A Living Bridge

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

The hilly state of Meghalaya is in northeast India. Meghalaya means “the abode of clouds” in Sanskrit. In this area the monsoons are extraordinarily heavy. They are so heavy that the rivers running through the valleys grow wild and unpredictable. The rivers become impossible to cross. 

So centuries ago, the villagers crafted a solution. They planted strangler fig trees on the riverbank. Then they coaxed the roots of the strangler fig tree across the river. They coaxed those roots until they eventually took hold on the other side of the river. The roots were slowly woven and bound together over time. By doing so the villagers created a sturdy, living bridge that could withstand troubled waters. A bridge that could withstand the deluge of those summer monsoons. 

The labor of creating a living bridge can’t be completed in any one individual’s lifetime. So the knowledge about how to coax and bind the roots has to be passed on from one generation to the next, to each successive and younger generation. In this way, the knowledge and ability to cross the monsoon laden waters is retained. And a network of living roots is formed. That network of roots creates bridges in the valleys of the villagers’ lives.

As a community of faith, we too are creating living bridges that can connect us side by side, gathering us, harvesting our power. Those bridges allow us to work and learn together, passing our knowledge across the generations. When tragedies strike, personal losses, outbreaks of violence, or ecological disaster, we need these supportive connections. We need them to share the passions and joys as well.

And of course a bridge is not a one way proposition. It is a practice of mutuality, in which knowledge and experience moves back and forth across age and other differences. Meaningful relationships and meaning itself are forged through that back and forth movement.

The work of nurturing such a practice is a collaborative participatory community process. It requires the fiery commitment of the entire congregation. And this morning I want to focus our attention on the multigenerational aspect of this bridge-building. 

Becoming a truly multigenerational spiritual community isn’t just a matter of having a diversity of age groups in our midst. We are so fortunate in this congregation to have infants, toddlers, elementary and middle school age children, youth, young adults, middle adults and older adults. But to be truly multigenerational church is more than that. It has to do with these age groups relating to one another, growing and living in faith through common experiences, service, and interactive sharing. (“Bringing the Generations Together: Support from Learning Theory,” Holly Catterton Allen, www.intergenerationalfaith.com/uploads/5/1/6/4/5164069/bringing_the_generations_together_-_allen.pdf)

Unitarian Universalism is taking a hard look at how well we are forging multigenerational connections and experiences. Our UU understanding is being informed by the way we have long organized Sunday morning, including religious education programs for children and youth. The current UU model of Sunday School came out of the 20th century. It has remained relatively unchanged since then. It worked well—or at least seemed to—for a long time. 

The long-standing Unitarian Universalist practice of segregating ourselves by age has had benefits and also unintended and negative consequences. Our religion is grappling now with those consequences. For one, UU children and youth have weak connections to UU and to their congregations outside of Sunday School. As high school seniors they bridge to adulthood through our bridging ceremony. After turning 18, they are asked to move from classroom-based participation on Sunday mornings, which they have long understand as the Sunday morning, to being in the sanctuary. 

Another challenge is that the current structure does not adequately address dramatically changing demographics, family structures, and societal norms. Finding volunteers to teach on Sunday mornings is more difficult than it used to be. Much more difficult. The number of available volunteers is just not there. And the volunteer pool is not sustainable long-term. It was different when one parent working outside the home was more of the norm for church families. 

Beyond these concerns, the pace of modern life and tendency we all have of over-scheduling is affecting families disproportionately in their ability to participate regularly—in church and in lots of other areas too. Plus there is incredible societal competition for the time of families. 

A decline in the number of children and youth in Unitarian Universalism is also of concern. A few numbers help tell this story. Since 2008, Unitarian Universalism has seen a slight decline in membership. Until 2018. That year there was a slight increase for the first time in a decade. However, religious education enrollment for children and youth began dropping in 2002 and continues to fall. 

So for a decade, while adult membership has remained relatively stable, children’s religious education numbers shrank by 27 percent. In 2018 there were 148,242 adults and 40,269 children and youth. 

Several factors account for this drop, including the way we do church. Among them: a drop in the birth rate, millennials not bringing children to church, and church attendance losing to competing demands such as sports and other activities, though those programs are also experiencing a decline in participation. (“UUA membership rises for first time since 2008. But children’s enrollment in religious education continues to drop.” Christopher Walton, 11/5/2018, UU WORLD, www.uuworld.org/articles/uua-membership-2018

Our congregation has continued to see a healthy number of children and youth, and in some ways has not experienced the kind of decline other of our congregations are experiencing, especially those in New England. 

