RE News, February 2019

Lauren Strauss, DRE, picture from 2018 wearing green shirt and brown shawl.
Lauren Strauss, DRE

Dear friends,

I’ve been lying low this past week, trying to get over this cold.  This coming weekend is a Maker Sunday, which is always a fun day in RE, taking tools and materials and making whatever comes to mind.  Last time we met I wound up making a coffee cup cozy out of felt, which I’m still using on some of my thinner travel cups.

RE has been so very busy lately, drawing crowds of 25-30 children nearly every week, and many many of them in the nursery and preschool classes.  I’ve had a few people mention noise in the sanctuary while the children are still upstairs, and I ask patience and gentleness and welcoming.  Remember how much good it does our kids to be in the service for those moments — they learn our rituals, they participate in our community, they even learn the importance of stewardship for our church by being there for the collection.  Young children make noise, and as adults it’s our job to forgive them when we can, to help out their parents when possible, to kindly let newcomers know about the speaker and couch in the minister’s study when a baby or young child cannot contain themselves.  The growth of our program at the younger end is, on the whole, a joyful and unusual thing, when across both our denomination and all denominations, church school attendance is down overall.  It comes with challenges, but they’re really happy challenges to have. 

Last month we focused on animal rights and welfare in our church school classes.  Classes learned about animal habitats and taking care of animals; the Dragon Tails (our Harry Potter-inspired class) learned Bowtruckle husbandry (Bowtruckles are tree guardians that look like twigs and live in wand-wood trees like cedar, elm, birch, and holly); and the Sickth Dymension class (our Twilight Zone inspired class) discussed ethical eating). 

We then welcomed Ann Cox, a local elementary school teacher who has been involved in protesting the use of large animals such as elephants in carnivals and traveling shows for such purposes as animal rides.  Ann shared her experiences learning about elephants and read a story to the group, and then all the children and youth wrote letters to legislators to encourage them to support upcoming legislation that will outlaw elephant and other large animal shows of this nature in Massachusetts.  Many thanks to Will Twombly for introducing us to Ann.

Coming up we’ll be learning about education and literacy.  FPW member Holly Cachimuel, a middle school teacher in Watertown, approached me a bit over a year ago to ask if the church would participate in the Mother Tongue Book Project, with which she is engaged.  It is a project designed to make Creole reading materials available to children in Haiti, which simultaneously encourages Haitian children’s literacy and preserves the Creole language.  I specifically designed this month’s theme so we could participate in this program; Holly and the head of the project will be coming to visit us in RE and we will be creating our own books to send to children in Haiti.  We hope this is just the start of something wonderful.

I look forward to sharing our results with you all and to seeing you all around church!

Lauren (signature)
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RE News January 18, 2019

Lauren Strauss, Director of Religious Education

Before anything else, I must spend some time thanking all the people who were involved in December’s Pageant, “A UU Christmas Carol.”  For a complete cast list, click here.  The RE Committee – Rachel Jones, Kelly Morton, Elisabeth Strekalovsky, Roma Jerome, Lydia Vagts, and Louise Harrison Lepera all contributed significantly to a wonderful day, and countless parents and other caregivers helped during both the rehearsal and pageant.  Rowan Hart and Duncan Lepera made the Sword Dance happen, even with several new dancers this year! And deep thanks to Katherine Calabro for her skilled photography (to view her pictures, you must be a member of the FPW Community Group on Facebook or email me for a link), and to Nick Woebcke, who subbed for Guy this year and joyfully added sound effects and other fun musical highlights.  Ross Dickson and Tom Ostfeld gave us enough microphones! and made our ghosts sound ghostly.  I have had people ask me to share my homily, and I have been slow to do so.  It is here, for those who are interested.

And as always, thanks to Mark and Charlyn for everything they do.

In our current month in RE, we’re exploring our Fourth Principle – the free and responsible search for truth and meaning – along with learning about caring for the animals of our planet.  As a whole group we’re learning about Henry Bergh, the Unitarian founder of the ASPCA.  In classes, children and youth are learning about various justice issues regarding animals, and what people’s responsibility is toward the creatures with whom we share our world.  Some groups are exploring Ethical Eating; others are learning about how humans can learn to care for animals in the ways that are best for the animals.  On February 3, we’ll welcome Ann Cox, a local elephant enthusiast who is busy trying to pass legislation to protect elephants in carnivals and zoos.  With Ann’s help, we’ll write letters to our legislators and also ask YOUR help in signing petitions to advance the legislation.

