RDGenerations: Youth and Liberal Religion

Mark: School is back in session and it’s been a whole summer since we did our first thread for Religion Dispatches. What have you been up to?

Lucia: My summer was busy! Mostly I worked as a research assistant to a group of sociologists who are working on a project called “Latin American Immigrants in the New South” [Ed. note: see also our latest Dispatches from the Borderlands].

But in the gaps around this job, I did three week-long stints with entirely different kinds of organizations. First I spent a week working with an activist group on the US-Mexico border, then a week at a civic education camp (Girls Nation) sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, and a, finally, a week at a National Youth Event of the United Church of Christ.

I had plenty of opportunities to think about intersections between religion and culture…

M: The sociology internship sounds like it might deserve a conversation all its own…

L: It definitely does. Anything else would shortchange it.

M: Well tell me about those week-long projects. I’ve been thinking these days about how religious groups work with—or fail to work with—youth and young adults. Why did you do these things? Do they fit together at all? I’d love to get the benefit of your insights about it.

What did you do at the border, for instance? Tell me about that…

L: The mission of the group I volunteered with is to provide aid to migrants—an “on the ground” action against destructive effects of US immigration policy. Volunteers camp in the desert and go on patrols every day; we hiked through the desert with water, food, and medical supplies and looked for people who needed help.

The border is a war zone. One night our group was driving toward our camp and a military helicopter “buzzed” twenty feet over our heads and search-lighted us for two full minutes. We met a migrant who had been deported by ICE after 25 years in the US. He had returned to get some of his belongings, given up after his son committed suicide, and was trying to walk back to Mexico. People imagine the desert as an abandoned and barren place—but during our hikes we saw abandoned clothes and food containers, shrines to people who had died on the journey, and even children’s toys. At the end of the week we were stopped at a border patrol checkpoint on our way back to Tucson. We drove up thinking that nobody would harass us, but the agents reached for their guns. They questioned us rather aggressively—even implying that we might not be citizens—although we had not left the country.

M: Sounds extremely stressful—I was worried about you, but also proud. Why did you leave? Does it have anything to do with how churches work with youth?

L: Yes, it did. When I applied I was idealistic about this organization’s mission. I was drawn to the group because its website described it as drawing from faith-based and social justice activists. But even though John Fife, a Presbyterian minister who founded the Sanctuary Movement, also co-founded this organization, anything even loosely “faith-based” was on the back burner. And contrary to what I had been told when I applied, I was the only undergraduate in the camp. Some people wrote me off both for being young and for being interested in religion.

M: So a church-related group recruited you, but they were not prepared for youth and you were not supposed to be interested in religion?

L: Yeah, those were the vibes. Take my first conversation at camp: I introduced myself to one of the camp patriarchs, and he told me that he had taught anthropology at a major university. When I told him that you taught religion at University of Tennessee, he scoffed, “Anthropology and religion? Those fields couldn’t be further apart!”

M: At UT there is not any field closer to religious studies than cultural anthropology! Perhaps this guy was thinking about branches of anthropology like forensics. But the notion of an anthropologist who is not interested in religion is odd—even if he is not leading a faith-based organization!

L: This kind of thing happened all week. People linked religion with intolerance and stupidity, even though they walked through the desert shouting, “Hermanos y hermanas, somos de la iglesia!” in an effort to make migrants feel “safe.” On top of all this, it was difficult to break into the established circles of the group structure. Of course, you can’t blame groups like this for being wary of new volunteers.

M: That’s true, especially considering how the Reagan Administration paid spies to infiltrate the Sanctuary Movement. But if they depend on volunteers and recruit them…?

L: The cliquishness was not the only problem. The leadership structure seemed almost nonexistent (supposedly it was consensus-based, but volunteers were out of the loop). This blocked opportunities to include the voices of women, young people, and non-whites—not to mention how it promoted pure disorganization and failure to communicate.

It wasn’t all bad. I had some great conversations with graduate student volunteers. But they were not the ones in charge, and after the first week we were going to be sent to different camps.

So, in a nutshell, this group was not a model for working with young people, to say the least.

M: I could have lived with the risks you were taking if everything had not seemed so disorganized. I’ve seen this before with groups on the Protestant left. If you combine disorganization and lack of resources with people who are trying to one-up each other as radicals—while trying to work by consensus in a war zone—it’s not a formula for success. Are there better models for work on this front?

