Honor Thy Youth Group: Interacting with the Young and Religious

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Salem GanoI had the good fortune of being part of a youth group at my Catholic church in Denver that was open and accepting to talking about all types of social issues. I never felt inhibited or shouted down whenever I had anything to say.

The personal problems people talked about ranged from typical academic stress to minor drug use or alcohol, from being in a bad relationship to someone’s friend coming out as gay and not knowing what to say.

When I moved to MIT for college, I was worried about how I would continue keeping up with my faith community. I was scared that I would encounter hordes of vindictive atheists at my technology-centered school, or that there wouldn’t be a large faithful community, or that I would simply not be disciplined enough. Fortunately, I found a lot of very respectful agnostics and atheists, and a lot of people who had the same positive religious experiences that I did.

Many students, including myself, decided to stay faithful, but also had a lot to say about modern sociopolitical issues. I saw this attitude not only in my fellow Catholics, but also in Mormons, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and many other faithful youth.

I was surprised when Mormon students openly advocated for some gay rights, discussing evidence in scripture with their leaders. Muslim girls at MIT see empowerment in their hijabs and reject the belief that Islam is “inherently oppressive.” They embrace the fiercest women in their history, legendary women soldiers, scholars and martyrs, looking to them as examples that women have an important place in Islam.

Yet I also found many people who were very uncomfortable with religion or had revoked their own. Some had simply decided that they didn’t believe, but most people actually talked about very specific experiences that stopped them from going to church or temple. Sadly, many of them involved youth groups.

My friend (who I’ll call Sarah) stopped going to her church in Houston because the adult leader was incredibly controlling and had strict views on abstinence. He forced Sarah’s friend’s boyfriend to ask the pastor for permission to date her, and at the point that he decided to never let Sarah and her own boyfriend out of his sight whenever they were around, she decided to stop going.

[Related: Spirituality + Alcoholics Anonymous Prove Successful for LA Youth]

Some students told me they felt their home communities had sheltered them from (or, for some particularly angry people, lied to them about) other possible stands on social issues. Still other teens were gay, and either did not feel comfortable coming out to their youth groups, religious communities and families, or faced horrible experiences when they did.

Youth groups have a particular power to influence the perspectives of young people, because that is where they are first invited to ask questions about society. If the adults of the community forcefully shut down those questions, the questioner begins to shut themselves down from their faith. But even a very strict stance, when communicated well and with love, can still retain the respect and uphold the dignity of the person hearing it. Too many adult leaders fail to achieve that communication.

Among my Catholic friends, we share a group chat (jokingly named “Take Me to Church” after the popular Hozier song) that we use to communicate on Sundays before mass and to share interesting news. One person shared this article about a gay man in his late 20s, Steve Gersham (a pseudonym).

He actually chose to follow the official stance of the church, and in doing so, chose celibacy over marriage with another man — a choice he attributes to all his positive experiences. He came out to many people of the church, and all treated him with understanding, even admiration for his hard decision.

Contrary to ideas of the lazy or indifferent youth, some of the youngest members of the church become its most faithful, willing to make the hardest choices, when raised with positive religious experiences.

“Honor thy parents” is an oft-repeated proverb, but for the health of all faiths, I hope adults will remember to really listen to the youth of your community. Be open-minded and understanding, and make an effort to communicate well.

Selam Gano is a sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying mechanical engineering and computer science. She blogs about college life and social justice issues.

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