Better than Sunday school

At Chalice Camp in Oakland CA, campers wear T-shirts sporting the lyrics of the camp's blessing song.

Forty hours of Chalice Camp is almost as much time as kids would get in a full year of Sunday school.

Image: At Chalice Camp in Oakland CA, campers wear T-shirts sporting the lyrics of the camp's blessing song. (© 2018 Niall David)

© 2018 Niall David


On a sunny day in August, a few dozen Unitarian Universalist youth from the San Francisco Bay Area gather on a grassy clearing at Lake Temescal Regional Park in Oakland, California. As their colorfully decorated prayer flags flutter in the breeze below towering trees, the kids sing a blessing song, the same lyrics that are printed on the backs of their purple Chalice Camp T-shirts:

It’s a blessing we were born,
and it matters what we do. 
What we know about god is a piece of the truth.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
And we don’t have to do it alone.

The Unitarian Universalist Association recognized First Unitarian Church of Oakland as a 2017–2018 Breakthrough Congregation for its groundbreaking approach to religious education, and the weeklong Chalice Camp is at the heart of First Unitarian’s innovative program. Chalice Camp was created in 2003 as a supplement to the regular Sunday morning religious education program. Then in 2010, the congregation ended its traditional Sunday school program in favor of worship-based, multigenerational programming year-round and short-term, high-commitment RE during some parts of the year. Short-term programs include Chalice Camp, Our Whole Lives (owl), and the Coming of Age program.

Breakthrough Congregations

UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

The rationale for dropping Sunday school was practical: the church’s old model of weekly RE required an army of volunteers, and attendance was spotty—a high-attending child might make it to 50 percent of classes, but the average child made it only 25 percent of the time. Regular church attendance is especially a struggle on the Pacific coast, where religiosity is low. “With soccer games and birthday parties and overnights, the pressure is against attending church,” notes Chalice Camp co-founder Laila Ibrahim, the church’s former director of children and family ministries.

Parent Nicole Fitzhugh remembers feeling unsatisfied as a volunteer with the old, classroom-style RE program. “We were never getting a solid crew of kids coming through on Sundays, and when you see kids just once or twice a month, that’s not a way to build community,” says Fitzhugh, who is now the church’s children and family ministries coordinator. “It wasn’t super fulfilling for me as a teacher or a parent, and I could tell the kids weren’t really stoked about it either.”

Enter Chalice Camp. One day in 2003, Ibrahim was chatting over tea with the Rev. Sheri Prud’homme (now the Rev. Dr.), a fellow member of the church who later joined the staff. As children, Prud’homme and Ibrahim attended camp and remembered the magic of being immersed in an experience. They wondered if a UU summer camp might be more engaging to kids.

“Forty hours of Chalice Camp is almost the same amount of time that kids would get in a 55-minute class throughout the school year,” notes Ibrahim. “So we decided: let’s try this camp thing. It could inspire the connection and continuity that we think was missing from the Sunday program.”

With a grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism and support from the Pacific Central District of the UUA, Prud’homme and Ibrahim co-created the curriculum for Chalice Camp, which has since been sold to more than fifty other UU congregations across the country.

A new approach to Sundays

Chalice Camp was into its seventh season when the church decided it was ready to let go of Sunday RE. While it was a bold move, church members responded enthusiastically.

“Families wanted more time together, and children wanted to have fun at church,” Ibrahim says.

Now the church uses a hybrid approach to multigenerational programming on Sundays. Children and adults worship together for the entire hour once a month, including during holidays and other special events. On some Sundays, families spend the first twenty minutes together for the Time for All Ages, and then children depart before the sermon for the Spirit Art Room or Spirit Games Room. On other Sundays, the children gather for Children’s Chapel, when they focus on an age-appropriate version of the same theme the adults are exploring that week.

Multigenerational programming eases the transition of youth to the “adult” side of the church. “We want the kids to understand how to sing a hymn and how to hear a sermon, so when they’re in the sanctuary it has meaning,” Ibrahim says.

After the church adopted its new RE model, parents noticed an immediate change in how their children responded to church. “Our kids were really getting the spiritual themes,” Prud’homme says. “Their religious life came home more. It was part of family conversations. The music became part of what they were singing while doing their chores. Another thing that we noticed was that the kids really liked being at church. When they came to church they were seeing their friends and counselors from camp, and so when the church community gathered, the people who were part of Chalice Camp felt supported and loved.”

It also made the staff’s job easier. “We’re able to run a high-quality religious education program with a very part-time professional leadership, and for many congregations, that’s a real advantage,” says Prud’homme, who is now the church’s associate minister for faith development and an assistant professor at Starr King School for the Ministry. “My colleagues at other churches don’t universally love their jobs. Most of them are trying to organize a massive volunteer program. This model allows us to have more ease, more joy.”

And that joy extends to the kids, too. Church staff believe in the value of play, whether at camp or on Sundays. “I think our church is very understanding about children,” says Evan Fitzhugh, 12, a counselor-in-training who likes to hang out with camp friends and play at the church’s foosball table after Sunday services.

Intensive UU curriculum

About fifty people participate in Chalice Camp each year, including the elementary-aged campers, counselors, and counselors-in-training. While the campers are primarily from First Unitarian, the camp attracts a handful of kids from other Oakland-area UU congregations, and one flew in from All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., to attend this summer’s session with a cousin.

“Chalice Camp is really engaging for me,” says counselor-in-training Amber Deffner, 12, who attends the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, California. “I have tons of friends here, and it’s like home for me. My parents know that I need Chalice Camp every summer.”