However, for years our congregation has in fact seen a slow decline in numbers of children and youth even as we have often described those numbers as growing. 

There’s another consequence of our age segregation. And this is the one that troubles me most. It’s the relational one. It’s the weak bonds among the ages. Based on her research and analysis of faith formation in Unitarian Universalism, Kimberly Sweeney who is a credentialed religious educator says:

Knowing and being known by people of all generations needs to be an expectation of congregational life. There is clear evidence that young people benefit from multiple, sustained relationships outside of their immediate family. To grow up healthy, our youth need to be supported and known by at least five adults in addition to their parents or caregivers who are willing to invest time with them personally and spiritually. Very often Unitarian Universalist congregants report wanting more multigenerational experiences, yet they aren’t being given such opportunities with the young people in our congregations. Effective religious socialization comes about through embedded practices; that is, through specific, deliberate religious activities that are firmly intertwined with the daily habits of family routines . . . and of being part of a community.

We need multigenerational connections, but mainstream culture conspires to keep the generations apart and isolate them from each other. Our congregations are one of the last places in our society where people of all ages can come together.

I hear again and again from adults in this church that they wish they knew our children and youth better. 

The need for these intergenerational relationships is reflected by Toko-pa Turner in her book Belonging. Turner is a Canadian author. She says that every one of us needs elders—not merely people who are older but people who have remained committed, who have made belonging in community integral to their lives, and who have made invitation central to their commitment. As she says, 

an elder is someone … who has … made an invitation of their lives to the young ones growing up around them. . . . elders value inner development. They are curious about others, generous with their listening, and invested in helping young people stay on course to reach their potential. . . . The magic of the relationship between elder and younger is its mutuality. . . . While the younger person is given that sense of being cared for and looked after by someone . . . who expects them to grow into their best self, the elder is venerated as a carrier of wisdom at time when they most long to be of service.

One of our cherished Unitarian Universalist values is connection, interconnection. We care about relationality and about sharing our stories, ensuring that each of us knows and is known by others in community. The realities of contemporary religious life invite us to explore new approaches to how we are building these connections across age. 

This doesn’t mean that this congregation needs to throw out our religious education program or the way we do worship or the ways we gather in community. But it does mean that we need to continue to explore and experiment, to form living bridges that can deepen our experience of each other. We have been trying out different practices for several years. Have you noticed?

One of the areas we have been exploring is worship life. A longstanding practice is to have the children remain in the sanctuary for the first 15 minutes and then be dismissed to developmentally appropriate classes mostly by age. We also have all ages services. We will continue to do both of these, while also experimenting with some new ideas. 

For example, we created an activity nook at the back of the sanctuary to be responsive to the needs of the youngest in our midst. Have you taken time to look at the resources and notice how the children use that space? 

The choir has become all ages all the time. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when children or youth sing as a group, but our singers no longer huddle by age. We have also welcomed the instrumental musical talent of children and youth throughout worship throughout the year. 

For the past several years, our youth have been attending at least one worship service a month in addition to having their youth group programming. Last year’s coming of age program with adult mentors paired with youth was a wonderful model of multigenerational interaction.

For several years, we have also experimented with interactive all-ages worship services. Some of these have been more successful than others. Last year we increased the number of them and then we recognized that for our youngest ones (and for their parents) there needed to be some kind of programming for part of that time. So we made a shift mid-year.

This year our ingathering water communion ceremony will include a time for sharing in multi-age small groups. The intention is to provide a chance for adults and children to interact and hear each other.

Another new effort comes from our caring circle. Last year they began sending birthday cards to children and youth registered in the religious education program. This is not perfunctory. When a member of the caring circle is sending a card and doesn’t know the child, they try to identify them in church and learn something about them.

The kinship we long for with those of other ages doesn’t just happen automatically. The circle of kinship we are striving for requires that we take risks, have a sense of humor and openness, and that, if necessary, we be willing to change the way we are together. 

This morning I want to leave you with a challenge for the coming church year. Be like the villagers who learned to guide the strangler fig tree roots. Be an elder. Begin to thread two new bridges this year. Strive to make two new connections at church from two different age groups. 

In other words, get to know a child and also get to know an adult of a different age than you. Feel free to make a lot more connections than this, but my challenge to you is that you be very intentional with at least two people of other ages. 

Will you accept this challenge? If you are willing, I’d like to hear from you about how it is going. I’d like for us to come back together in a worship service in the Spring and share our stories. 

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.

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