In her marvelous book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow LifeLong UU’s, Kate Tweedie Erslev lists one of the fifteen ways as “Sweep Youth into Immersion Experiences”.
What, exactly, does that mean?
Well, Immersion is defined as “the state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorbed”. So an immersion experience will be one that completely absorbs the youth, such that they are fully engaged within it and almost “forget” their everyday selves and lives. I don’t think this can be accomplished in 45 minutes of religious education class on Sunday morning, or even during a lock-in overnight at church. An immersion experience almost always means we go away somewhere, somewhere special and different, and that we spend a lot of time there. Conferences, camps, assemblies, and retreats can all be immersion experiences.
I’ve just returned from one of these experiences – a Friday evening to Sunday afternoon Middle School Conference at a camp, with about 70 middle school youth from congregations all around the Puget Sound area of Washington State. Friday evening the youth were shy, mostly clustered in their congregational groups or with youth they already knew from past years’ Cons, and by Sunday most of them were hanging out with youth from other congregations, fully engaged with the whole group, and now part of a community they weren’t part of before this weekend. The experience of being there at camp was a time apart from normal life, a time to experience themselves as Unitarian Universalists in a whole new way.
And not only is this an immersion experience, but it is also a cross-congregational experience.
In an era in which most people do not live their whole lives in the same town they were born in, it is unlikely that our youth will grow up and stay in our congregation. If they are going to stay Unitarian Universalists, they will probably be joining another congregation somewhere. Establishing relationships with youth (and adults) from other congregations now helps our youth to broaden their understanding of our denomination and to realize that there are other congregations out there that they could seek out someday.
A week ago, when the students arrived at the college in my town, one of the new Freshmen attending our church service approached me and said “don’t I know you from CON?”. She had attended a CON that I attended as a sponsor for our youth, and just that one previous experience helped build a bridge that made it easier to welcome her into our congregation.
So, in this season of Fall CONS, it’s time to “sweep our youth into immersion experiences”. Enjoy!