Speaking of things happening on February 3, on that day my friend CB Beal[1] from Justice and Peace Consulting will be coming to First Parish.  In the morning, CB will be our guest minister, preaching a little bit about Transgender and Queer inclusion and also giving an overview of their “Preemptive Radical Inclusion” philosophy.  After social hour at 12:30, CB will present a workshop designed to help First Parish let Preemptive Radical Inclusion wing us on our way to being the warm, welcoming, loving community we want to be.

And what, you may ask, is Preemptive Radical Inclusion? Excellent question! PRI’s soul is the idea that in order to be truly inclusive, we develop a culture in which we anticipate the needs of every possible human being who is in our hall – or who might walk in.  That’s the ‘radical’ bit – it’s not scary, it’s systemic.  We may learn things about eliminating microagressions from our culture, or about being ready to accept and welcome people with allergies or immune deficiencies, or about making sure that not only do everyone’s needs get heard when they’re among us and willing to advocate for themselves, but that we take all the information we know and try to anticipate what others will need before they’re even in the room.  I have participated in several PRI workshops and activities over the years, and each time I learn something new about myself as a person and as a UU.  So, please book your calendars from 12:30-3:30 on February 3 in the Sanctuary for PRI.  Childcare will be provided, and we will have lunch in between the service and the workshop.  I would love to see many of us show up to learn from CB.  In my mind, taking steps to strengthen our community now will result in a healthy transition as we march together toward Mark’s retirement.

On another topic, we’ll be holding a Teacher Appreciation & Training Breakfast on January 27 at 9:00am. If you’ve been teaching this year, please come and get spoiled with lovely food provided by your RE Committee – this is not a potluck, it is a THANK YOU for those who generously give to our RE program!  And, also on the topic of teachers, I find myself looking for one volunteer to teach either the 1st-3rd grade class OR in the Nursery for five sessions this year. Email me at dre@fpwatertown.org or flag me down during social hour (placing coffee or food in my hands is a good way to catch my attention!) if you’re interested.

If you’ve made it this far, you are awesome, and I thank you and I hope to see you in church on Sunday.

Yours in faith,

[1] CB is a non-binary person who prefers the pronouns ‘they/them.’

RE News, October 2017

This is the complete version of my column in the Arbella in October 2017.  I had many more thoughts on the subject of forgiveness than I am allowed space in our newsletter, so I invite you to read on!

My dear ones,

This past Sunday our K-2 class, the Flaming Unicorn Fox Owls, had a session entitled The Gift of Forgiveness, and I have been contemplating the lesson and its implications for our lives for the last couple of weeks.

The first thing we do every year in each church school class is write a covenant. We hang our shiny covenant – the embodiment of our highest ideals – on the wall and sign it, and then often… that’s it. We might remember to review it a few times, or maybe we turn to it if some egregious violation happens, but otherwise, that covenant hangs on the wall, looking pretty, looming its inevitably broken promises over our heads, because the thing we don’t talk about nearly enough is what to do when we break covenant.

Here’s the thing: we are going to break covenant with each other. It is inevitable, because we are imperfect humans. We will never be perfect in implementing our ideals, no matter how good our intentions. When we pretend to ourselves that we will always follow our covenants, we start to fear the consequences – the rains will come and the waters will rise! When we get in this mindset about our covenants together, though, we limit their ability to work for and with us.

Last summer I was privileged to witness a ritual in the Ferry Beach RE Week Youth Group. It was a wonderful model of how to re-enter covenant; so often our society doesn’t teach us what to do when we – individually or as a group – are wrong and need to make reparations and ask for forgiveness.

The Youth had been, in what started as good fun, teasing one of their members. It probably didn’t feel like good fun for him for very long, but the teasing kept on well beyond comfort. I don’t know whether he was upset and said something, or whether the adults in the group decided it was not okay, but that night, a trusted outsider was invited to lead a ritual. They did a reading, reviewed their covenant together, reviewed enough of what happened so that everyone who needed to know understood why they were there, and then the floor opened for youth to talk to their friend. No apology was demanded; rather, the leader asked them to focus on what they would do in the future – either to avoid a repeat or to make reparations with the target of the teasing. Many youth spoke, letting the boy know he was valued, sometimes apologizing. At the end, the leader reminded everyone that it was the boy’s prerogative to forgive, or not.

