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.

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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.”

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.

Unitarian Universalist Religious Education is too powerful, too raucous, too exhilaratingly vibrant to be confined to that one hour on Sunday when we sing the kids downstairs.  Or where-ever it is that they go.  Wake up, people!  Religious Education is all around!

The following stories and resource reviews are organized into the following categories:

  • Religious Education at Home
  • Religious Education in Congregations
  • Religious Education in Schools
  • Spiritual Care for Religious Educators and Other Religious Leaders

There are also pages listed to the right with more resources for your ministry. If you have a story or resource to add to these pages, please contact Tandi Rogers:  tandik@yahoo.com or trogers@uua.org