Tuesday, May 31, 2005

End of a chapter

I became a Unitarian Universalist youth advisor in 1997.

Nearly every Sunday during the school year, I sat in a room with anywhere between 5 and 25 teenagers and basically watched them interrelate and sort themselves out spiritually. Once a year they'd do something like run a worship service for the entire congregation. Several times a year they'd have a sleepover at the church. Which is a misnomer, because generally I was the only one who slept, and that wasn't much. And three or four times a year, the other advisors and I would take a few carloads of them to Buffalo or Schenectady or Albany or Ottawa or Rochester or Ithaca and spend the weekend with anywhere from 50 to 150 teenagers and the adult advisors who made the trip, whether out of love or duty or being worn down by begging.

Then three years ago I took on the youth coordinator position for our district. Which meant all the same stuff as before plus 4 more weekend meetings a year, and the opportunity to work with some of the most involved and dedicated youth and adults.

Both within my congregation and for the district, being an advisor meant taking on many roles. At various times I've felt like a counselor, a babysitter, a confidant, a conscience, an irritant, an ally, a nag, a a defender, a critic, a therapist, an audience, a teacher, a listener, a parent, a friend. I've felt years younger and generations older.

The expression of my religion, my spirituality, became one of service. My mission was to provide a safe space in which these kids could explore what it meant to be human in the world, free of dogma and largely free of judgement. And as they grew, so did I. I learned more about more kinds of diversity than I realized had existed. I learned about racism, but also sexism and heterosexism and ageism and classism and other intolerant isms so abrasive to a young person's soul. I learned when to lead and when to let go. I learned that an adult can intellectually bully a teenager without even realizing it. I learned ways to worship that are both meaningful and powerful. I learned how important and necessary it is to (as the Magic Schoolbus' Miss Frizzle used to say) "take chances, make mistakes, get messy."

In 1997, I attended my very first district youth event, a leadership development conference at May Memorial in Syracuse. That's where I was first exposed to the concept of youth empowerment: adults sharing their power with youth. That "power shared is power multiplied". That experience helped define a role and relationship with youth that would last for years.

This past weekend, I attended my last district youth conference. Of course I hope to drive my kids to their cons when they're old enough, and I do have one more district committee meeting next week, but this was basically the end of my involvement with the Young Religious Unitarian Universalist program. It was fitting that, once again, it was held at May Memorial. Two very impressive young folks successfully staged an event that I had very little confidence would ever take place. An event that managed to be innovating (a day at the beach?) while still meeting the demands of tradition. It was humbling but refreshing to realize there's still so much I need to learn.

Following a very tearful service recognizing those youth who would be leaving the community, and the very joyful call for ice cream that dried most eyes effectively, I had a chance conversation with one of the graduates who I've had the good pleasure to work with. She reminded me that I don't have to mourn that this stage of my life is passing, I can appreciate that it happened and look forward to what's next.

A lot of the time it wasn't easy. At various times, my involvement with UU youth exacted a price from my family, my relationships, my patience and my health. But I can say without hesitation that, knowing what I know now, I'd do it all over again. And I'd probably make a whole new variety of mistakes in the process.

So to all the people who have helped support me, and all the youth who helped feed my spirit while I was supporting them, I say so long, and thanks for all the fish.


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