A Note About Gratitude

There were a couple years in which I felt particularly crafty.  I would print out blank cards with black and white chalices for my small children to color.  Or we would make chalice stamps out of sponges or reused Styrofoam.  The back of the card sported a simple chalice and the words:

Come recharge your spirit within our religious community.

<name of congregation>

<address>

<times of worship>

<website>

My children and I would keep these cards handy for times when we saw someone living out our Unitarian Universalist values and send them a thank you note.  Often we’d gather around the Sunday newspaper and search scavenger-hunt style for our values in action.  We’d make a list of people and note their good deeds or courageous decisions.  We’d look up their address, write a thank you note, and then pop it in the mail.  As our little project gained momentum we’d keep a stack of cards in our car and then leave notes in our wake whenever we were out in the community.

I noticed a positive shift in myself and in my children.  We found what we were looking for.  We found Unitarian Universalist values that we hold dear alive throughout our community.  And we started feeling powerful and supportive in our witnessing.

I figured these good vibes would ripple out in some way, but I had no idea of the impact magnitude until I was at a community gathering.  My towns mayor kept looking over at me throughout the evening and then final came over and asked, “Did I do something wrong?  Have I offended you?”

“What on earth?  No.  Why?”

“Well, everyone on City Council has received a note from you in the past year except me…”

I gave him a bear hug and assured him that my children looked up to him and appreciated his job.  I also made a mental reminder to send a note as soon as we could.

When the mayor notices, something is working.  Witnessing, appreciating, thanking is powerful and transforming for both the sender and receiver.

Religious Education is in the noticing and the appreciating.

Note:  If your social justice committee effort has become a checklist of issues, consider picking this effort as congregational justice making. It has real potential to breathe life and love back into a community.

Baby, tell me… I forget…

At the time I was pregnant with my first child I was also a caregiver for people living with AIDS. My husband and I had been the Tuesday night volunteer team for three years in a row. We passed out medications on schedule, changed bandages, made dinner according to dietary restrictions and cravings, logged behaviors and were present.

Three Cedars was an extraordinary place in the early 90s in that there were only four paid staff members and the rest of the 30 member staff were volunteers. Six hours would go by without a paid staff member being on the premises.  I think it worked because we didn’t know it couldn’t.  It worked because we were pioneers with deep, deep compassion and commitment to loving people.

No one at Three Cedars ever asked a resident how they acquired AIDS.  We honestly didn’t care.  We wanted to know what gave them life, what gave them joy and then surround them in those elements.  We did our best to reunite families, but most times families were estranged and we created our own. There was such misunderstanding about AIDS.

This was at a time when medicinal cocktails merely prolonged life or diminished pain.  We insisted that people came to Three Cedars to live, but at that time, once someone came to us, we knew that they would die here in the safety and love our arms.  Our goal was to make that transition as dignified and humane as possible.

When I was a volunteer, we couldn’t afford to take any moment for granted.  Man, could we celebrate! We’d lie out a special feast for just about any holiday and even make up some holidays. Anything to lift spirits and get our boys eating. We got supermarkets and restaurants to donate their finest food in order to entice our residents to eat well. The medicines at that time made people so nauseous that eating was usually laborious.

We also changed wounds, inserted suppositories, changed diapers… nothing phased the seasoned volunteers. I could change a bandage of a herpes lesion without batting an eye so gingerly that the person receiving my care would only moan slightly in discomfort.

As I became more obviously pregnant it became harder and harder for me to change people’s diapers or perform the heavy lifting required of some bandage changes.  But I’d cheerfully waddle around passing out medications, reading to people, or cooking up gourmet meals. The men loved touching my belly.  I think most people fight back the urge to fondle pregnant bellies, but there was a special, delightful inhibition at Three Cedars.

One of the men had dementia and his mind regressed to that of a small boy’s was especially fascinated with my belly. Martin would rest his head on my roundness while I read him stories.  We would curl up like that for hours.  When the baby moved he would squeal and trace the movement with his fingers.

Dementia is a very individual process.  My great grandmother had Alzheimer’s for years before she died, so I was familiar with the symptoms. But each resident was different.  Some would get nasty and throw food at me if the order wasn’t right.  Some would wander from room to room not quite knowing what they were looking for.  Some would become involved in deep philosophical conversations but could never recall anyone’s name. And some would go through the entire disease never experiencing dementia at all. Martin regressed to the mind and emotional state of a child about the age of six.