L: Definitely, yes. I spent a couple days at Borderlinks, a Presbyterian organization that facilitates tours and service trips for students, church groups, and scholars on the border. They also have co-ops, kids’ camps, and food distribution centers in northern Mexico. I think the key distinction between the two organizations is clarity of vision—not only does Borderlinks have leadership structure and funding, people can state what they are trying to accomplish. This is important for working with youth.

M: Not only for youth! Well, how about the American Legion? It has money and knows what it wants to do. Is that a viable alternative model?

L: There was definitely a lot of good about their program. I got more out of it than I expected, because the American Legion’s politics are fairly far off from mine.

M: I’ve had friends who went to Boys State, and the camps were run on a military model, including marching drills. I can’t imagine you going for that.

L: Oh gosh. I could regale you with stories like this. At Girls Nation the President of the American Legion told us that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay eat fresh bread at every meal and that they receive “better healthcare than US senators.”

M: So what did you like about this organization?

L: After my experiences at the border, I can better appreciate Girls State’s method for teaching values and citizenship to high school students—whether or not I like their politics. Girls State puts high value on fostering young women’s self respect and mutual empowerment—something that I definitely support.

Leaders should mentor young people one-on-one. Youth should be allowed to determine the best ways to set up programs; at Girls State the participants create their own government. At the same time, there should be a solid leadership base that can guide the organization while taking input from people at all levels of the hierarchy. Of course, we can leave aside the politics and the (implicitly Protestant) “God Bless America” rhetoric.

M: Say more about how religious discourse played into it.

L: You know how you sometimes show your students an image of a cross with a US flag draped over it?

M: The one from the Knoxville newspaper after 9/11?

L: Yep. I often thought about this picture at Girls State/Nation programs, because they have a rule that says, “Citizens will show reverence to God and Country.” This is a stated prerequisite for coming. The leaders don’t try to convert people, but the religion from the stage is pretty Protestant—whether this refers to the form of the prayers or literally praying to the “Father” and “in the name of Jesus Christ.”

M: You were chosen from Girl’s State to go to Girl’s Nation, right?

L: Yes.

M: Was that true in Washington as well as in Tennessee?

L: Yes, and it bothered me. At these events, participants run for offices in the short-term governments we set up. In Washington I ran for chaplain purely to undermine this model, and I won. I got to speak from the podium more than even the President of Girls Nation, and it gave me chances to push an ethic of social justice despite the opposing messages from everywhere else. For example, after we visited the Pentagon, I read from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as the evening prayer (or meditation, as I called it). Nobody tried to stop me—or argue about it later—because it was a prayer!

M: That’s really interesting, the different things one can get away with saying in different genres of speech. It reminds me of how Stephen Colbert could speak at the White House Correspondent’s Banquet in 2006 and say things to Bush that no one else in the media dared to say, because it was “only a comedy routine.”

How far would you push the idea of Girl’s State as a model? Conservative megachurches also have structure, money, and one-on-one contact. Many of them push self-esteem. But they steer their people to the right. During one summer when you were at Girls State, I took a road trip out West with your brother, and we drove past Ted Haggard’s megachurch.

L: The one that they visit at the end of “Jesus Camp”?

M: Yes, and we stopped to check it out. It’s the size of a smallish shopping mall. We saw the worship room that’s in the film and the World Prayer Center where people who log onto computers all over the world can have their prayer requests scroll across screens on the wall—somewhat like the “soul scrolls” in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. But the point at hand is that they had state-of-the-art playgrounds for little kids, and basketball courts, and a large building solely for youth. In that building we saw a youth rock band rehearsing on a soundstage, complete with a smoke machine.

L: Wow. I’d say that the main parallel is generous funding by people who push conservative ideologies. A key question might be who makes decisions in the middle ranks of the hierarchy—the smaller-scale leaders between Haggard and the kids coming to his Sunday school. There are definitely problems with the ALA camps—but I found that although the administration is conservative overall, the counselors are fairly progressive. Sometimes I think I need to be at Girls State because if I were to do it again, I would want a counselor like me.

M: What about the United Church of Christ youth gathering? Are we talking about a happy medium between these models?

L: Well, not really. The politics were better for the most part, but the organizational structure had problems. I was on the planning committee and got to see behind the scenes. The event had little unified message, there was not a good structure for youth input, and the leader’s manual didn’t even include much about theology, which came off as lack of respect for the participants.

