Good morning. My name is Jeff Brainerd. This year I am serving as the chair of the RE Council. I’m here to report that it’s been an interesting year in religious education here at First Parish. But before I talk about that, I first want to talk about our very own sexuality education program, OWL, and why I personally feel so strongly about it.
OWL, if you don’t know, stands for Our Whole Lives. For many years now we have offered it for our 8th graders, those who are truly on the threshold between children and young adults. (And as a side note, if you don’t know already, I am very excited to tell you that we are offering this year, for the very first time, Little OWL, an age appropriate, sexuality education program for 1st graders.)
Three years ago, I became an 8th grade OWL leader, and I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no experience in teaching the topic, and really no experience with kids that age. Even so, I did somehow feel drawn to it. Well, my very first session… was quite an educational experience I can tell you. Luckily for me we had an amazing team of OWL leaders who really helped me along and showed me the ropes.
And over some time what I realized, was that in that room something amazing happens. It’s not just that we are offering these adolescents straightforward, factual information about critical issues that they will be (or already are) exposed to. It’s not just that the way we approach the entire topic — in an expansive and holistic way that is grounded in our UU values — is something that our kids cannot get anywhere else. It’s not just that we are trying to help our kids make life-affirming and healthy choices about their bodies, their relationships, and their actions. All of that is great, but what is really amazing is the connection of trust that we all — kids and leaders alike — form. Together, we can and do talk about some of the most difficult, most embarrassing things you can imagine. Together we transcend social stigma and shame. And we have a lot of fun along the way.
Three years later, I now have a good idea of why I am drawn to such work, as challenging as it is at times. Why it feels so personally important to me. It’s because when I was growing up I never had anything like this. And yes, I made it through, though not without some amount of luck. But I want more for my children. I want my kids to be more prepared, and more informed than I was. I want my kids to make better decisions than I did. This is an amazing and unique opportunity we offer our young members at critical junctures in their lives. And just how great is it, that while I am teaching OWL to the 8th graders of a number of folks that I love and respect, two of my most favorite people, whom I love and respect dearly, are teaching OWL to my 1st grader. In a town that wants for nothing, that is something money cannot buy.
OWL, of course, is only one of the amazing religious education programs here at First Parish. My time here today is too short to give them all their due, but I will say that RE is a big reason my family and I are here. And, Pam Howell is a big reason my family and I are here, as I imagine might be true for some of you. As you probably know, we are in a time of transition for religious education here at First Parish. We were fortunate to have had 10 wonderful years with Pam. She brought her many gifts to our congregation — children and adults alike — and I know I’m not alone in missing her. There is no doubt — this transition has been challenging — for me personally, for the members of the RE Council, and I know for some of you. But this transition is also an important opportunity for us, as a congregation, to continue our history of providing a top-notch religious education program worthy of our flagship church. An opportunity for ownership and responsibility in a brand new way. The RE program is more than any one person. It is exactly what we make it. We have the very best, most dedicated volunteers, and we need to continue to attract and retain the very best staff to lead our programs.
This is one reason why my family is increasing our pledge this year by 20%. For me, supporting RE is about supporting our kids. A strong RE program is vital to the long term health of our congregation — and a healthy, vibrant congregation in turn supports the amazing programs that will inspire and prepare our children to go out into the world in peace. Please join me this year in doing what you can — financially and otherwise — to help us make our RE program better than ever.