Martin was about 6 feel tall and weighed about 110 lbs. toward the end of his life.  I had to play games with his food to get him to eat.  I would make smiley face pancakes and fruit salad in the shape of bunny rabbits.  If he finished his plate clean I’d give him an ice cream cone treat.

On Christmas Eve we couldn’t get him to stay in his bed. He was overly stimulated with the all the festivities. I was huge by that time and tired in my last trimester.  My husband sweetly offered to clean the kitchen so I could rest. But as soon as I’d settle down in my favorite chair with my feet up, I’d hear Martin over his intercom singing children’s Christmas carols.  And then I’d hear Cecil, the man next to Martin holler for Martin to "shut up, I’m trying to sleep."  I pattered up to Martin’s to tuck him back in and gently ask him to be a good boy and go to sleep.  This went on for three or four times and I was getting awfully exasperated.

Usually Martin went to bed after his bedtime story, but the excitement of Christmas Eve was too much for him. I heard Cecil holler for me to "Put Martin’s ass in Time Out" as I trudged to the top of the stairs one more time.  I took a deep breath before going into

Martin’s room.  I was starting to get ticked off and question my readiness for motherhood. I was seriously weighing the wisdom of putting Martin in Time Out.

I pulled open the door with determination. Before me was a grown man in a diaper sitting on the side of his bed, bouncing up and down an, clapping his hands. In a sing-song voice he was repeating over and over, "Santa Clause is coming! Santa Clause is coming!" absolutely beaming with anticipation.

All frustration drained through my feet. Here was a man abandoned by his family with a brain so simplified it didn’t even register the enormous pain in which his body was immersed.  Here was a boy waiting for Santa Clause surrounded by a makeshift family with presents under the tree fulfilling his list of Tonka trucks and Legos and a stocking filled with candy that I just knew he’d shove in his mouth as quickly as he could unwrap.

"Martin," I whispered, "Santa won’t come unless good little boys are asleep…" Martin gasped, cupped his mouth, and then leaped under the covers.

"Rub my back until I fall asleep," he begged.  Before he rolled over he kissed my belly. I rubbed and hummed a lullaby until his breathing was a steady, slow rhythm. I wasn’t far behind him.

Two months later I gave birth to a strong baby boy.  On the way back from the hospital my husband and I came to Three Cedars before even going home.  I wanted to show the residents my baby before he got all baby-germy and therefore became a hazard to the health of the residents.

Martin was still there.  Busy with a Lego creation.  He leapt up and ran over when I came in with the baby. He was fascinated with the bundle I was gingerly holding.

I’d never held a baby that small, and I still couldn’t believe it he was mine. The staff and residents were all gathered around admiring our first Three Cedars Baby.

Martin leaned in and very quietly asked if he could hold the baby. I held out the tiny bundle for him to take, much to the dismay of the staff who was giving me The Look.  In a sense I had just handed my newborn over to a 6 year old boy capable of 6 year old temper tantrums. Martin shuffled out of the room and into his room.  I stopped one of the staff who was going after him.  I bent my head to the monitor in the dining room.  We could hear Martin with the baby.

"Baby, tell me what it’s like.  I forget…. Tell me again what it’s like."  There was silence except for newborn grunts and gurgles.  We all held our breath. Martin came shuffling back out with the infant in his arms and handed him back to me.

Martin died within 24 hours peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him and respected him.


Religious Education happens when we stare horrible tragedy down and respond with graceful love and acceptance.  Religious Education is the transformation we experience when we leap into justice work with faith as our safety net.

Spark in the Dark

In honor of all the mothers today…

I was curled up with the boys reading bedtime stories.  We were snuggled up with Spark In the Dark, a creation story with beautiful, simple pictures.  The book begins with the swirling gases of the Universe coming together and forming planet earth. Water forms.  Plants form.  Animals form. Humans evolve.

Four-year-old Owen interrupted and asked "what is that state’s name again?"  Having grown accustomed to his tangential interjections, I didn’t blink an eye.  I named off all the states he’s traveled: Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Washington.  He shook his head...  I started to name cities he’s been to with notoriety.  Still no satisfaction, and he clearly had a specific place in mind, but the lateness of the evening was wearing on him.  Finally he said rubbing his eyes, "No, the place I was before I was born.  What’s the name of it?"

