spirited, politically involved, continental organization led by a teenaged executive committee and an adult executive director.

In 1969, LRY leaders decided that an executive director wasn’t needed. Meanwhile, poorly managed instances of typical teen behavior problems, adults who actively joined in, and LRY’s hippie image exacerbated distrust between adults and LRYers. By the late 1970s, continental LRY persisted, but many local youth programs had died.

To reverse that trend, in 1983 LRY gave way to Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU), the UUA’s current youth organization. At twenty, YRUU has blended a rich history of youth autonomy with a commitment to adult collaboration.

A recent twist of fate reminded me of LRY’s legacy. I became an interim minister in the church where I was once an LRYer. Now I stood every Sunday in the pulpit where my LRY group had eulogized God. I met with parents in classrooms where we had played sardines. I sipped tea after services in a hall where a candle and a community had held back the darkness. But there was no youth group. With help from parents, church leaders, the YRUU Web site, and a promise from me, their minister, to show them my favorite hiding places, a group formed. Now on Sunday nights, youth and their adult advisors gather for pizza and talk about things that trouble and mystify them. They play sardines and are found.


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