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Finding, and shaping, a religious community

By Michelle Richards

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Participating in a religious community can help parents reinforce the values they want to teach their children in part because those values are perceived as more important if they are backed up by a group—particularly one with a strong tradition behind it. There is also a strong sense of comfort and security which comes from being in a place and belonging to a group where there is a shared belief in core values. ``

In particular, parents who are raising their children as freethinkers and spiritual seekers need the support and encouragement that a beloved church community offers. A strong religious community serves as an extended family for many people who do not have support systems nearby. This is an essential need for families and parents who sometimes feel they are doing it all alone and doing it differently from many others around them.

Likewise, families who do not fit the idealized two-parent family or the traditional one-man-plus-one-woman family unit are also accepted and affirmed in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Here the phrase “family values” means that all families who love and strengthen one another have value in their connection to one another.

Among this community of like-minded people, our children can feel acceptance and affirmation of who they are and what they believe. For some children and youth, a Unitarian Universalist congregation may be the only place where they can find this acceptance. Non-believers in particular face a world full of prejudice and isolation; as do people who identify bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, or questioning: Here they can be themselves without parsing their words and choosing battles.

Because of all this, it is extremely unfortunate when families seek to participate in a religious community but feel excluded in some way. Since all Unitarian Universalist congregations are different, and if your family has access to more than one church home in your area, perhaps with a little searching, you can find a better fit for your family’s needs.

If not, then it may be up to you to get involved and do what you can to make the community near you into one that you can feel comfortable being a part of. Healthy congregations—and Unitarian Universalist congregations in particular—are not made merely by effective professional leaders. It is the active involvement of the individuals at the heart of the community that make it the special place that it is.

Several years ago, when my middle school–aged daughter balked at attending church, I felt a great deal of dismay. Just when she needed her church community the most, it that seemed she didn’t have a place to feel at home. However, after talking with another parent whose same-aged daughter was not attending, we discovered that they felt uncomfortable participating in the youth group, which was dominated by older high school–aged youth. We joined together with a third parent whose daughter had also stopped attending and offered to lead a middle school youth group program with curriculum on Sunday mornings and periodic social events such as movie nights.

The three girls who started the group bonded and have moved on to be a part of what is now the senior high youth group, a larger and yet still tightly knit group. It would have been easy to just dismiss it all and say the church had nothing to offer our girls. But we wanted something more for them, and we made it happen. At times like these, it may be necessary for us to step forward and, as Gandhi so gallantly taught, be the change we want to see happen.

For simply being part of a religious community that encourages curiosity and invites an ongoing quest for deeper understanding offers our children and youth an atmosphere to thrive and develop themselves in faith and spirituality.

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