Nine of ten Unitarian Universalist youth leave the faith, according to the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, cited in UU World. So when I tell you that I am the coordinator (more like church liaison) of a vibrant and active young adult group, it may not surprise you to hear which word that I would use to describe most of its members.
The word applies to different people in different and sometimes multiple ways. There are transplants to Seattle and transplants from different faiths. Sometimes both meanings apply. To my knowledge, almost all the people who were raised UU, and who have been active in the group the last couple years, are from some faraway land such as Nebraska or Indiana. And when I say “almost”, there is only perhaps 2 people out of around 35 I can think of who is from Seattle. I am under the impression we are not unique. As I understand it, many people who came to the church were seeking a combination of spiritual and community fulfillment. We do our best to make that happen.
I am a transplant in both ways. My native land is in upstate New York, and my native faith was Roman Catholicism. I migrated to Unitarian Universalism and have been UU about four years. I elsewhere wrote about my journey. The irony is that becoming Unitarian Universalist made me a better Catholic. It is a closer model through which to love others like Jesus loved. It is my suspicion that Jesus would see the Catholic church as another institution of the Pharisees. Finding a UU church was like a breath of fresh air, where I could finally live like I felt I was called to. I could support non-heterosexuals, lead and be female guilt free, and explore this beautiful world as I felt led to. The minister was fantastic. The people were warm. There were not too many folks my age, but it did not matter. I felt like I had come home, and the radical love really was lived out. The older folks really took me under their wing and let me lead and fail. (It also turns out that volunteering to wash dishes when you first arrive can make you quite popular.) I am so grateful to them, and for those experiences. I owe my current church for the fact I have friends in Seattle, that I have roots, and spiritual grounding. I have much to appreciate; I am grateful. Some of the richest experiences I have had were multigenerational ones: another post for another time. The congregational life has meant so much to me.
In the last couple years I have taken up a greater role in online Unitarian Universalist young adult communities, and tried to take on more leadership. The folks are usually fantastic, and I feel blessed to know them. My participation has highlighted to me that there is a divide between natives and us converts. Frankly, it can feel like we belong to different faiths as the experiences and priorities seem so divergent. I first noticed it in the discussion of the YA demographic dearth. I read UUpdates in the morning, and sometimes I find myself both furrowing eyebrows and sipping coffee as I read something which supposedly describes the needs of a Young Adult Unitarian Universalist. These pieces sometimes read as though they are describing a group I do not belong to… minus the fact that I, too, am a Young Adult Unitarian Universalist. That is OK, radical inclusion means that one is not guaranteed to fit in.
For instance, to take part in the national conversation, I needed to learn a new language. It is a vernacular of treasured experiences that us converts do not have, nor can we go back in time to live them. Cons? Huh? Cons? The vibrant discussion about them might as well be in Latin, as I cannot relate to the enthusiasm. I am still trying to figure out what each ingredient is of the UUYA acronym alphabet soup. JPD? OPUS? YRUU? Some folks have been really terse with me for my unfamiliarity, as if I clearly should have known. Heaven forbid the fact that acronyms are inherently exclusive. UU Polity? What? I struggle with the projected importance of this human institution as much as I struggled with my previous one. It is, after all, simply human. It is not like I can could afford to attend General Assembly anyway. When I say I am UU, my participation is mostly my brick-and-mortar church.
I struggle to relate to our religious education programming as a foundation of community. It is so different than the one I grew up with. It seems to emphasize individualism and self reliance. That’s is OK, but why are we then shocked at how high our attrition rate is relative to other faiths? My religious education as a child emphasized doing things “right” (good old ten commandments and the example of Jesus loving the outcasts), of course, but it also aimed for us to discipline ourselves into the tedium of being a member of the community. Yes, there is a lot of social control. We UUs hate that, and it’s fair to be suspicious. There is also a valuable imperative to learn, as a small child, to sit through the services, though they may be dull, and understand the best you can, though they are talking about adult topics. I am continuously surprised that UUs do not bring their kids to services, feeling the service inappropriate for them. Really?
The irony is that Catholic education taught me the skills and values to partake in UU congregational life. I could adopt the UU principles so easily because I already had learned them before I knew what UU was. They are not exclusively ours. Heck, even Universalism is picking up among evangelicals. The additional irony is that the UU religious education, what you may presume to be more authentic, seems to inspire most to leave the community. I often feel marginalized in these conversations, like I am somehow less UU for not having that experience and not “getting it.” This is despite the fact that I actually participate in the only unifying thing we have: our congregations.
The truth is that no, I do not get it.
Much of the conversation about the lack of young adults discusses how we do not keep our youth. To the extent that she cares, I do not think that my mother is thrilled with me for leaving Catholicism (though I never doubt that her love is unconditional). For the curious, their attrition is about 33%. I imagine UU parents may feel the same about their kids leaving something they value. The irony for me is that I am the coordinator/church liaison of a group that exists because UUism figured out it was losing its children to the world, yet the majority of people who came to populate that group are also the least qualified to figure out how to retain the youth. Our sense of what the UU youth might be missing is from observation, speculation, and hearing from them. We lack direct experiences. Though I am helping to plan a retreat, I do not go to cons. The description of sexual freeness at cons struck me as some I would be *really* *uncomfortable* with, like it was unbecoming of a married woman, or at least this one who is writing, to attend. That I feel this way is likely a reflection of my inhibitions and background. I feel like admitting that is inviting a storm of criticism for not being liberal enough, or UU enough.
Seriously. Beyond that, the YA groups that do well are probably doing a decent job of meeting the spiritual needs of those who are there. At my church, that tends to mean meeting the needs of geographic and spiritual transplants.
A convert is like a migrant – they came here because they like it better than their previous residence. I love Unitarian Universalism. I am very grateful that I could transplant my spirituality and take root. With that said, I do not think that I know how to tend the roots of my generation who were born UU and then chose to leave our communities. Catholicism did not teach me those skills.