History of Religious Education at UUFN

by Lois Burnes

Today we’re taking a peek at the past history of the religious education program for our children and youth over the last 50 years. From the beginning, the youngest members of the fellowship were included  in the plans of the group.  In the fall of 1966, “Sunday school” (as it was referred to at the time) began at the original Northfield Arts Guild building. An RE committee began meeting regularly that year.

There were pairs of teachers who would each serve for a month. Two age groups assembled together with a short song, then each had their own group meeting, and closed with this short prayer. “May we have eyes that see, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve.”

Beginning in 1967, the Sunday School began meeting in members’ homes for the next few years.  Many additional activities were planned;  a fossil hunt, a field trip to the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, and a traditional Easter morning trip to Carleton’s Arboretum.  The children were also involved in fund raising activities, aided by the parents.  A Halloween children’s carnival raised money for UNICEF.  After about 12 years, the RE program was suspended due to a dwindling number of children.

In the early 1990s, the RE program reemerged.  Volunteer member teachers, students from Carleton and volunteer directors/coordinators guided the program. A youth group was started in 2002, with joint activities with UCC youth, a field trip to see “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the American History Theater in St. Paul, shopping for the food shelf and skating and sledding parties along with the younger children.  Fellowship adult members urged more kid-friendly services, with at least one family service a month.  We continue to have multigenerational services throughout the year.

 A very special story indicates the impact of UUFN on one of the youngest among us. Nancy Huppert’s daughter Clare was about 3 and asked one night at dinner, “When are we going to the Tuna Fairy Ship?” Not sure what she meant, Nancy turned to older sister Olivia who piped up, “She means Unitarian Fellowship!” After Nancy shared the story during Joys and Concerns the next Sunday, the Tuna Fairy Ship took on a life of its own, inspiring a Reach column and an anthem, “We all live in the Tuna Fairy Ship,” sung to the tune of Yellow Submarine.

With the hiring of Nancy Huppert as the first professional religious education director in 2008, the RE program took a big step forward. Several new curriculum series were used including Picture Book RE and Picture Book World Religions for the younger children (grades K - 5) and The Gospel According to the Simpsons and Toolbox of Faith for the older group. The groups began their Sunday lessons with simple rituals of candle lighting and Joys and Concerns with rocks to put in a bowl.  

Several annual traditions were begun; an autumn trip to an apple orchard followed by Apple Crisp Sunday, Muffin Sunday, Ice Cream Social, and the spring trip to the Garden of Quiet Listening/Japanese Garden. A chance for the fellowship’s adults to interact with the younger children came about when the monthly “What   Do You Believe?” gatherings were established. Volunteers served as nursery supervisors for the littlest UUs, with written caregiver guidelines provided.  A paid nursery position was established in 2014 when Julie Topp became a comforting reliable Sunday morning presence in the sunshine yellow nursery room.

Nancy was an active participant in developing the Safe Congregation Policy and the requirement for background checks for all who are teachers and others regularly working with children. Nancy often shared her special gift of music which enhanced lessons and Sunday services. When she left to concentrate on her family and full time music teaching job, Marcia Jacobs stepped in as interim director.  Marcia has been a long time RE committee member and frequent teacher and carried the load until a new permanent director was found.

James Coulter began as Director of Religious Education in May of 2014, finishing out the 2013/14 RE year. Two new curricula were chosen over the summer and introduced for the 2014/15 RE year; Dr. Seuss and the Seven Principles for the K-4/5 group and the New You the Creator for the Middle School group. The monthly "What Do You Believe?" classes for the K-4/5 group shifted focus and explored the seven UU principles through questions posed to the guest.

In the summer of 2015, the RE Committee decided to focus on religious literacy as well as stories from the Bible using A World of New Friends and UU Picture Book Bible Tales. The Committee also decided to change the name of the RE program to Children and Youth Programs. New activities scheduled for the 2015/16 RE year include a seed starting class and edible plant fundraiser, and a food drive for the Community Action Center.

We are still fortunate to have talented volunteer teachers participating in our children and youth’s creative endeavors with art, music and drama.  Bill McGrath led a Music Exploration activity last week and here are McGrath’s  melodious music makers.