M: I read that manual and was amazed how little substance it had. All kinds of groups rent space at the university campus here in Knoxville in the summer—basketball players, cheerleaders, a fundamentalist home schoolers, and so on. The home schoolers have elaborate worship and theological sessions all over the campus. They dress distinctively, almost like Amish compared with the UT students in their shorts and flip flops or the cheerleaders in their matching outfits. But as for the UCC kids, I suppose it was shorts and flip flops, right? And the UCC manual only had one sentence in nineteen pages that had anything to do with the program content or overt religious ideas. It said, “Because God calls us to be a community of faith and leader’s in Christ’s church, I covenant with God and others to conduct our life together at the National Youth Event in a manner that promotes a community of faith.”

Literally, that manual spent three times more words trying to get the kids to drink water instead of Coca-Cola in the heat than it spent on its entire religious/theological content. It made me wonder if the football players or UCC kids had more rituals and prayers during their weeks.

L: Your example catches the flavor, but there is more to say, both about the program and how it was planned. The program wasn’t all vacuous. It was structured around small group workshops and plenaries with some good keynote speakers. Some of the events were simply activities in the campus recreation center, but there were lots of sessions for young activists—many of which were run by youth themselves.

M: Which were best? How did they handle questions about Obama (who is a member of the UCC) and Jeremiah Wright? How did the youth respond?

L: From what I heard, the youth-led workshops were best. And we didn’t talk about Obama, Jeremiah Wright, or race—or really politics at all for that matter. One exception was a keynote about environmental activism, although the speaker seemed surprised that Christians would care about the environment. I was shocked that, despite the emphasis on social justice and cultural inclusion, there was so little attention on social-political issues.

M: That surprises me. Was there a discussion among the leaders about this?

L: About whether to address Obama and Wright? I don’t remember that. There definitely was a push to find speakers from diverse racial-ethnic backgrounds, but the content of their talks seemed almost an afterthought.

I want to mention how racial-ethnic differences were engaged—or not—at this event. This may be another place where we need a whole separate thread. But I was shocked by what seemed like a sort of exoticizing and tokenizing of nonwhite speakers—although the committee had recruited them to demonstrate a commitment to diversity. This bothered me all week. It seemed like the adults wanted to teach the participants about intercultural issues, but then they didn’t engage the issues in a serious way. Young people notice inconsistencies like this.

M: Talk more about what the speakers said and what was tokenized.

L: Over the years I have often observed that higher-ups in progressive religious groups are comfortable including left-wing activist speakers—who are typically Euro-American and may or may not be Christian—as long as they follow the expected code: the language must be inclusive, the ideas must be progressive, and fundamentalists will be laughed off the stage. This is the model for our all-inclusive faith where “God is Still Speaking”—

M: The Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) sponsored by Emory University and the Lilly Foundation. It was a sanctuary for liberal youth who want to think about progressive Christianity but are discouraged by people who think that this concept is an oxymoron.

It was fun, it had real substance—both in terms of reading and volunteer activities—and my counselors were models for intellectual engagement with questions about religion. I wanted to be like them. And I made friends who were appalled at things like flags draped on crosses, so I felt less lonely.

M: Can we reach any conclusions from all this? I recently read a book (James Wellman’s Evangelical vs. Liberal) that analyzes successful churches in the Pacific Northwest. One thing that stood out was how youth work was a major priority for the successful evangelicals. Of course scholars who study Protestant demographic trends (the relative growth of conservatives compared to liberals) agree that the top factors are evangelicals having more babies and losing less youth as they grow up.

Meanwhile, Wellman notes “benign neglect toward children and youth” among his liberals. Only 10% said working with youth was a priority, compared to 37% who said outreach to LGBTs was a priority. He says “In all the work I have done [in the Northwest] I have come upon no active liberal Christian college communities with more than ten members.” And he reports that one youth minister told him that his denominational head “resisted the hiring of a youth leader” because “any kid who sticks with the church in their teenage years is a nerd.” This seems like an obvious problem for a group to address, if it wants a hopeful future.

I wondered whether your experiences would qualify Wellman’s findings. But it seems like they are largely in line with them.

L: This doesn’t reflect lack of interest; it reflects lack of leadership. Maybe we could consider this a wake-up call for left-wing Protestants. In the meantime, though, it’s really no wonder that liberal young people are leaving the churches.