And the boy said nothing – but this wasn’t a bad thing. I think it opened up the option for his friends to check in with him privately, and I would be utterly shocked to learn that not one of them had. Of course there was some eye-rolling from our teenagers at this silly adult-enforced ritual. Duh, everyone knew the young man was fine. But they all really do care about him, and I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that this ritual made his best friends check in with him later. “Are you really okay?” “You know I didn’t mean it, right?” “I love you, man.”

The next night the same young man spoke for his best friend at our bridging ceremony, and he wept, and so did his friend, and so did every last one of us witnessing. Perhaps without the ritual all would have been the same… but I have no doubt that it allowed for any hard feelings to be put aside and for the renewal of and re-commitment to a lifelong friendship.

Our society teaches us to be defensive first when we are accused of wrongdoing. I see it daily on Social Media. John says something he thinks is funny. Jane says, “Hey, that’s racist.” Or sexist or demeaning to a group of people. Jane is angry because she has seen this same statement a hundred times and she didn’t expect it from John. And so she doesn’t temper her words and it sounds like the accusation it is.

The other day I saw such an exchange in which, before John could come back and say “You don’t know me, how dare you say I’m racist,” another friend popped in and affirmed Jane but using a different set of words. “I know you meant to be funny, John. But you should be aware that for certain people, saying what you said is really hurtful, and here’s why.”

And then back came John. “I didn’t think of my words in that light. I’m so sorry what I said could be interpreted that way. I’m deleting my comment and editing it to show that I was wrong.”

It was magic. It was people at their best. It was an invitation back into covenant. Because that’s the way we deal with it when the covenant breaks. We don’t yell, we don’t swear, we don’t wring our hands. We invite. “Our covenant says to seek the truth in love. I know you’re seeking truth, but the tone of voice you’re using isn’t in love right now, and it’s making it hard for me to hear. Can we get back into covenant together?” Sometimes it might take a calming down period. Our choices are to join together, or to hold anger and grudges for a very long time. Speaking words of reparation and forgiveness can help mend the path.

I’m so grateful to this curriculum for giving our little ones words to articulate this with now. Perhaps admitting they’re wrong and asking forgiveness won’t be as hard for them as it is for me.

I’m getting better, though. A couple of weeks ago I told a story in church and in it I reinforced the idea that binary gender is normative. I did this even though I do not believe it, even though I try very hard to be an ally and friend to my Trans* and gender-non-binary friends and acquaintances, and to the community. I was gently corrected during the water ceremony by the parent of a Trans child, in a way that was definitely calling in rather than calling out. And instead of shaking my fists and shouting that I am an ally, darn it! I sought her out later and thanked her for pointing out my error. I made our church less comfortable and less welcoming for people who are Transgender and gender-nonconforming, and I am going to try to be more aware of this in the future. I knew I had done it as the words came out of my mouth, but I didn’t know how to correct it gracefully in the moment. But I will think through my storytelling more completely in the future and try to be as inclusive as possible, and I will continue to work for equity in gender in our church and in society. I hope anyone I hurt can forgive me.

In peace,

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November 2015 RE News

Hello, my dears!

It feels like October has just flown by. My family is gearing up to greet trick-or-treaters next week; Tom and I celebrated our 20th anniversary in mid-October; and the leaves are turning spectacular colors outside my window.

I have spent much of October working on the RE pages of the church’s website. I’m so excited by the conversations I’ve had with members of our Communications Ad Hoc Committee, as they begin the journey of exploring how to reflect our church community’s needs in our communications with each other. There’s still a lot to be done on the RE pages, but I hope people will meander over and take a look. Each class currently has a page including an updated class schedule, a synopsis of the upcoming lesson, and summaries of the sessions we’ve already explored. I’m busy figuring out how to include pictures in a meaningful way; for some reason adding images seems to be my steepest WordPress learning curve.

In addition, I’m developing (and should release this week) a brand-new site for our Junior and Senior Youth. This includes blog posts by our Moderately Beige Sardines, who have been attending occasional services and writing up their observations; a page for our Coming of Age class (where they can find their homework! along with information about upcoming and past meetings), and both the Junior and Senior youth groups. The site can be found at fpwyouth.weebly.com, and it will be linked to our website in such a way that it feels like part of our own website. I chose Weebly to host this site because it is much easier to add images and place things flexibly. The Youth calendar and all other information about youth meetings and plans will be posted there.

I have my own RE blog, where I publish these columns, other thoughts I have during the month, and the stories and homilies I have written for church. You can access it through the main RE page on our website or visit it directly at drewatertown.wordpress.com.

