Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Young people

Have had a bit of a debate about the needs of young people within Unitarian communities. I was arguing to take a more balanced approach - what do young people want from older people and what can they offer to the wider community.  Another person finished her post with

Also, I do think we have to weight it a bit more towards what we can give them rather than what we can expect from them in general since they are young people in our care.

I have been musing on this.  In what sense are young people in our care?  Do many congregations have young people unattached from their families? Whatever it is we might be providing I have never thought of it in terms of care over and above what anyone else gets. I suspect that some of our older people are much more vulnerable than some of our older young people.

To some extent this is about how we view young people and whether we see them as having specific needs just because they are young. I have also been involved in a debate about communities on another site and the TV programme about Amish communities was mentioned about how children in Amish families are expected to take on chores.  One of the British teenagers living with an Amish family commented thus

‘From a very young age, the Amish children do chores,’ Charlotte says. ‘It creates a lovely family bond, and means they work well as a unit and respect each other.’

This was in the back of my mind when I was writing about our young people.  What was also in the back of my mind was when my daughter disengaged from the Unitarian community.  She was preparing to speak on behalf of the youth group about marriage equality at an Annual Meeting (she was 16 or 17) when she was stopped by the President and told she had no right to speak as she was not a delegate or an Associate Member. It was the triumph of bureaucracy over compassion.  All kinds of apologies were made but the scar has remained.

So what was that about, her need to have a voice or our need to hear her (or not!)?  It seems to me that unless we have a rigid view of adults providing for young people's needs because they are in their care then the give and take of contributions will be more fuzzy. I don't believe that we can just ask the question 'What do young people need?' separately from 'What do our communities need?'. I also think that part of what our young people need is to be included within the wider community as in a family.  Sometimes young people go and do young people's things and sometimes they spend time with the adults.

Good families know how to make whole-family time work for everyone.  Good faith communities should know how to do that too.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011


Communities can be large or small.  What marks out members of a community is that they share something and the something that they share is then the focus of the community. So in neighbourhoods it is the physical space that people share; in faith communities it is the faith and the values; and for many self-help groups it is a shared experience for example eating disorders or an abusive childhood. The one thing that is shared by people within communities is a sense of belonging.

Last night I was at our borough's community and voluntary sector awards ceremony.  It is the second one that's been run although I wasn't there last year.  I only went because an organisation that I chair was sponsoring one of the awards.  It was an overwhelmingly lovely evening.  Young people from the university where the award ceremony was, were playing in an orchestra and a 16-year old local singer sang us some country and western songs; the food was good; and the company was excellent.  But the first 'best bit' was recognising how many wonderful people there are on my door step.  People who have given years of service quietly and without fuss to help the people living in their community - in a wide sense.  Not just those people who live next door to them but vulnerable people from across the borough who need additional support. When I hear so much negative comment about people today it is heart-warming to have evidence to the contrary.

The second 'best bit' was the award that went to my daughter's volleyball coach.  I had put him forward for the sport's volunteer of the year.  He and his wife have given years of service to not only provide good coaching but also help my daughter and her friends develop as young women.  How do you say thank you for that? Thankfully I had to opportunity to say why I had nominated him and what it has meant to my daughter and me.

It is so lovely to be able to say thank you and mean it from the bottom of ones heart.  We live in a highly inter-dependent world. We are very lucky if we find ourselves in a world where the majority of the people who impact on our lives are kind and encouraging. It makes me pause to think of those people who are not so fortunate. Counting our blessings is an old idea which has regained some currency.  

Perhaps as Unitarians we need to discuss how we recognise and appreciate those who give of themselves for our community - both lay and ministers. Perhaps we need a few more awards and a bit more celebration of our achievements.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


In our Unitarian community we each have the opportunity to lead services or gatherings.  We have a minister but he only leads one service a month as we share him with another community.  I am lucky in that I am quite active am often the first to know that we have a gap to fill.  Our Monday gathering tomorrow had no-one to lead it.  And so it was that I jumped at the chance to lead this.  I want to explore the issue of safety and whether our faith communities can offer us a feeling of safety when we feel unsafe in other parts of our life.

It has been difficult to find much material using the words safe and safety - I then tried to search for things about protection.  It was only when I searched on words such as haven and sanctuary that I found more material.  They hare both such lovely words.  I recognise that our Meeting House, even without people in it, feels like my own personal sanctuary.  During the week my car was blocked in outside the Meeting House.  I had parked briefly to show someone round the building prior to renting a room.  We rent our parking spaces out and the lady who uses it had returned in the ten minutes that I was in the building.  I decided that even though I could ask her to move her car that I would stay and do some cleaning.  I put on some swing music and spent a couple of hours cleaning and singing.  I felt very safe and very happy.

