Near the middle of March, schools in the United States were sending college students home due to the pandemic shutdown. But Kari Gottfried hadn’t heard from Wellesley College, the historically women’s college she attends in Massachusetts. Before students knew the school would close, they gathered one night to socialize. “That was one of the last times I remember being with other people,” she said. “The next day, we got the email. I immediately called my parents and said, ‘We’re going home.’ Then I burst into tears.” Gottfried, 19, a Unitarian Universalist emerging adult, had been appreciating her first year as a political science and religion major, as well as attending services at Sanctuary Boston. Now she was on her way back to Corvallis, Oregon, with no certainty when she would return.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, UU youth and emerging adults are figuring out their paths through unprecedented uncertainties. Gottfried readjusted her path to remotely work from Oregon as an intern with First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has given her insights on accessing congregations through virtual programs and services. “We’re thinking about ways to engage members of our community that don’t live in Ann Arbor. . . . This is what UU needs to survive.”
Akinyele Adebamgbe, 17, a youth from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, focused on completing his high school classes online, particularly studying for digital AP tests. Adebamgbe realized not having a set schedule or in-person social interactions could affect his motivation. Connecting with friends helped, as well as long walks or a run “to mix up the day enough to make sure I can get through everything else.”
Paige Cupp, 17, a youth from Hamilton, New Jersey, viewed the shutdown as an “opportunity for growth.” During virtual services at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, she presents reflections as a worship associate. She has also developed a Congregation Conversations podcast, interviewing people from UUCP.
Next year, Cammie Horne, 17, plans to study music therapy at Florida Gulf Coast University. Although she learns better in person, she doesn’t know if her classes will be partially or fully online. For now, she is home in Orlando, practicing the flute and learning keyboard.
After Middlebury College in Vermont closed in March, Aidan Wertz, 21, went home for two months to Haverhill, Massachusetts. Wertz returned to Vermont due to a summer sublet lease and started as a remote intern blogging for UU the Vote. He says the internship reconnects him with UU values as well as making him realize how this faith has shaped him.
Jennica Davis-Hockett, one of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s youth ministry specialists, observed that youth and emerging adults are “conscious about their own self-care.” Cupp started a vegetable garden. Gottfried teaches herself guitar. Adebamgbe and Wertz play video games. Horne listens to a playlist that includes “Spirit of Life,” “We Shall Be Known,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Still, the difficult emotions and experiences of the pandemic can test anyone’s resolve. “One of my friends passed away,” Adebamgbe shared. The pandemic had initially been about finding motivation for his online classes, but the loss of his friend and Black Lives Matter/anti-police brutality protests took his attention away from that. Cupp’s relative in another state was placed on a ventilator due to COVID-19. However, at the time of this writing, she was encouraged by his improvement. Wertz’s mother works as an emergency room nurse, so there was the anxiety of “arguably a much higher rate of getting infected.” When his mother’s hospital received better equipment, this brought calm. But it felt like “a very relaxed state with anxiety in the background.”
Horne acknowledged “negativity” when her high school graduation and bridging ceremony became virtual. Yet, she appreciated some online aspects, particularly when she recorded a flute performance of “Wake Now My Senses” for later use in her bridging ceremony at First Unitarian Church of Orlando.
‘The support used to process the stress at this moment is critical so it doesn’t have lasting effects,” said Davis-Hockett.
Supportive measures can include safe online spaces. Before the pandemic, the Youth Ministry Roundtable developed UUA Youth Safety Guidelines covering issues from “sleeping arrangements to training adult staff about boundaries to what to do in emergencies like are you calling the police. What are the other people we might reach out to . . . depending on what that emergency is?” said Sara Green, the UUA’s Youth and Young Adults of Color Ministry manager. When programs moved online, the Youth Ministry Roundtable created Guidance on Youth Safety Online offering information about adult supervision of online events, registration policies, and communication procedures.
Youth may find support with UU Faith Lab or Thrive Youth, which use the Mighty Networks platform. After Summer Seminary’s postponement until 2021, Davis-Hockett and other leaders developed Faith Lab. This online program explores UU theology, covenant building, and connection to other youth from July 10–31, 2020. It is offered on a sliding scale. Thrive Youth is a five-day in-person gathering for youth of color. This year, the event is online as a free monthlong series in July. Green, the staff lead contact for Thrive, observed that the pandemic and uprisings have shown it’s important for youth of color to “find a place of connection with their own stories.” Thrive Youth participants will connect with their stories as people of color first and then move towards “how do we show up in the world as Unitarian Universalists?”
Technology grants were available until the end of the fiscal year, and may be added to next year’s budget, said Davis-Hockett. These grants can also address accessibility issues for visually impaired youth by providing screen readers. UU programs can use Otter.ai to provide live transcripts for youth who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Youth are also creating their own support. Cupp and other youth have set up a national online UU youth network with Davis-Hockett. Events may include youth-led online worship and “church hopping,” which involves visiting congregations online then talking about it, explained Cupp. If interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’m not surprised, but I’m always refreshed at [youth and emerging adults’] resiliency,” said Green. But she also observed: “Can we create a world in which they don’t have to be this resilient? We can be in awe of these young people and also be responsible for the systems that require that of them.”