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Guest column by Rev. Dr. Roberta Nelson


Today when we welcome a child into the world, we know that it is a welcome into a constantly changing and challenging place. Our roles will include being parent, mentor, and guide. Our children, young people, and we ourselves cannot be sheltered from the many changes world presents. If we are not to stifle our children’s curiosity and questioning on this magnificent journey, we will need to be learning along with them.

Today the school system that my children attended includes a diverse Asian, African American, and Hispanic population. Within five years the white population will constitute a minority. In addition, there are new issues of class, gender, and politics

We cannot hide. This stunning diversity opens doors of understanding to religious rituals, language, foods, celebrations, clothing, and ceremonies. Being a companion and guide requires an open mind and heart. It invites us to let go of fears, misunderstandings, and prejudice. We need to acknowledge our own past learnings and experiences and to invite open conversation within the family about where we learned or experienced them and what has helped us to change. This way of being is not esoteric or removed. It is lived in the every day as we open ourselves to new understandings.

There are many doors to open:

    1. One of my family’s most memorable experiences was serving as a host family for a student from India while he attended university. In many communities there are opportunities to host high school students from other countries. Our young people could partake of similar experiences.

    2. One of our daughters served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She continues to share her experiences with groups and individuals of all ages. There are returning volunteers in most communities.

    3. I know of local schools where the whole school spends the year exploring one country through stories, music, art, food, and information. Some of the best resources are people in the community who have traveled or lived abroad. Families that travel can plan trips that provide a wide variety of discovery. For seniors, Elder Hostel is a valuable source of opportunities, some for children and their grandparents.

    4. Some of the richest and least expensive sources include your local library, PBS station, and local colleges or universities.

    5. The Yellow Pages can be a good resource for locating religious institutions in the area that we could otherwise overlook.

    6. Today, there is a wide array of stories for children of all ages that can open doors of understanding.

    7. Some museums specialize in particular cultures and groups, e.g., the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African Art are both part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Perhaps the hardest for some people to explore are the opportunities in our own workplace, schools, neighbors, play groups, and sports. The first step is often hardest. More than one overture may be necessary before a shared experience takes place.

It is crucial for nonreligious parents to include exposure to religious diversity. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

[I]n order to understand current world events, coworkers, neighbors, and friends, we need to be religiously literate. Parents especially need to help their children to be aware of the great diversity of faiths and cultures….Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from [religious] questions—you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them.…Regardless of whether we call ourselves religious, we are our children’s first and primary educators….If you do not provide the answers, someone else will—and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.

If you wish to visit a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, be sure to make arrangements in advance to explain that your children will be with you and why you are interested in coming. Be sure to have a family discussion when you return.

The challenge of our time is well summed up in words often attributed to Søren Kierkegaard, “To venture causes anxiety, not to venture is to lose oneself.”
THE REV. ROBERTA M. NELSON, DD is Emeritus Minister of Religious Education at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. She is coauthor of the curricula Parents as Resident Theologians, Parents as Social Justice Educators, and Parents as Spiritual Guides. She authored the essay “On Being Religiously Literate” in Parenting Beyond Belief. This column also appears in the February 20 issue of Humanist Network News.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.