Imagine a cast of characters that you might meet at any UU congregation: a healthcare provider, a married couple in tech, a university administrator, a gluten-free recipe wizard, and a social justice advocate. Now imagine them under age 35—that’s us, the young adult community at First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn. We met five years ago at coffee hour and became fast friends, making plans to explore our identities, our faith, and New York City.
Late one evening in February 2013, we gathered in Grand Central Station, as rumors abounded that Philippe Petit planned to walk a tightrope across the ceiling at midnight in honor of the station’s 100th birthday. While no fancy footing occurred that evening, this adventure, and others like it, built bonds of friendship among an ever-growing group of young adults. We were on to something.
While an informal young adult group had existed for some time in our congregation, we discovered that basic structure, a Facebook group, and a commitment to warm hospitality opened the door to the many young people living in Brooklyn. Young adults, typically aged 18–35, attend worship because, like people of all ages, they seek community where they can forge bonds, explore personal beliefs, and practice their faith. We now have more than 200 young adults interested in our community.
Our monthly brunch went a long way to building reliable community in a big city where it can be hard to make meaningful connections. Most months, about twenty-five to thirty of us take over an affordable, child-friendly diner. Over spicy breakfast burritos and whipped cream covered waffles, we have conversations about the service, a good book we’re reading, or #aboutlastnight. It is also an opportunity for us to identify participants who can volunteer to lead other get-togethers: planning an outing to an Andrew Bird concert in the park, or an idle comment over coffee quickly turning into a Facebook event, all done inside the diner.
As de facto leaders in our burgeoning group, the two of us did a lot of thinking about how to deepen the experience of religious community for our members. One of us works in public policy and the other in healthcare, so listening to and connecting people to resources are our fortes. We heard some young adults looking for more opportunities to discuss faith and religion among peers, which they felt would help them to participate more deeply in broader congregational life. The same questions kept arising: “What’s the difference between religion and spirituality?” “How can I better live in accordance with my ethics?” “How do I ‘come out’ as a churchgoer on a date?”
Young adults may not say what they need directly because they may not know themselves, especially if they lack experience in a religious setting. Having both grown up UU, we realized that we were better able to articulate our beliefs, and that our friends needed space to learn, share, and grow together. We dreamed up Reflections, a monthly weeknight potluck where we would prepare a reading and facilitate discussion. Our senior minister, the Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons, agreed to attend to provide insights and guidance.
Reflections has become one of our most popular events: it’s a religious laboratory, where young adults can facilitate or participate in a broad range of experiments about religion, spirituality, and Unitarian Universalism. Two years had themes, responding to requests to focus in on the Seven Principles and on the “big thinkers” of Unitarian Universalism, but the other two years covered a broad range of topics.
One of our most memorable evenings focused on prayer—what it is, why we do it, and how we do it. We ended the discussion with a silent meditation to contemplate a personal prayer, followed by an open invitation to try it out loud for the group. It was scary, moving, and instructive. It helped us to improve our relationship with our faith and with each other, and it situated us as a specifically religious group of young adults within a larger faith tradition.
It took work to establish Reflections as a monthly event. At first, the two of us did everything, but now after four years, rotating facilitators and various volunteers enable it to run smoothly. We continually think about who would be a good new leader, as our core participants can change from year to year. It’s always hard to say goodbye, but lovely to see our friends take what they’ve learned and become congregational leaders across the country.
While a young adult group may facilitate comfortable entrance to a congregation, we believe that our congregation’s strong commitment to authenticity and radical hospitality has helped young adults feel welcome and engaged about their spiritual journey by members across age brackets. Over the past five years, young adults have become increasingly woven throughout the fabric of our congregation: they are lay leaders, religious educators, committee chairs, activist leaders, and choir members.
Intergenerational friendships are one of the blessings of active participation in a congregation. In fact, some young adults attend because they seek community with people of all ages. Our partnership with the Women’s Leadership Alliance, for example, has helped us learn from each other about evolutions in feminism and offered opportunities to develop unique friendships and mentorships.
We have loved our work building young adult community, but we recognize this volunteerism is pastoral work that takes time and energy outside of our intensive careers. It requires sensitivity, compassion, and persistence, as well as strong knowledge of congregational resources. Many young adults come to our congregations new to religion or Unitarian Universalism, others are scarred by past experiences with religion. We help them to learn about faith, how to plug in and participate, and the rewards and responsibilities of membership. We hold events on stewardship and finances, and quantify the feasibility and commitment of pledging. This work has brought deep friendships and a sense of accomplishment; it also can get heavy or time-consuming. We’ve learned that leaders may need to take a step back for self-care.
As we ourselves become older young adults, we are thinking about how best to pass the torch of leadership and continue to serve our congregation. Cultivating future leaders is an ongoing practice. A number of the original group members no longer attend our congregation—they’ve left for other parts of the country and different UU communities. But because we figured out how to identify and activate the strengths of our existing group through careful listening and leadership development, we’ve been able to sustain its energy.
It is our collective responsibility to nurture young adult community to help grow and sustain vibrant congregations. We’ve succeeded because we listened to our peers with intention and built a responsive, religious community in which young people could make friends in a big city, explore our faith, and connect with older adults, children, and social justice movements. Many are now active members and are becoming innovative congregational leaders who help us put our beliefs into action.
Our cast of characters may change, but the mission is clear: we are building a broader web in our community of ambassadors who can carry the flame of our faith and build our broader Unitarian Universalist movement.