“The great end in religious instruction, is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs; not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision; not to burden memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought.”
– William Ellery Channing (American moralist, Unitarian Clergyman and Author, 1780-1842)
Halloween was perhaps the most important date on the church calendar when I was growing up. Every year my congregation would host a great Halloween party, almost bordering on a festival. There was food and costume parties, and of course a ghost-inspired sermon. The main social hall would be split into various fun stations for the younger children to bob for apples, eat donuts on a string, or have their face painted. And as soon as I joined the church at around eight, I knew the people who had the best time at our Halloween was the youth group: the pre-teens and teenagers who designed and took part in the centerpiece of the celebration: the Haunted Basement.
One year, once it was finally my turn to be the spooker rather than the spookee, I borrowed my mother’s chef’s uniform and covered it with all sorts of goop. I played the “mad chef” led the kids through a feel box of my gruesome ingredients. (Cauliflower for my victim’s brain, spaghetti for guts, peeled grapes for eye balls, etc.)
When I’ve tried to explain these memories to those from other faiths, I get the usual mix of puzzled looks and incredulous questions. (Kind of like when I try to explain anything UU to someone who has not witnessed it first hand.) I, fortunately, haven’t ever got into a confrontation with anyone accusing us of witchcraft and devil worship. But, most people can’t understand what any of that stuff, especially designing something to scare little kids, had to do with church.
I’ve also heard criticism’s from those who DID grow up UU that they were only given a constantly rotating list of history stories and classes that ended with something like “These people feel this way, other’s think this, you should make up your own mind what you think.” I’m guessing that their R.E. experiences were shaped by someone who believed in Channing’s quote above means that religious instruction should be based on a socratic method of intellectual exploration. As I’ve shared in previous blog posts, I absolutely value intellect as a way to enhance my religious and spiritual life.
I wasn’t reflecting on the seven principles or any of the great spiritual questions posed by UU’s like William Ellery Channing on the Halloween’s at my church. This great event was focused on fun, not moral lessons or fund-raising. But I think they gave me an invaluable church experience. For one thing, it left lots of long-lasting memories. I remember not only the first time I wandered the haunted basement as a younger child, fresh from my break with the Catholic church which probably would never have allowed such desecration in their sacred buildings. I also very fondly remember the years that I got to live out the wish to be part of that “cool gang” of older kids spooky out the little ones.
Despite how much fun that was, I think the most important thing was the knowledge that we were doing something for our community, even if it was only giving them a small scare and a little fun. As I’ve gotten older and our country has for the most part abandoned old traditions like neighborhood trick-or-treating, I realize how valuable it is to have an organization, or even a one day event, devoted to fun.
With the fun comes all sorts of invaluable secondary benefits – like giving us in the Youth Group a feeling of accomplishment after our hands-on planning, design and execution of that haunted basement. Maybe the day wouldn’t be too exciting for everyone, and maybe our tricks and scares were hopelessly amateurish. But, we also weren’t judging ourselves against some standard of cool or professionalism.
As the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that in place of neighbors giving out candy, more and more trick or treaters go to malls or wander from shop to shop in their quest for a All Hallow’s Eve sugar high. This strikes me as a tragedy to be mourned. These childhood holidays should at least have some resemblance to the holy days they evolved from. Even if as a UU youth I was always much more focused on the fun of Halloween rather than the solemnity of All Soul’s Day, the point is I had a reason to feel like a part of my religious community. I had many positive experiences in a place that was devoted to principles like the worth of every individual. So what if some of those experience may not seem to have anything to do with religion on the surface?
We need to show our youth all the various ways humankind can think differently, but love the same. But, we also need to give them experiences that remind them that church isn’t an obligation to be met for an hour or so each Sunday. We have to make them feel connected, and show them why it is important for our congregations to continue to exist. We need youth to look forward to the day that they can scare the “little kids.”
Along the way, we also need to let them know that the community is there for them when things get really scary: like when they are struggling with decisions about school, family, sex, and faith.
At some point in our lives, we will all need a place of comfort and solace. When the next generation considers times where they felt connected to a community and experienced a joyful celebration, do you want them to think of a mall or a community like your church? And, that was always the point I think.