Clarity took hold of and quieted my confusion. "I’m not sure anyone knows the name of it for sure. Do you remember being there?"

Again, rubbing his eyes and yawning, "Yeah.  I liked it.  When do we go back?"

I didn’t know the answer until it came out of my mouth, "When we die, honey."

Owen, "That’s right.  I’ll meet you there."

And then he snuggled into my arms and went to sleep. I was left holding sweet Owen as he went off to dream land knowing that I was holding one of the greatest teachers I will ever know.

Religious connection, Religious Education started before we were born.  It usually entails simply bringing us back to ourselves, to our Source.

Power of Seven

I used to teach at a school where the attendance rate was dismally spotty at best.  Until Principal Harry came with his camera and his belief in the Power of 7.

At a staff meeting he passed out a roster of all the enrolled kids at school to each of us.  He handed me my packet with a wink.  My name was scrawled at the top and then seven students who were not my own were highlighted.  Each staff member got a packet:  the janitor, the bus driver, the teachers, and teacher’s aides. Everyone on staff.

The instructions were simple.  Be out front first thing in the morning when the bus arrives and greet each of your seven by name.  Welcome them with a smile. Tell them that you’re glad to see them.  At the end of the day be sure to say or wave goodbye and let them know you’ll see them tomorrow.  If you see them in the hall or on the playground or in the cafeteria acknowledge them.  Ask them how their day is going.  Sounds innocuous, right?

We saw positive results that we couldn’t deny almost immediately.  Not only was attendance much more stable, but the morale at school was on a steady incline, as well.  I noticed that staff started taking an interest in the classrooms where their Power of 7 spent their day. As a result staff started collaborating cross-classroom and cross-department more.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  I doubt it.

And another act, simple on the surface, shifted the spirit of the school.  Principle Harry started taking pictures of the kids.  Close-ups of big grins.  And then he’d blow them up to 11×17, laminate them, and hang them in the hall at student level.  Beautiful faces lined the hallways like the finest art gallery. Parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles started visiting the school just to take a look at their students’ pictures.   Kids would proudly point out their portrait.  New photos would go up on the wall and the former pictures would be brought home to grace students’ domestic walls.  The school began to feel like a joyful community center.

I’ve always wondered how this could translate into congregational life. What if the board, Committee On Ministry, Program Council, youth group – whomever you deem as church leadership were to divide you members of all ages up into lists of seven?  Each congregational leader would then be sure to greet their special buddies each Sunday and check in with them. How was their week?  How are they feeling about this religious community?  How is their life going?  And if one of their seven was missing, perhaps an email could be popped their way just letting them know that they were missed on Sunday… I wonder if simple Power of 7 could transform our congregations into joyful community centers.

Please let me know if you try it out.

Religious Education is found in the simple acts that bind us closer together.

The Flowers That Saved My Life

The divorce separated me from my two small children, and the teaching job was more of a calling that I loved with all my being.  I was officially divorced in the morning and served my pink slip that afternoon.  Both identities were painfully stripped away… and the very next day was my birthday. What irony.

I spent weeks in bed.  My best friend would come over after work to make sure I was eating, which I wasn’t. She’d make me get dressed to come eat, but when that didn’t work she brought it in to me. And when that didn’t work she’d leave it on the bedside table to get cold.  It was certainly not one of my finer moments.

After a couple weeks I received a phone call.  It woke me up.  I had to wrestle the covers to actually find the phone hiding in my smelly nest. The gruff voice on the other end said, “Get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, and come let me in.”

“Huh?”

Not getting any more patient, “Get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, and come let me in.”

“Bob? The door is unlocked.  Just come on in.”

“No. You stink.”

“Bob, I don’t care.”

“I do.  Go get dressed and brush your teeth and hurry.  This is getting very heavy.”

Just as he said the word heavy a big truck went whizzing by my window… and at that very same moment I heard a big truck go whizzing by on the phone.  I ran to the window and there was Bob across the street on the pay phone holding a huge, I mean huge, abstract painting of flowers.