It’s important to me that our members and friends be able to find information about our RE program easily and readily. I tweet as FPWatertown DRE (@DREWatertown) and I am “Lauren Watertowndre Strauss” on Facebook; I post links to church school news and upcoming events there, and both Religious Education and our Senior Youth have their own groups on Facebook. If you see me in one of these places, follow or friend me, and ask to join the groups if you want to get updates on RE programs.

Children’s Religious Education at First Parish is a delightfully fun place to be. We hope you’ll come join us on Sunday mornings and beyond!

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RE News October 2015

RE News October 2015

This year our RE Committee has decided to introduce an overarching theme to our children’s and youth ministry. Our theme is community, and we are hoping it guides us in many ways throughout the church year.

Our church school classes are a bridge to community. This year each class created a covenant, as they always do! and they all chose new names for their groups. Each year the names have become more creative and reflective of the group members. This year we have the Nursery, up through age 3; the next oldest group, ages 4-7, has chosen to be known as the Flying Fish! Our next group, grades 3-6, is now called the Flaming Hedgehogs. The oldest church school class, grades 7-9, has dubbed itself the Moderately Beige Sardines.

The power of names as tools for community building hit me this week as three members of the Flaming Hedgehogs brought in hedgehog pictures and toys to share with their class. I will share the hedgehogs and class covenants on our website. When we empower our kids to choose their own identity, the bonds they form with each other deepen. The Flaming Hedgehogs, for example, got out their ballot box from last year and voted. They exercised our fifth principle, the use of the democratic process, and created a communal identity that binds them together. Their adult leaders took a supporting role in the process. It is one of the things that makes covenants more powerful than rules – we create them together, rather than having them imposed upon us.

The Moderately Beige Sardines are approaching a threshold. The oldest members of that class are in high school and I’m pretty sure every last one of them is taller than I am now. This year they will be spending a few Sundays in the sanctuary, listening to the service with assignments. They’ll be live-Tweeting the service (one designated Tweeter per service, using the RE account!) and sharing their responses in blog posts following the service. I’ve asked them to sit in pairs for now rather than as a group to minimize chatter. I am looking forward to hearing their reactions. I really can’t say often enough how insightful and thoughtful I find our children and youth. If you haven’t sat down for a deep conversation with our kids, you really are missing something. Next Sunday, October 4, the Moderately Beige Sardines will be attending Jolie’s service; watch for them in the sanctuary and look for their responses later in the week.

Yours in community and fellowship!

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RE News, September 2015

Originally published in the September 2015 Arbella

I am so excited to be able to welcome you all back this coming Sunday for our Water Ceremony, where the blessed waters of our travels or our homes or drops of rain from a summer shower or stream water from a refreshing summer hike at a nearby state park will mingle together and remind us all that we are together, a community, one strong body. I have missed you during my travels and during my lazy days at home, during the hailstorms and during the humid heat that confines me to the air-conditioned kitchen. I am glad to be back.

Many exciting things are on the plate for Religious Education this year. Our joint OWL program with Waltham for our 8th and 9th graders is ready to roll on October 3, with a parent information session on September 27 at 6:30pm. It has been a literal year in planning but I’m so grateful to our facilitators—two from Waltham will join Beth Tappan-deFrees, Aaron Dushku, and Sarah McSweeney from Watertown—for their flexibility and love in making this happen. I hope we’re laying a foundation for a continued program that will serve both congregations well for a long time.

We are dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s on our Coming of Age program. It’s now just a matter of confirming a few mentors, and we’ll be hosting our opening overnight in late September. The response to a call for mentors was amazing; I’m moved by the response. I should be confirming with mentors by the end of this week.

In church school news, I’m delighted to announce we’re welcoming back Rachel Westbrook-Fritts as our classroom teacher for the Blazes class (who will be 3rd-6th grade this year). Rachel had planned to move back closer to her family, but to my delight she obtained a nanny position in the Boston area which better meets her needs, and so she has agreed to return to us as a classroom teacher, though her hours and duties make it impossible to continue as Youth advisor.

Registration for church school has been a little slow, and that information is vital both because for safety and to best meet kids’ needs, we need updated information on the children and youth (lots changes in a year!) and also because we depend on parents to teach in our classrooms in order to make sure our kids are well cared for. If you received an email from me last week reminding you to register, please click this link and register your family for church school. The more teachers we have, the less any one teacher needs to teach.

I look forward to seeing you all this Sunday!

In faith,

Lauren

RE News, April 2015

Hello, my friends!