Yesterday I was on our monthly walk.  We chatted and laughed.  We gently ribbed each other about recent events.  And I felt safe. This haven of community really works for me.  I feel held and cradled.  If we accept some of the work that Abraham Maslow did on the hierarchy of needs (although it has been much criticised please bear with me) then we will appreciate that if we feel unsafe we will not feel secure enough to move forward.  For those of use who feel a strong pull to developing our spirituality we need to ensure that we have a safe place, physically, and amongst people that we trust.  We need to co-create this safe space so that others may feel equally safe.

Our spiritual growth is not always about new and exciting experiences but is also about providing safe space and time: providing sanctuary. It is also about the development of trusting relationships so that not only does the physical space feel safe but the people that fill that space can be relied upon to provide us with protective love when we feel vulnerable and in need.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Feeling unsafe

My neighbour of nearly ten years has been committed to Crown Court accused of sexual offences against children.  Whilst it is in the local paper, let's just call him Mr X.  Mr X is a public servant.  I have always had a good relationship with him and his wife - they have no children.  We laugh and joke together, we've been known to sit with a drink (a non-alcoholic one for him) either in a neighbourhood garden or the local cricket club bar.  We've exchanged emails and we've watered each others' plants.  I've driven them to catch a holiday coach in the early hours of the morning.  It seems to me that we have been involved in an implicit good-neighbour pact.  I have often spoken proudly to friends and family of the lovely local community which has enabled me as a single-mother to feel safe.  And now I feel devastated.

I have been involved in sexual violence services for over 25 years.  So I know full well that sexual abusers and sexual predators look like the rest of us.  They don't have a mark on their forehead proclaiming the fact.  My Mum reminded me that about ten years ago a near neighbour of hers, who was a senior administrator with a national professional association, was convicted of taking sexualised photos of his own daughter.  As with my neighbours now, my Mum and her neighbours were in complete shock.  However in that instance the man's wife threw him out and she got tremendous support from everyone.  Mrs X is reportedly denying that there is any foundation to the charges.  Perhaps there aren't.  But my experience of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in sex abuse cases is that they will not take them to court unless there is sufficient, credible evidence.

In my nice, rural idyll of a neighbourhood I have believed myself to live in a safe community with like-minded people.  It is not a wealthy area - we're just ordinary working people.  I believed that we shared not necessarily a political outlook but a common sense of what one might call decency.  Throughout her childhood I have let my daughter wander around on her own down the rear service road of our terrace of fifteen houses.  When she was little she would disappear to her favourite neighbour, Mike, who lived with his wife Helen down the road. I would never have imagined that Mike would have done her harm and I am sure that he never would.  But I would have felt the same way about Mr X.  I am not sure what the charges actually involve but another neighbour suspected that Mr X had exposed himself via the internet to his daughter some years ago. Mr X and this neighbour have been, to my eyes, good friends.

I continue to be absorbed by this.  Mr and Mrs X are nowhere to be seen.  Indeed I am not sure if both of them are there - if they are then they are not talking much as I usually hear the muffled sound of voices some time during the day.  They move the car each morning from their garage so that they can get into it without being seen.  I am anxious as to what I should do or say to either one of them.  In this instance I cannot separate the act from the perpetrator.  I cannot see a fellow human being.  I do not believe in innocent until proven guilty.  This is not about the law but about the morality of behaviour.  If he has abused a child then he is guilty of that.  I would like to be supportive of Mrs X and feel some sense of the pain that she must be feeling.

And what of my beloved community?  It is the first time in many years that I have considered the possibility of moving.  I guess that this is the response to the shock.  How will other neighbours respond?  It is not about endlessly gossiping about this but about how to heal our small neighbourhood so that we once again feel safe and trusting.

All communities can be harmed by one of its member's behaviour.  Within faith communities at least we occupy a common space for some time each week or month and, if we are brave enough, we can discuss any issues that arise.  Each time something like this happens, it is like losing ones innocence again.  I am reminded of other people's lives, people who live in areas where they cannot trust their neighbours or perhaps even their family members.  The underbelly of life can be closer than we imagine.  Ultimately we need to commit to grow to be bigger people than we imagined we could be.  We need to respond.

For now I will let the shock and the anger have their day.  I will wait for the time when compassion takes the lead and then talk with my neighbours.  Not sure what we will talk about but whatever it is I need to re-establish my sense of trust in those who I share a neighbourhood with.