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The United Church diaspora

They don’t attend worship anymore, but countless young adults are living out the values they absorbed in church

By Christine Boyle

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to Sunday morning worship in the last year. But I am in conversations about church, faith, spirituality, purpose, wholeness and social change all the time.

Most of my young life has been spent stumbling between the institutional church, spiritual-but-not-religious folks and secular social movements. There’s plenty of shared ground among them, as well as plenty of missed opportunities for collaboration. That’s why I started Spirited Social Change, an organization that seeks to strengthen connections between spirituality and our work for a better world, especially among young people. And it’s why, when I talk about how I came to do what I do, this is what I say: I was raised by lovely and loving people, and much of who I am, I owe to them. My family is compassionate and community-oriented, but my activism really began in church.

I grew up in The United Church of Canada in the 1980s and ’90s. I went to Sunday school, youth group, camps, conferences and Presbytery meetings. I was young and didn’t know all the details of the ongoing battles over the ordination of gays and lesbians, or the heartbreaking atrocities being revealed about residential schools, or the intense debates about the divinity of Christ. From my vantage point, I saw communities of people boldly proclaiming a deep belief in justice and right relationship. And it seeped into my growing bones.

I am part of what a friend recently referred to as “the United Church diaspora.” And I am in fine company.

In social change movements across this country, young adults from United Church backgrounds are living out the faith and the values this church imbued in them. While they may not show up in your sanctuary any time soon, the lives and work of these 20- to 40-year-olds are part of an important and invisible legacy of this institution. It’s a demographic worth paying attention to.

Chris Gallaway is a fellow member of the United Church diaspora. Gallaway grew up attending a United church in Estevan, Sask. He was baptized and confirmed, attended youth group and was a youth representative on various church committees. Though he was involved in the church throughout high school, he stopped attending when he moved to Saskatoon for university.

Gallaway jokes that his memories of church are all about food, community and art. But the lessons provided were powerful. The 1980s in Saskatchewan were economically difficult, and pay-what-you-can meals wove people together. It was through Estevan United that Gallaway learned the necessity of working for peace and protecting the environment.

An activist who has come to politics, Gallaway just started a new job in the Alberta legislature in Edmonton as an outreach officer for the NDP. Issues around poverty, harm reduction, housing and the environment have always driven him, sparked in large part by the lessons of the church.

If forced to choose a label, Gallaway would call himself an atheist. Listening to him talk, however, I’m conscious that his atheism doesn’t sound much different from my own sense of spirituality. Having worked on a number of gruelling election campaigns, he’s been focused in the last few years on mental and physical well-being, and avoiding burnout.

Another Saskatchewan native, Erin Beckwell grew up at the only church in Abbey, Sask. She was baptized there, went to Sunday school, taught Sunday school and got involved in United Church camps. After a hiatus from congregational involvement, she was married in a United church as part of a court case in Saskatchewan to legalize same-sex marriages.

Beckwell works as a professor of social work and a field education co-ordinator at the University of Regina’s Saskatoon campus. Her area of interest is the rights and health of chronic drug users. She is also on the Saskatchewan advisory board of Next Up, a national youth leadership program.

All of her efforts are grounded in her own transformative experiences of inclusion, at church, at camp and elsewhere. She feels strongly that everyone deserves to be treated as valuable and worthwhile. She knows how much of a difference that can make.

Beckwell quietly identifies as a Christian and a United Church member, most of the time, but she hesitates to use those labels publicly. In her work and in her communities, there’s baggage surrounding religion, and mentioning her church affiliation often creates barriers. Like most in the United Church diaspora, Beckwell’s spiritual and religious views defy a label. But she still feels a pull to church life. She is passionate about the work of her camp, Camp Shagabec, and the way it gives young people a safe place to explore spirituality. “I’ve seen such fabulous stuff come out of that camp environment,” she says. “For me, that is church.”

Jarrah Hodge also speaks passionately about inclusion when reflecting on her United Church upbringing. The biggest lessons Hodge learned at church were about loving and respecting others, helping the less fortunate and making society fairer. Being part of efforts at equality and inclusion within the church made Hodge “not willing to just accept the inequality elsewhere.”

Hodge works as a communications representative for a local union in Vancouver. She also writes an award-winning blog at gender-focus.com that challenges the perception we don’t need feminism anymore.

Though she identifies as an atheist and isn’t interested in attending worship, Hodge appreciates that many of her morals and values were learned in the church.

Brendon Goodmurphy doesn’t go to church on Sundays either, but he grew up belonging to First United in Waterloo, Ont. He was part of the choir and attended Sunday school, then youth group. As is common among the United Church diaspora, he attributes many of his strongly held values — compassion, care and consideration for other people — to his years in church.