I have had several reminders, this past week or so, of how wonderful it is to have good friends. Over the years, I have intentionally surrounded myself with strong, loving people who hold each other up rather than cutting each other down. I have many in my support network, but how wonderful to find myself entering a whole community of them at First Parish. I’d like to take a moment and mention two who have been walking parallel paths with me this last couple of years: Charlyn Bethell, who just completed her Music Director credential, and Tracy Johnson, who will meet with the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee in just a few days. Through the last months and years as I’ve pursued my Religious Education credential, it has been wonderful to know that two such good friends have been walking along with me. My own RE Credentialing Adventure comes to closure on April 28, when I meet with the RE Credentialing Committee, the last of the three of us to cross the finish line. Keep me in your thoughts, and wish my compatriots well, too!

I want to gently remind people that if your child becomes noisy or restless during the service we offer a couch in the church office where a beautifully functioning speaker conveys all the words spoken into a microphone during a church service. This is true for adults, too. Excess talking or coming and going during the service is distracting. We value everyone’s presence in our services, but please remember this alternative space is available.

And lastly I’d like to also gently remind folks who might be having a difficult time hearing during the service that we have a couple of lovely FM transmitter devices that often sit, sadly unused, on the table outside the sanctuary. They, too, transmit all the information from the microphone directly to your ear! If you are consistently finding that you’re having difficulty hearing because of background noise in the sanctuary, these devices may be for you.

April in RE is quite exciting. On April 5 we will celebrate Easter with our traditional Easter Egg hunt and flower potting activities! On April 10-12, the Senior Youth are headed to Ferry Beach for their retreat, and two new OWL teachers will go for training! April 19 will be another wonderful multigenerational service in honor of Earth Day (and I cannot tell you how much fun it has been planning these, this year, with Mark and Tracy!), and on April 26 Tracy Johnson will present a special children’s worship service downstairs for all our children and youth.

Yours,
Lauren

RE News, February 2014

Dear friends,

Is everyone ready for the Groundhog coming this month?  Or, if you’re following traditional Celtic traditions, perhaps Brigid will face a stormy day on Imbolc, and therefore won’t have enough firewood for six more weeks of Polar Vortex and spring will come early?

In the meantime, we’ve got lots of things going on to make your February a little brighter.

The Senior Youth Group have just completed their service trip to CityReach in Boston; as anyone who was in church this past Sunday heard, it was a very fun experience—even if it tired our youth out!  Some thanks are due for making this trip possible:

To Matt and Katherine Calabro, who gamely chaperoned.  I never checked to find out if you were able to blow up the air mattress for Katherine… but it was a feat of cold and sleeplessness much appreciated by all the parents and kids.   Our third Youth Advisor Heidi Bedrossian was unable to attend due to her Saturday work schedule, but she was there throughout all the planning and helped with last weekend’s epic sorting party.

ImageSpeaking of the Sorting Party, Jill Shaw and Barbara Farrell get my undying thanks for helping spread the word and providing the bins for the collection of a Youth Room-full of clothes, bags, and other materials.  Michael Collins, Mark Harris, and Andrea Greenwood receive equal thanks for driving to CityReach with the youth and transporting and unloading all this stuff!

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And it really couldn’t have happened without Mark making the phone calls to CityReach to arrange the Youth Group’s adventure, and—not to save the best for last or anything, but—Eileen Ryan worked tirelessly to ensure that this trip happened.  It was among the many ideas she brainstormed for the SYG to choose from when considering a service trip; she planned and implemented (with the help of the COA kids) the Equal Exchange fundraiser (which, along with her brilliant Leaf Raking idea last fall, has raised over $900 for the COA class to go to Ferry Beach, and anything left over will go toward paying for the CityReach trip), and she spent time and energy working with the youth and advisors to make sure this trip was successful from start to finish.

Elsewhere in RE:

February 2nd marks the start of the second semester for most of our classes.  On January 26 we held a Teacher Appreciation Breakfast to honor the outgoing teachers who have made the past semester beautifully successful, and to welcome the new set of teachers who start teaching next week!  I can’t say this enough: our church school program is a fun, thoughtful, and exciting place to be for our kids on a Sunday morning.  I know this because of the happy faces and the regular attendance!  But without the people—both the parents (whom we conscript) and the generous other adult volunteers and Youth classroom assistants—who come to the classrooms on Sunday mornings and provide a familiar face and minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that help for our kids ages 1-13, the church school would have a very different atmosphere on Sunday mornings.