I’m bridging this week. Well, kinda, but not really. This week I become a “real adult” or an “old adult” or whatever else you call it after you have moved on from being a young adult. This week I turn 36. In most circles, turning 36 is not a momentous occasion. It’s not as exciting as 18, not as stress-inducing as 40, and comes with no added benefits like at age 62 (or older). I bet you would be hard pressed to find a birthday card explicitly celebrating this milestone. Yet for me, it is, and is not a pretty big deal.
I came to Unitarian Universalism as a young, Young Adult. I was 20 years old, fresh out of Basic Training in the US Army, 3000 miles away from home, and searching for a new spiritual community. I had already left the trappings of a Catholic upbringing and was interested in learning more about Unitarian Universalism, introduced to me by way of a college course on World Religions (taught by a UU professor, incidentally). I found my first UU congregation the best way I knew how: using the yellow pages of the telephone book. I attended my first UU worship service on a Sunday morning in the late fall, was greeted warmly, while at the same time, was allowed my space to observe and take everything in. I can honestly say that I immediately felt at home, and knew this was the place and faith for me. It’s not an uncommon story.
I spent the better part of the next two years attending services at that congregation. I mingled with elders during the monthly post-church lunch of soup and bread, and spoke with the young families who surrounded me during the service. I felt held and safe when sharing deep sorrows and profound joys. There was not a Young Adult group at the church, and I didn’t think anything of it. I knew I was the youngest person in worship services, aside from the children who would soon after leave for the RE classes, but I really did not care.
By the age of 23, I had returned home, married, with a baby, and another on the way. When I looked around on Sunday morning in our new congregation, no one looked like me. Sure, there were young families, but it was a different version of young. We had children when we were in our early 20s. I was a decade or two younger than almost all of the other parents of young children. Since my own mother was only 20 years older than me, the young parents in the congregation seemed closer in age to my own mom and dad than to me. Any likely peers were nowhere to be found. I was still technically a young adult, but felt less so since I was also a parent. I have been traversing that dichotomous terrain for 13 years.
Sure, I’ve been a young adult by UUA guidelines and standards, but it’s hard to identify that way when you have two kids in middle school, are paying off student loan debt and trying to save for their schooling at the same time, and are happiest when you get a chance to go to bed by 9:00pm on a Saturday night and sleep in until 7:00am on Sunday. I just don’t feel THAT young anymore. I feel like I’ve been a “real adult” for a long time.
But in my work as UUA District staff, I visit a lot of congregations. Even as I continue to age (I do have a birthday each year, and I do celebrate it for an entire month), I am often the youngest adult in the room. How is this still happening? I spoke to a lay leader recently who told me they had a number of young adults on their board. When I asked what he meant by young adults, he replied, “Oh, under the age of 50.”
Listen, I will be frank with you. I take no offense at being called young, and am sure I will appreciate it more each year. But if I walk into your congregation, and there is no one between my age and your high schoolers, we have a problem. If there is no one between my age and your 50-year-old lay leader, we have a problem, and a 30 year age gap in members once I walk out the door. We must offer diversity in Young Adult ministry if we are to remedy this. The age span is wide, the needs are varied, and our young adults are flung far and wide.
I’ll bridge this week, in my own little way. I won’t get the Young Adult ribbon on my name badge at GA later this month, but I’ll still be the youngest member of my Regional Staff team. I’ll drop my daughter off at her first day of junior high in the fall, and will still be asked if I had her in high school. I don’t expect my life will change all that much once I turn 36. But I will continue to work to help create communities and support congregations ready and able to minister to people of all ages, in all stages, of life.