This was no ordinary painting. This was the painting that used to hang in the hallway at church. I loved the painting.  It made me happy.  Bright yellows, reds, purples, greens. Evidently the Aesthetics Committee didn’t share in my appreciation.  It got moved to the bathroom. I simply took more bathroom breaks to visit my friend. And eventually it got relegated to the basement.  During a congregational Spring Cleaning I found it in the huge storage closet.  I was so sure the painting was lonely, and I would go gaze at her when I was feeling low. I was oblivious to the fact that Bob knew of my love affair with this painting.  And there he was on a street corner payphone with an armful of abstract flowers.

I dashed to throw on clothes. I tried to grab ones from the heap that weren’t too offensive to the olfactory system.  I rushed to the bathroom to brush my teeth – it felt soooo good!  As I was coming out of the bathroom Bob was barging into my bedroom.  He traipsed across my bed with muddy shoes.

“Oops.” He said flatly. “I guess you’re going to have to wash that bedding.”

He leaned the immense painting against the wall and pounded a handful of nails one by one into the wall above my headboard.  He balanced the painting on the cluster and stepped back to admire his work.

“There.”  He turned to me. “Kiddo.  I know you’re hurting.  You’ve been through a lot. But we need you.  We’re waiting.  The world is waiting.  There is work to be done.”

My eyes teared up.  I nodded.

“Tandi, every morning, look up at this painting.  And remember.  The world is waiting.  We need you.”

I broke down and sobbed like I had not been able to do.  Bob held me and rocked me until I was ready to come back.

By this time you’re probably wondering who Bob is.  Bob is the church curmudgeon.  All churches have at least one.  For most of his church career Bob has been the soul person on the building committee.  He was kind of pokey and contrary.  And there he was rocking me while I learned to cry.  I knew he was uncomfortable with this he’d just stepped into.  We were both practicing being human at this very sacred moment.

That is the kind of Religious Education I am all about.  The greatest thing we can give each other is our love, ourselves, and our presence. These are among the most potent curriculums.  Church is where we practice being human.

No matter where I live that painting will be prominently placed so it is among the first things I see each morning.  It is part of my morning prayers and spiritual practice.

Once my basic needs of being seen, heard, and loved were met I could rejoin the land of the living and get about my business of finding my calling and living my personal mission.  Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if Bob hadn’t noticed I was gone and tracked me done.  Who is missing from this religious community?

Religious Education teaches us to be present to each other.  Religious Education is community that sees us at our most vulnerable, loves us anyway, and calls us to our higher selves.

Request: This Sunday look around and notice who is not there. Please check in with them just to make sure they’re okay and to let them know that you noticed their absence.   And if they’ve been gone awhile, let them know they’ve been missed.  There are a myriad of reasons we each can slip away.  There is a main reason to reach out:  we are interconnected in love.

Cheese Fries

The previous year our youth group had 18 teens who made a joyful presence in our congregation.  16 graduated and there were no 8th graders moving up.  What to do?  Do two people make up a youth group?

Our congregation made a bold decision.  They funded the two-member youth group as if they were the rowdy 18.

And I have to say, that while the previous year was fun and eventful. It was the year of Ben and Justin that I found to be the most profound and worthwhile.

Justin was the popular, likable Prom King.  Ben was from a newly divorced family, in a new school, and had just gotten word that his father had seriously ill.  When I asked them each what they wanted out of youth group, Justin, said, “I just want to be myself without the stress.”  Ben said, “I want to do what normal kids do.”

“Ben, what do normal kids do?” He hesitated… “I think they hang out at Denny’s and eat cheese fries.”   

And that is what we did most of the year.  We hung out at Denny’s and ate cheese fries and just talked. And tried to grasp a sense of normalcy.

One night we hung out in the youth group room painting our toe nails (because we could) and someone had the idea of paining a nail polish chalice on the stereo.  We declared the stereo a Unitarian Universalist Only Zone (pronounced ooze) and our ritual became debating the UU appropriateness of current musical lyrics.  What could we play that upheld our faith tradition and principles?  Which songs would be tossed, at least while in the sanctuary of our black-light lit youth room?  Such conversations were continued at Denny’s over cheese fries.  Rarely have opportunities arisen to go that deep theologically for any of us. Ben, Justin and I were forever changed.

I’m still in contact with both Justin and Ben, who are in their mid-20s now. They look back at our youth group year with just the three of us and are grateful that the congregation saw them as legitimate and worthy of the effort.

Religious Education is implicit in the decisions we make as a congregation, including fiscal decisions. Religious Education is nestled in those leaps of faith and small actions that say, “We see you.  We need you. You are worthy.”

