We must help Unitarian Universalist children and youth engage deeply with a variety of faith traditions.
Four youth participants in the UU College of Social Justice's inaugural National Youth Justice Summit, an intensive social justice retreat during the second week of July 2012. © 2012 Evan Seitz/UUSC (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Unitarian Universalist parents are uniquely poised to raise children who are religiously literate in many faith traditions, can speak truth to misinformation, and unite others like they have done for generations as part of the comprehensive sexuality education received through programs like About Your Sexuality (AYS) and Our Whole Lives (OWL).
Many of them are raised from young ages to explore diverse religious traditions through stories; curricula which has them visiting other churches, synagogues, and mosques; and a chance to build their own theology amidst the Sources of Our Living Tradition, which comes from (among other things) our Jewish and Christian heritages, the sacred texts of world religions, and the teachings of science.
What our world needs now are parents who are willing to raise their children and youth to become interfaith ambassadors. This means starting when they are young and sharing stories from many faith traditions in the home. You can find many great resources for this through the UUA bookstore, including one in particular which can offer an alternative view from the media’s presentation of Muslims: the storybook Muhammad: The Story of a Prophet and Reformer.
For older elementary or middle school students, you can continue to expose them to lots of stories from different faith traditions, but you can also orchestrate opportunities for them to have firsthand connections with people who share a different faith. If your congregation does not have immersion experiences as part of its religious education rotation, you can ask that it be added. Or, consider organizing a visit to a synagogue, mosque, or other faith community in your area.
Although Muslims usually gather on Friday afternoons for their weekly services, in many areas they still offer religious education on Sunday mornings. Having an opportunity to visit the mosque, ask questions, and sit in on a religious education program gives children a chance to actually get to know people of another faith tradition, moving the abstract idea to a concrete one. And seeing how rigorous the religious education program is for children attending the mosque might help them to also appreciate their own church programs!
Of course, arranging for a visit without having some context for that faith can backfire. Letting children know what is considered proper behavior for that space and that they are in effect serving as ambassadors of their own faith tradition is important. Understanding traditions and rituals of the other faith tradition is a must so that a child is not surprised by the activity that they will witness there—like understanding the way Muslims pray with their whole bodies and women cover their heads with a scarf as a ritual of sacredness.
In fact, it can be a real learning experience for a young teenage girl to drape herself in the hijab for the immersion experience in worship. And having this experience can also invite her to express thoughtful questions of the young people who attend the mosque for religious education classes.
Older teens can benefit from an even greater immersion experience such as engaging in an interfaith trip to another country or a service learning journey through the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice. Or if money or other issues are an obstacle to traveling for an immersion experience, engaging in interfaith work in your home community can get your youth involved in a lifetime of service. Interfaith work involves working with leaders and members of different religious faiths in order to promote greater understanding and respect, and to break down the barriers which could lead to prejudice and distrust.
Parenting as Unitarian Universalists does put us in the position of being able to raise children to be interfaith ambassadors. But it does not guarantee it. We must be ready to walk our talk and hold true to our Principles—including working for a more peaceful world with justice for all.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).
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