Every camp day includes group worship time. Camp director-in-training Maya Ibrahim-Bartley lights their colorful chalice, which bears sixteen layers of children’s names accrued over the camp’s history. Together, the campers recite: “We light this chalice, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. May it remind us of the divine spark in all of creation. The power of love to heal what is broken. And to be grateful for life’s blessings each day.”

They sit for silent meditation, starting at two minutes and striving to reach ten by the end of the week. They lie down on the ground to listen to a guided meditation as a counselor drums a steady beat. They do a little UU call-and-response: “I say flaming, you say chalice! Flaming! Chalice! I say peace, you say justice! Peace! Justice! I say Unitarian, you say Universalist! Unitarian! Universalist!” A handful of older campers perform a skit about the history and meaning of Unitarian Universalism.

On the second day, campers are surprised when the staff, counselors, and counselors-in-training show up in superhero costumes. The day’s theme is “It matters what we do with our lives,” and the children trace around their bodies to create their own superhero figures and then discuss the everyday, ordinary superpowers they have to make the world a better place. At the end of each day, campers gather in small groups to fill out their Chalice Book, reflecting on questions such as “What is my purpose in life? Who and what is in charge? What does death mean?”

“Most camps are all about fun. This camp is also about deep conversations about who you are and what you believe,” notes counselor-in-training Lily Salazar, 13.

Chalice Camp alternates between two themes: UU History and Theology, which was 2018’s theme, and Identity and Justice. That means repeat campers get the same curriculum every other year, but the experience is different every time. “One of my criticisms of UUs is we really like new information, and we’re not repetitive enough,” Ibrahim says. “Truly, when the information starts to be meaningful is when they’re in middle school and high school.”

Chalice Camp organizers see that in their teenaged counselors and counselors-in-training, when themes from camp resurface as youth share their credo statements with the congregation. “When we heard a youth say, ‘My favorite UU belief is that no one is beyond the bounds of God’s love,’ which is something we talk about at camp, that’s when we knew it worked,” Prud’homme says. “They found a theological underpinning that actually informs how they live their life as a high schooler.”

The Identity and Justice camp focuses on racial justice. One year, as the congregation debated the wording of its Black Lives Matter banner, campers divided into caucus groups to discuss their thoughts on the issue. Several campers declared their most memorable camp experience to be “Blue Eye, Brown Eye,” an exercise that divides campers into one group that receives special privileges and another that doesn’t. The privileged group gets to eat cookies and play in the grass while the non-privileged group gets fruit and has to keep their heads down on the picnic tables. Campers sometimes organize their own protests in response to the unfair treatment.

Some families are less comfortable with the racial justice-themed camp, particularly parents of younger children. “But we said, we are going to talk about these issues, and we’re going to talk about them in the most loving, curious, open-to-the-pain-of-it way,” Ibrahim says. “And we may not have all the right answers, but we’re going to be humble while still forging ahead.”

Building community

The community-building is as important as the curriculum. As children arrive at camp, they dash over to hug friends of various ages, greeting fellow camp regulars along with new, nervous-looking kindergarteners whose camp T-shirts hang down to their knees.

“This is my favorite week of the year,” says Sara Leyser, 18, who was finishing her thirteenth and final year at camp before heading off to college. “It feels like coming home.”

The mingling across grades is one of the benefits of Chalice Camp: while the kids are organized by age into “circles” for some activities, there’s still plenty of time to get to know one another through whole-group worship and play.

During free periods, the campers race around, playing banana tag, red rover, and other games. Some kids drift over to the art table to make lanyards or other projects. One girl leans against a tree to read her book, while a group of boys creates a fort by festooning a tree with colorful elastic bands.

“It’s definitely one of the chiller camps I’ve been to,” notes counselor Sophia Killebrew-Bruehl, 17.

One challenge is that only about half of the church’s children and youth participate in camp. “There’s something about that intensive experience that stays with you—it becomes part of you in a way that any intensive experience does—and not all of the kids get that experience,” Prud’homme says.

The campers who do attend are deeply committed, however. Counselor-in-training India Miller-Morton, 14, hopes next summer’s Chalice Camp won’t conflict with her family’s plans to take a one-month trip to Europe. If forced to choose, she says she’d rather attend Chalice Camp. “I love the people and the welcoming community here,” she says. “It’s the highlight of my summer.”

Do your homework. “Consult with a congregation/staff that has a successful track record,” recommends the Rev. Jacqueline Duhart, parish minister of First Unitarian Church of Oakland.

Begin slowly. The Oakland church started its Chalice Camp years before it phased out Sunday School. “Do not let your fear or anxiety deter you because it is worth it,” Duhart says.

Charge for participation. To increase families’ commitment, Chalice Camp charges a similar fee to other day camps in the area, while still offering need-based scholarships so no one is turned away.

Pay camp counselors and staff. “If you use volunteers to do this, then you don’t have that continuity, and the continuity is a huge part of it,” says Chalice Camp co-founder Laila Ibrahim. “If you have somebody new trying to figure it out each year, it doesn’t work well.”

Give it time. It may take awhile to adjust to being a more multigenerational congregation on Sundays. “Multigenerational communities can help us see differences as normal and beautiful,” says Duhart. “First, learn how to cross all kinds of borders. Second, learn to accept feeling uncomfortable until you feel comfortable. And third, dismantle your internal walls to nurturing genuine relationships and working for justice.”

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