Anger Solidarity

A loud pounding interrupted the instructions for the learning assignment.  The class gave a collective sigh.  We knew what the sound was.  We heard it daily. When Benny’s frustration level piqued he clenched his jaw, broke his pencil and started kicking the nearest wall. I had marked him absent just a bit ago, but evidently he made it to school and now was in the front yard repeatedly kicking the porch of our portable classroom.

Benny was faced with some hefty decisions at age of 9.  He had just begun running drugs for his mother and older brother. And now his brother was offering him a chance to “get jumped in” to the gang that ran the reservation underground. Gang initiation usually started with the young ones out here.

His Individual Education Plan, required by the Special Education department, listed many challenges, one of them being suspected Fetal Alcohol Effects. Benny was developmentally delayed, but I suspected the constant barrage of anger is what really stunted his neurological growth.  The traveling school psychologist listed “Anger Disorder” in his folder.  I found this label odd. The anger didn’t seem to be unwarranted or based on disillusion.  I found little in his life that didn’t merit intense anger. The injustice was glaring.  Had I written the IEP, perhaps I would have written, “Reality Disordered, anger justified.”

The frail portable shook with every kick.  I had gone on giving instructions, but I could tell by the student’s wide eyes and glances toward Benny’s direction, that the learning moment was lost.

I stopped.  Three kicks passed.  A family picture on my desk tipped over.

“Wonderkids, sometimes we experience such pain, such anger, that we can’t keep it in and we can’t understand it and we can’t do it alone.  Benny is experiencing that kind of pain and anger.  He needs our help.  We are going to go outside and help him kick the porch until the anger is all kicked out.”

Everyone stood up and walked outside, single file. They joined Benny on the porch. Benny was too busy kicking to notice.  Then all the kids started kicking with him.  There were grunts and groans as our toes smacked solid wood.  Benny came out of his trance and blinked at me.  He looked around at his classmates who had stopped kicking to see if he was all right.

I put my arm around his shoulders. “Together we’re bigger than the anger, Benny.”

He nodded and started up the stairs to the classroom.  He immediately crawled under a table.  Pearl, one of his peers, brought a blanket over for him to curl up with.  We all took a deep breath and a prayerful moment of silence.  And then I went back to the board knowing that Benny would come out when he was ready and the assignment would be waiting for him.

Religious Educations knows that sometimes academic or planned curriculum needs to be put on hold so that life curriculum can be lived in its moment.

Involuntary Volunteer Sabbatical

I was one of those lay leaders in a smallish-midsized congregation who was on almost every committee.  I think I’ve held every leadership position except board in that church. Operative word being held.  I held leadership positions close to me without letting go, because with it came some semblance of control to keep the congregational structure and community just the way I liked it. I had standards.  There’s a certain way you do things.

Then one bright, sunny Sunday the president and minister called me up to the chancel during announcements.  The minister gave me a beautiful, carved chalice and the president, putting his hand firmly on my shoulder said, “Tandi, you have served this religious community well with your extended service.”  He went on to list all the committees I’ve chaired and projects I headed up over the most recent years. “We are giving you a volunteer sabbatical for an entire year.  You are not allowed to chair or volunteer for any committee.  You are not allowed to even make coffee.  This year we ask that you simple come and be fed.”

I have no idea what the sermon was that Sunday, because I spent the rest of worship trying to figure out what his “honor” meant.  They couldn’t be serious, could they? I can’t volunteer for a thing?  What will I do with this time?  What will they do without me?

Over the next couple of months I went through the classic stages of grief:

Denial: They couldn’t possible mean it.  I mean, who is going to know how to coax a paper jam out of the copy machine for the newsletter assembly?  Who knows how to make the canvass forms just right? No one else on the worship committee really knows our liturgical calendar. And they didn’t really mean I wouldn’t co-lead the youth group, right?  That’s different.

It turns out the entire congregation was in on it.  I’d turn up to a committee meeting and I’d be cheerfully greeted and then asked to leave.  I showed up at youth group like always.  The youth didn’t even let me stay for check-in.  They sang a song about “thank you” as if they practiced it.

Anger: You know, the youth seemed especially delighted to send me home. I bet this was their idea.  Why do they hate me? What a hateful place.  And they call themselves a religious community! Luckily I knew enough not to spew my venom onto the other members. I made an appointment with a spiritual director when the gym punching bag wasn’t enough.

