Religious Education Reimagined
"First-Day School" has not worked well in University Meeting (Seattle, WA) for some years now. Members have not been available to teach and the Meeting has not had guidance for paid teachers, who have not always been reliable. One 5th grader, who had been part of FDS from toddlerhood, told his father that he heard more about Quakers in school than in Meeting. Successive committees have burned out just finding people to be with the children week after week.
As the pandemic began, UFM approved an experiment in children's religious education which we implemented partially in the spring of 2020 and which, finally we plan to implement fully this May, when we'll invite children to the meetinghouse for a full hour of hybrid unprogrammed worship.
The partial experiment
In spring 2020, we began to offer child-centered family worship once each month. These have usually been held on Zoom, though a few times we have organized worship outdoors or in a hybrid format.
Each month, we choose a picture book on a Quaker-adjacent theme (there are not many specific Quaker books) and a Friend makes slides of the pages for us. We have been accompanied by a pair of singers who are also experienced in work with children who find songs each month to offer, as we open our gathering or as we go into worship after the story.
We've used books about young people who worked for civil rights, about finding and bringing beauty in the world, about the wise fool Nazruddinm and about a young boy's Christmas in Japan, and about Miriam and infant Moses, among others. The committee meets once to choose a theme and find a book, and develop queries, then once to run through our program with music. We send queries to families for conversation before worship.
We invite all Friends to join family worship but ask for space for children to share in worship before adults do. We encourage all to have materials for drawing, as we gather and then in worship.
This format can be called semi-programmed worship, and we have brought it twice to the entire 11:00 Meeting for Worship, on 5th Sundays, in collaboration with the Worship and Ministry committee. We asked families to talk about our queries and send their children's responses, with a photograph of each child, to be made into slides. This connects families and Meeting and allows us to hear from children without putting them on the spot in a setting where they are outnumbered by adults.
We invited drawing in response to queries and both children and adults shared drawings and other ministry out of waiting worship. For our first all-Meeting worship, in October, we invited all of our children to introduce themselves and our prompt for worship and drawing was about how we hold people in the Light. In January we read about a group of disabled children who, with their families, sued the Washington DC school district for the right to an education, in the early 1970s.
Semi-programmed worship is accessible to children in a way silent worship is not. We are grateful to University Meeting for agreeing to this radical experiment in our community.
Our plan is to offer childcare on Sunday mornings for all ages of children, who will continue to join the last 10 minutes of worship. It is much easier to hire people for childcare than for "religious education," and First-Day School was not resulting in education.
The education committee will offer an event for families once a month on a Saturday afternoon or evening. This will include a meal (Covid conditions permitting), worship-sharing for parents and activities for children around Quaker themes. We believe the committee can sustain this level of involvement. We hope other Friends will join us to share their Quaker faith with our children at a time when they won't have to miss worship. We have found that many families have conflicts with Meeting on Sunday.
Children are always welcome in Meeting for Worship, but on the 4th Sunday each month we will expect and invite them to join the full hour of silent worship. We'll have a space on the floor with some quiet toys and a child-size table and chairs for drawing. We expect our children to join us in silence but recognize that we'll have worship with a level of activity that may challenge us. 9:30 worship is available for Friends who prefer to worship only with adults.
When we have a 5th Sunday, the education committee will lead a semi-programmed Meeting for Worship at 11. Again, this format is more accessible to children than a full hour of silence, and we are grateful to UFM for agreeing to this experiment in intergenerational worship.