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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Coming of Age season: Let's party!

It's Coming of Age season in Unitarian Universalist congregations — the time of year when young teenagers enrolled in the Coming of Age program present their individual "credos" to their congregations. Religious educators, ministers, and others involved in the endless Unitarian Universalist bout of anxiety known as revising the Coming-of-Age curriculum will find Mark Oppenheimer's article about bar and bat mitzvahs in today's Boston Globe interesting. For instance:

The ritual's origins are impossible to trace; neither the concept of the newly vested boy nor the ceremony to honor him is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Most Americans, Jewish or Gentile, would be surprised to learn that the ritual seems not to have existed until the Middle Ages, and it was not celebrated with a party until about the 16th century. For most of the 20th century, few boys in the Reform movement, now Judaism's largest, even practiced the bar mitzvah. When my father, for example, was 13, his Reform temple in Pittsburgh offered only "Confirmation," a ceremony for adolescents loosely modeled on Protestant rites. (The lack of a family precedent may be one reason that, growing up in Springfield in the 1980s, I too never became a bar mitzvah boy.)

Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, spends most of his essay justifying the lavish bar/bat mitzvah parties people throw for their kids — a practice that influenced several very nice Coming of Age parties thrown by parents for the kids in the COA programs I led in a certain wealthy town near Boston — but one other paragraph will also interest Unitarian Universalists:

In Fayetteville, Ark., Jacob Newman celebrated his bar mitzvah with a potluck lunch in the Unitarian church. There's no synagogue building in a town with so few Jews, and even his guest list was overwhelmingly gentile. And there's not much money in Fayetteville, no cavernous banquet halls or expensive caterers. So he celebrated in a way fitting for his time and place. Had he lived in Newton, he might have done things differently.

Which is another way of saying that Unitarians probably do things differently in Newton than in Fayetteville, too.

What does Coming of Age look like in your Unitarian Universalist congregation?

("My Big Fat American Bar Mitzvah," Mark Oppenheimer, Boston Globe 5.22.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 22 May 2005 at 7:41 PM

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May 23, 2005 01:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

What synchronicity - I just stumbled in the door a little while ago from our COA festivities. As a DRE, Coming of Age in my congregation this year meant, among other things, logging rather more than 21 hours of work in rather less than a 33-hour time span. But who's counting? :)

It's all worth it because it's my very favorite day of the year. If ever I need someone to understand what religious education is all about, I just point them toward this service.

Our COA is a year-long Sunday morning program for our 8th graders, culminating in a Sunday worship service planned and led by the youth themselves, which feature credo statement that the youth have spent nearly half of the year developing, as well as a special Coming of Age ceremony to celebrate their rite of passage.

It's an intense program for youth, advisors, mentors and families, and this year's group of 8th graders were even more challenging than most. But something amazing happens every year - we start out in the fall with a group of kids who aren't so sure they like the idea of having to write credos, much less get up in front of the congregation and share them, and by the spring every one of them gets up there in the service and speaks from the heart about their beliefs, who they are, what they feel it means to be UU, and why they now are glad that they were asked to create those credos. And then they do it all over again for our second service! And the quality, as well as the variety of opinion, of their credos simply knock the socks off of every adult in the room.

The service culminates with a recognition ceremony in which the youth receive flaming chalice pendants. Which we then take away after the first service so we can give them to them again at the second service.

During the year, we make sure to cover a wide range of things with the youth - "Life's Big Questions," introducing them to lots of different spiritual practices, learning about how our church works and a little of our larger as well as local UU history, and then almost all spring is devoted to writing those credos and putting together the service. Each youth also is paired up with a mentor, an adult member of the congregation who is asked to do a number of things with the youth during the year: write their own credos and share them with the youth, take the youth to at least two church meetings or events during the year (particularly things that the mentors themselves are involved with - last year, for example, two of our board members were mentors), attend at least two of our monthly youth social outings, and work with the youth as they develop their credos. Many of our mentors attend the Sunday morning sessions several times during the credo-writing weeks, missing the Sunday service to do so.

And then, we finally get to the service itself - with two three-hour rehearsals a week before and the day before the service, and then showing up bright and early on Sunday morning ready to do it all twice. And COA Sunday is the best attended Sunday of the year in our congregation, something that makes me VERY proud. Our members get it. (Even though I do admit that the ranks are swelled somewhat by various family members and friends of the youth.) The sanctuary was so full during our second service this morning that we filled all of the extra folding chairs that were lining the rows of pews, had additional people sitting on the floor, more standing in the back, more behind them out the doorway craning to see, and some listening in from the relative comfort of the couches in the social hall.

And then, after it's all over, everyone heads out for a few hours and then gathers again, usually in the backyard of a home, for a family ceremony and celebratory dinner. In this ceremony, we create a fire pit, and arrange the youth in a circle with their parents standing behind them. The parents then have an opportunity to speak to their kids and share a prepared statement of their feelings/hopes/dreams/observations as their babies come of age. Many tears ensue. Last year, the parents also had secretly gathered letters to the youth from all of the important people in their lives and compiled them into books that were given to the youth at this point. And the ceremony closes with a ritual the kids love - writing things that the youth would like to let go of or change on pieces of paper and then tossing them into the fire, and then writing letters to themselves about things they'd like to remember about what their families said about them that will then be mailed to them at an unspecified date in the future. And then we hand out booklets with all of the youth's credos compiled.

And then there's dinner! Usually catered, at the families' collected expense. And, if there's a pool handy, swimming.

Whew! I hadn't expected this to be so very lengthy. But you did ask! And it's probably very clear that I love talking about this program.

I grew up UU, and I did Coming of Age myself as an 8th grader, in a program very much like the one we have here at the church I now serve. So I have a very strong emotional connection to this program that goes beyond my current role as DRE. I know there are lots of different structures, with a big range of ages, in COA programs in UU churches. But I just love our structure - the year-long Sunday morning program for 8th grade. It's amazing to see the youths' transformation from the beginning of the year to the end, and it feels right to place it at this age. In my previous congregation, we ran it with 7th and 8th grade, and 7th was just a little too young. It also serves as a lovely way to mark the transition into senior high.


May 23, 2005 01:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting, this widespread Jewish influence among American UUs. Perhaps more "Islamic Awareness" among us would be needed to reestablish balance in the Force?


May 25, 2005 06:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

My daughter's COA event was fantastic! The ceremony was held the first weekend in April,some photos here !

Our Fellowship hasn't had a COA program for a few years - the majority of teens had completed the program and the others weren't quite ready. We feel very lucky that Michelle was able to participate in this terrific program and event.

I have found it troubling to have to say "like bat mitzvah or confirmation" when explaining what COA is to non-UU folks. I find it even more troubling that the kids immediately rattle off that explanation. There should be a better explanation than that, shouldn't there?

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