Bargaining: I showed up to worship a little early and noticed one of the greeters hadn’t arrived yet.  I grabbed a stack of Orders of Service and slipped into place by the sanctuary doorway.  Someone came up behind me with a hug and slipped the OoS right out of my hand. “But surely this doesn’t count!” I pleaded surprised by the desperation in my voice, “It’s just a little thing, really… We don’t even need to mention this to the president.”  Our membership chair tenderly smiled and put an arm around my shoulders. “You’ll understand if invite a newer member to fulfill this volunteer gateway position. Go enjoy the quiet before it gets busy in here.”

Depression. And then the gloomy clouds moved in. I mean, who was I without my volunteering?  No one knew I was important anymore.  I was just… average.  I actually moped around the house and cried for a couple weeks.  Not only wasn’t I frequenting the congregational building for meetings during the week, I didn’t go to worship every Sunday.  Why bother? They don’t need me.  They probably don’t miss me.

Acceptance. A note came from our minister that simply said, “Thinking of you on your sabbatical. I hope you’re having fun with your kids and doing all the art projects you talked about getting to someday.  I hope this is your someday.”  I stared at the note for a long time, rereading it over and over. Oh, yeah.  And there is that stack of books by my bed that I’ve wanted to read… Like a veil lifting it finally occurred to me that this is my life, my time, my agenda. I get to choose.  Color came back to my cheeks as I spent down time dancing in the kitchen with my children.  I made home-made meals and started teaching them family recipes.  I picked up my sketch pad and filled it with images for my own personal amusement.  A calm emerged and I could easily locate my center.

Another calm, energy came into the congregation.  The worship committee not only experimented with additions to our traditional calendar, they also played with the format. And I liked it even better!  Two elders joined the youth ministry team much to the delight of the teenagers who were craving older mentors.  Someone else figured out how to tame the copier. The congregation figured it all out without me.

And I figured out that I really didn’t like doing all those things. Maybe I did at one time.  But I had grown to resent them and hadn’t realized it.  All the committee work had come to feel like a “should,” not a joy.  I would not have known this without the involuntary volunteer sabbatical.  And you know what I really missed? Making coffee for coffee hour and weeding the flower garden around the congregation.

At the end of my volunteer sabbatical the minister and new president invited me out for coffee.  The minister leaned in and asked, “Now that you’ve had a year respite, how do you really want to serve and be served?…”  And a new story began.

Warrior Boots

When I taught upper elementary school I had one particular student who stood out.  He had an incredible mind. Ezra scored high on analytical tests and had a large vocabulary.  He asked pointy questions that revealed his disillusionment of authority.  And he also became easily frustrated, called himself stupid, and cut into his skin with his pocketknife as punishment. Sometimes he projected the frustration on to people close by.  He got into fights and sent to the office on a regular basis.

Ezra was also curious about my peace sign.  I had an obnoxious, oversized peace sign charm woven into the laces of my high top Converse sneakers. My older brother gave it to me as a joke. Carl would roll his eyes every time I left for a protest march or ordered vegetarian or refused to shave my legs. He would shake his head and explain to me once again why I couldn’t save the world all at once – it has always been like this and will always be like this, so stop trying and enjoy it.  But at the same time, he would let me borrow his truck to haul street puppets for a demonstration or haul people in the Pride Parade.

Ezra wanted to know why I wore the peace symbol. Even though it came to me tongue in cheek, it had come to be a reminder for me to walk in peace. I gave Ezra writings by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Thich Nat Hahn.  Ezra read these books as quickly as I could bring them in, but pondered on how their lives would be different if they lived on a reservation with the highest poverty rate in the state and both their parents were drunk and unemployed and most of their classmates suffered from Fetal Alcohol Effects. I didn’t know how to respond.

I came into class on a Monday. The kids were gathered around Ezra.  They were admiring his boots.  He had gotten blood on them over the weekend. Shot a deer.  His father and uncles had taken Ezra out for his first hunt.  While gutting it he got blood all over himself.  It was a rite of passage.  He recounted the details with his classmates with his chest puffed out and his chin held high.

Ezra sat next to me in class.  He fiddled with peace sign on my shoes, and I eyed the dark brown splotches on his boots.

“How about we switch for a day?” he asked, still touching the peace sign.

