Lifespan Religious Exploration
Pictured here is a Cottonwood Gulch colleague, Lin Robinson, hiking through the slot using a nontraditional strategy. This photo was taken by Jenna Perelman.
Theology of Joy and Play
There are so many blessings from my time as an outdoor educator and trip leader in the American Southwest that I carry with me into UU Lifespan Religious Exploration. Primary is something we name a little differently in the outdoor education field but that is undoubtedly a theology of joy and a theology of play. I’ve never seen kids learn geology so quickly as I did when they got to navigate their way through this wonder of a slot canyon near Gallup, New Mexico, which involved shimmying through the slot with their backs pressed up against one wall and their feet against the other for about a quarter mile to the drop.
In fact, it’s not surprising that I feel like the pedagogies of outdoor education and religious exploration translate; the two share a lot of the same foundational thinkers and philosophies. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century education reformer John Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing and his focus on the whole child had a massive influence on UU religious educators like Sophia Lyon Fahs and Angus MacLean, and on the development of the outdoor education movement. And one of our famous Transcendentalist ancestors, Henry David Thoreau, also invariably influenced the trajectory of outdoor education through his commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility.
Doing ministry and lifespan religious exploration during a pandemic solidified to me the importance of what Karen Bellavance-Grace calls a “Full Week Faith.” Our children and youth this year did not need disembodied lessons on our UU principles or history. They needed spaces to process how their UU values were going to get them through this stressful and grief-filled time. They needed rituals strong enough to hold both lament and gratitude. They needed tangible coping and stress-reduction tools that they could take with them anywhere. They needed time not to learn more things but just to deepen their relationships, which hopefully would give way to vulnerability and, in the doing, the reminder that they were not alone. Oh, and they needed to have fun.
In the name of having fun, I led 4th Principle Improv Nights (grades 9-12) and introduced our DLRE to the phenomenon of “surprise Zoom llama visits” for Zoom meetings that might need a little boost. The DLRE, Roberta Altamari, then organized a day of LRE Zoom programs, during a pandemic low point, that had a succession of llama visitors.
In the name of reflecting on grief in an age-appropriate way, we read The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi in Family Worship (grades k-5) and talked about things we thought we’d be able to do this year, but haven’t gotten a chance to do yet. In the name of coping tools, I introduced “guitar mindful moments” to the k-5 group, which provides a structured and gentle entryway into mindfulness and meditation for this age cohort, and also plays to the strengths of those kids who have a strong musical intelligence.
Our Family Worship group (k-5) enjoys a surprise llama visitor to their Zoom meeting.
Parents of all the kids pictured here consented to this picture being published online.
Across the lifespan, the “Full Week Faith” model is still important. As such, at the church where I serve as intern, the senior minister, DLRE, and I offered adult education programs around ethics and decision-making in a global pandemic, trauma 101 and coping with its after-effects, contemplative practices for processing stress and grief, and sharing our UU values with the wider world.
Beyond pandemic ministry, over the years, some of the great joys of my ministry have included leading spiritual life-writing workshops for adults in downtown Boston, interfaith roundtable dinner discussions with college students, and youth service projects.
My personal LRE philosophy integrates Rev. Frances Manly’s perspective that religious education is about helping people become more fully human and Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley’s education-for-liberation perspective (see: Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education). I’ve also been influenced by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who believes that traditional schooling, at its worst, can reproduce oppressor/oppressed relationships which is why we have a moral imperative to cocreate learning experiences and outcomes with our learners. I eagerly await what may come of the anti-oppression LRE curricula within the “Promising Practices” program recommended in the Widening the Circle of Concern report.
This is all ultimately to say that my LRE philosophy is that the litmus test for effective religious education ought to be: are we growing a new generation of Unitarian Universalists into the liberation tradition of UUism?