Sunday, June 19, 2005
Jonathan Franzen's youth group memoir.
It's not on-line, but if you still have your June 6 issue of the New Yorker, make sure to read Jonathan Franzen's memoir about his 1970s Congregational Church youth group, "The Retreat" (pages 74-83). I'll admit that when I was the youth minister — "high school youth programs director," to be exact — at a large Unitarian Universalist church in Massachusetts in the late '90s, I didn't have anything like the charisma of Bob Mutton, the seminarian who led "Fellowship" in Webster Groves, Missouri, from 1970 to 1973:
In churches the size of First Congregational, senior-high groups typically have thirty or forty members — the number that Fellowship had attracted in its first year. By June, 1970, when First Congregational hired Mutton as the new associate minister, the group's membership had doubled to eighty, and in the first two years of Mutton's ministry, at the historical apex of American disenchantment with institutional authority, it doubled again. Every weekday after school, church elders had to pick their way through teen-age feet in sandals, Keds, and work boots. There was a clutch of adoring girls who practically lived in Mutton's office, vying for space on his beat-up sofa, beneath his psychedelic Jesus poster. Between this office and the church's meeting hall, dozens of other kids in embroidered smocks and denim shirts were playing guitars in competing keys while cigarette smoke whitely filled the long-necked noda bottles into which everyone persisted in dropping butts despite complaints from the vending-machine company.
"I'll ask the youth minister to ask them again not to do that," the infinitely patient church secretary kept promising the company.
Kids from other churches joined the group for the romance of Arizona [where the church went each spring break to work on the Navajo Reservation], for the twenty-hour marathons of live music that the bus rides in both directions quickly became, and for the good-looking crowds that came to the acoustic and electric concerts that Fellowship musicians held in the church on Friday nights. The biggest draw, though, was Mutton himself. As the overplayed song then had it, "To sing the blues / You've got to live the dues," and Mutton's blue-collar background and his violent allergy to piousness made him a beacon of authenticity to the well-groomed kids of Webster Groves. Working with adolescents was notoriously time-consuming, but Mutton, lacking a social life, had time for it. In his simmering and posturing and cursing, he stood for the adolescent alienation that nobody else over twenty in Webster Groves seemed to understand.
Come to think of it, I had almost nothing in common with Mutton — except that I too was a young outsider in the upscale suburban congregation that hired me as a seminarian. But Franzen's memoir is so full of details and dynamics that youth ministers know well that I couldn't help but feel nostalgia. The trust walks, the bonding-through-crisis, the worried but grateful parents, the overnight retreats, the cliques, the awkward kids who discover self-confidence, the sensitive kids, the poets and musicians, the jokers, the tweakers, the burn-out, the passion — it's all there.
I lucked out: I worked with a group of dedicated and supportive parents who had grown their program with two advisers over five years before I arrived (and who have kept growing the program with three more advisers in the five years since I left); dedicated youth leaders who worked well with each other, with the adults, and with the church leadership; and a great group of kids — usually one or two dozen each Sunday night, with fifty to sixty active in one or another of our programs. At our final youth group meeting the week I graduated from seminary, I told the kids that the job had been the most rewarding work I had ever done. It was.
P.S. Chuck Currie will be pleased to see that Franzen's adviser was an Eden alumnus.
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 19 June 2005 at 11:40 AM