“What?”

Ezra grinned with a twinkle in his eye, clearly hatching a plan.  “You wear my boots for the day and I’ll wear your peace shoes.”  Ezra was tall for his age. He had huge feet, which prophesied an even taller future.

I hesitated.

“Please.  I’ll take very good care of your shoes.” Looking up, eye to eye for the first time.

“Okay. But like you said, these are peace shoes.  You can’t hurt yourself or hit other people while you’re wearing them.”

He held up two fingers ‘on my honor.’  He quickly unlaced his boots to make the switch.  Our feet were almost the same size.

“Okay,  I promise to be a peacenik for the day. But those are hunter shoes you’re wearing. You have to walk like a warrior today.” And then Ezra ran off in my Converse.

Throughout the day I looked down to see the dried blood and wondered what it would be like to shoot a dear.  What it would be like to be so intelligent, but have no answers for the poverty, oppression, alcoholism, and slow genocide around? To be so fearful of the anger locked up inside that it started eating away at hope? What would it be like to have a family invested in my coming of age and ritualize it dramatically? What would it be like to depend on the shooting of that deer for the food on my table? What would it be like to be so forgotten as a people that my education didn’t matter on one hand, and then could be the only equalizer that could lift me up from the stranglehold of oppression?

With each step I let these questions sink into my flesh and bones. I didn’t play kickball with the kids that day.  I stood quietly and intentionally noticed the wind on my face.  I heard a basketball echo on the court and saw Ezra shooting hoops by himself.

At lunch when I was handed a plate without meat I asked for a regular lunch.  Doris was surprised.  So was I. She shrugged and added a healthy dose of hamburger gravy to my mashed potatoes. I ate it.  It was good.

That day Ezra didn’t get into one fight. He didn’t growl or yell in anger. He didn’t hurt himself.  As we were waiting for his school bus we each untied our laces and exchanged shoes.

“How did it feel to be a peacenik for the day?”

“Not bad.  I passed… How did it feel to be a warrior?”

Our eyes locked on the others. And we were silent for many moments as the other kids ran for their bus with the typical frenzy and excitement of the final bell oblivious to the sacred turn in their midst.

“I walked taller.”  I said.

“Me, too.” said Ezra.

That day my understanding of our interconnectedness expanded. There are many ways to talk in peace.  There are many ways to be a warrior.  And sometimes being a peace warrior is what is required.  My education had begun.

Religious Education sometimes requires changing shoes.

Grampa Sunday School

The congregation had been through a lot of transition and nobody – I mean nobody — had time or energy for religious education. The poor Director of Religious Education couldn’t get a soul to sign up for teaching duty.  And duty is just what it was feeling like.

Finally the Men’s Group, which consisted of the elderly gray-haired gentlemen in that congregation, shyly stepped forward and said that they’d like to do something with the kids. The Religious Education Committee didn’t quite know what to do with this. They were not the typical Sunday school teachers.  But okay, everyone else was profoundly burned out. The only stipulations were that the safety policy be honored with background checks and that if somehow the principles could be slipped in, then that would be great.

What transpired was a busy basement full of Grampas and kids.  There was Richard in the corner with a pile of kids reading stories and then acting them out with puppets he found.  Walter, a thick glassed engineering geek, was happily working out math problem with an almost savant brilliant boy that previously never quite fit in.  They were two peas in a pod.  Ron would take some kids by the hand into the kitchen, “let’s see what we can find to make today…” and goodies for social hour would be created.  Bob – he took some kids outside with Sam.  Sam was a developmentally delayed young adult who loved to play tag with the kids on the playground.  Bob would be nearby with a block of wood, a box of big nails and a small hammer and a group of kids that needed to get out some anger.  Matt and the teens listened to music and gave the lyrics UU ratings according to Principle Relevancy. That season stories were shared, large life questions were pondered, and a fabric of extended family was woven.

Soon after that summer the Religious Education Committee found the volunteers to go back to their traditional program, which was fine. It was fall and people were ready to get back into a familiar schedule.  But something really magical happened. When families came in before worship, the kids would often break from their parents to go sit with their Grampas.  Grampas started showing up at school functions to cheer for their smaller friends. The community began sharing the child-rearing and the Grampa-raising.

Religious Education nurtures intergenerational relationships and cross learning.  Religious Education builds community where we can contribute our unique gifts.