With a degree in urban planning, Goodmurphy is part of the Toronto Urban Fellows program, which introduces young professionals to the governance and operations of city hall through training and work experience. He identifies as spiritual but not religious, and is interested in what a spiritual community for people like himself might look like, a space to explore questions about God and about happiness, relationships and meaning.

For Goodmurphy, living a meaningful life is about making things better for society, especially the vulnerable. This sounds remarkably like something Jesus taught and is a theme in these conversations.

Nicole Smith also makes a connection between her early Christian education and her current work challenging injustice. Smith grew up in Nashwaak Bridge, N.B., attending St. Luke’s United. She went to Sunday school, then taught Sunday school, then moved to Fredericton for university and stopped attending church. But she didn’t stop living it.

Smith completed a degree in human rights and was involved in social justice work, particularly for reproductive and women’s rights. Interested in travelling overseas, she contacted the General Council Office and went to work with United Church partners in the Philippines, learning about the devastating effects of mining in that country.

Smith now lives in Ottawa and is involved with the Ontario Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines and Mining the Connections (a United Church committee based in the Maritimes). She’s met the Indigenous people whose lives are being destroyed by mining and is passionate about anti-mining advocacy. Because so many mining companies are Canadian, she feels a responsibility to do something.

Smith continues to classify herself as a Christian and attributes part of that to having taught Sunday school for so long. “I spent so much time teaching the ‘We all have to love each other and get along’ message and the ‘Jesus loves everyone’ message. That very simplistic message of love that we teach the little kids in Sunday school, that’s what has really become the foundation of my adult Christianity.”

Smith repeats some particularly sage advice from her mom: “You are a Christian your whole life. How you are a Christian doesn’t really matter. If you want to do good works and be an activist, if that is how you want to be a Christian, then that’s fine. Maybe someday you’ll be a going-to-church Christian, but it doesn’t have to be now, and it doesn’t have to be ever.”

The wisdom of Smith’s mother resonates with me. After years of front-line social service work and a yearning to better integrate activism and spirituality, I completed a master of arts in religious leadership for social change at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. I returned to Vancouver after the recession to find a tough job market and no obvious home in the church.  

What’s more, I returned to a national church more conscious than ever about its own declining numbers. At the same time, I couldn’t ignore the political shifts happening in Canada and their negative effects on the people and places I love. It’s a frustrating tension. When the church worries about declining numbers, it’s only counting bums in pews or names on registers. It’s not asking itself what matters most.

The young people who make up this unofficial United Church diaspora are out in the world answering that question, with all of the wisdom imbued in them by their United Church upbringings. They are caring for the poor and the environment; they are addressing systemic injustice locally and globally. They might not show up on Sundays, but their impact on the world is part of the church’s immeasurable legacy.

All of which made me wonder: what would it look like for the church to support the lives and work of young people like us? I asked everyone I spoke to if they had suggestions for, or requests of, The United Church of Canada.

Frequently, the answers echoed the sorts of conversations I hear happening all over the church: less focus on how church needs to happen in particular forms; less focus on buildings; more creative use of buildings as sites for community organizing.

They didn’t stop there. The young adults I spoke with want the church to be bolder politically, to take more of a systemic advocacy role. In part, this speaks to the urgency my generation feels about the global climate crisis and increasing economic inequality. Our generation will bear the brunt of these challenges, and if we are going to create change, we need the church there beside us.

This yearning for the church to be bolder isn’t just about urgency. It’s about wanting the church to regain social credibility, to become an institution that young people can see themselves in. As Goodmurphy says, “The only way the church will be attractive to young, spiritually minded people is if it visibly redefines what it means to be Christian and what it means to be a spiritual or religious person. That’s what we need.”

Echoing others, Goodmurphy also speaks about a longing for spiritual community, for space to talk about the big questions among people with shared values. Beckwell adds that people in social justice communities need places where they can connect, rejuvenate and grieve. The United Church could help to create spaces like that.

In reaching out to the diaspora, Smith wishes the church would not market itself as being about going to worship services and knowing God. “The church has such a strong social justice base; I wish they would be more proud of that.” As Beckwell says, “Lots of folks do their social justice work because they grew up in the United Church. There are a lot of us for whom it wouldn’t take a lot to get us connected again.”

I know that for the church, connecting with young people seems like a mighty challenge, one for which many committees and task forces have been created. Here is the advice I’ve gleaned from these conversations: If the church wants to connect with young people, it should focus less effort on trying to get bums in pews. Instead, it should head back into the world where these young people are struggling to tackle the major social and environmental challenges of our time. And it should ask to join them.

Christine Boyle is a community organizer and communicator and the director of Spirited Social Change. She lives in Vancouver.

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