This entry was originally posted July 12, 2009 as part of the website “Slouching Towards Anaheim.”
“We need to raise up and follow more young leaders. Unless we end their disenfranchisement, the Episcopal Church runs a severe risk of becoming mainly a marriage and burial society.” -Louie Crew
I took some time off today to enjoy the sun. The last two days have been much quieter because there has been a lot less committee work to follow. Tomorrow we take our Pseudo-Sabbath, which means little is planned and there is only one Legislative Session.
This break in the action was well timed for me, as it allowed me to finally address something that has been nagging at me for some time. It finally culminated yesterday, as die-hard fans of this blog already know. So, here it is.
At General Convention I elicit a peculiar response. Of course at a gathering of Christians people treat each other well, but I notice something different with me. When I walk past, head’s turn. I step into a room and smiles appear. I wander near a booth and eyes light up. Everyone is always friendly. Everyone is always happy to see me. Everyone is so glad I’m here.
The reason I receive such special treatment is that here at General Convention, as well as in the wider Church, I am of very high value. My value is greater than many of those around me, because I am a rare and desired item. I fall within the range loosely defined as “Youth & Young Adult.” In a way, it is nice. It feels good to be valued, to be wanted. There is a sense of pride when someone expresses relief at your very presence. This is how I have felt about the situation for several years.
However, in the last few days the pride has abandoned me and I find myself instead with anger. You see my value is not inspired by my age, it is my age. I am not an ally, but an asset. I am a commodity. My birth year stands out like a price tag.
I first noticed this the other day when I heard a version of the phrase, “The youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today” for the fifth time since arriving on Monday night. I hate that phrase. And I have used that phrase. Four out of those five times it was a young person saying it. And I realize that it is a fairly worthless saying. We say it because we know it will make them clap and cheer as we walk away from the podium. It is a sound-bite.
We are trying to sell ourselves, and some of us are very good at it. When we speak we know what we’re supposed to say. We know which things we are supposed to care about and which things are for the grown ups. We know when to follow along and when to sit down and shut up. Sometimes this knowledge is conscious, sometimes it is buried down deep and ingrained. Because it is not the content of our message but the number of us in the room that matters.
It is economics for the adults and politics for the youth. If they can keep us interested than we might up their numbers, and if we can gain their complacency then we might create change. It is a very happy, stable relationship provided that no one involved notices what’s really going on. But now I’ve noticed, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
I feel that I should take a moment to explain the value of youth as I am defining it here. Attracting young people is tied directly and specifically to growth. Which means every congregation is looking for a few of me. Every organization wants one too. When lobbying for a cause I am a fantastic selling point, because it means that supporting the cause will earn a church young-person-points.
I don’t blame them. Some parts of the church are really hurting. They are good people with Good News to share. I wouldn’t have stayed an Episcopalian this long if I didn’t think it was an excellent church with a wonderful sense of history and powerful calling towards personal independence. But the political climate of the last ten years has been, believe it or not, hard on many churches. We have been lumped in with the hateful actions of other denominations, often with no reason. Belief isn’t cool anymore. In addition to that, the Episcopal Church is still working it’s way through the transition into full acceptance of all the baptized. To put too fine a point on it, the conservatives have started to leave but the liberals aren’t ready to come in, so the moderates have started to look around to find that they are alone.
I should point out that I believe most people do not realize what they are doing, and think that their actions come from a genuine desire to include young people and treat them as equals. But young people aren’t equals. We are a different breed all together. Age gives in wisdom what it takes in invention, and I believe that we have much to teach each other at all stages in our lives. This means that while I believe in equal participation and opportunities for young people, I think it is short-sighted to look on them as equals. And that’s the problem, because people can’t. They are still aware that being young can indicate inexperience, so while the relationship is intended to be equal, there is an unspoken agreement that one side knows more than the other, and judgement in all matters should be appropriately deferred to the “wise ones.”
This is how youth and young adults, especially in a setting like General Convention, have become apprentices to our own religion. We are bidding our time until we are deemed ready. To sooner graduate to a place of respect, we learn to sell ourselves. The Official Youth Presence have an assigned dress code that they vast majority of deputies are unaware of. Personally, I will be spending most of this week in skirts and a suit, even though no one is requiring it of me. We say things like “The youth are the future of the church.” We join only when invited. We only go to the microphone with prepared speeches. All of this is an attempt to prove ourselves, to prove our worth.
As a result I recently came full circle in a rather vicious cycle. First I discovered my low status, then I fought against it, now I enforce it on others. In the last few days I have found myself occasionally looking down on my fellow youth and young adults as a sort of defense mechanism. The thought is that if I look down on them as well, then when others do I am not included in the group anymore. This is unacceptable behavior for me. We must end it, or we risk the marginalized taking up the reigns of their own disenfranchisement, assuming they stick around at all.
Before I get off my soap box I’d like to make a few clarifications. As I said before I think this is a largely subconscious phenomenon. I don’t believe either side is doing it on purpose. I also want to say that from what I have seen, people who actually work with youth and head up youth and young adult programs appear mostly immune to this silent discrimination. Most likely this is because they are constantly reminded that the young people they work with are different from them, but not better or worse. No, it is certainly not everyone. But it is enough to cause concern, and more importantly to cause action.
Having reached the end I fear that I might still be too emotionally invested in the subject, but I suppose a healthy dose of passion never hurt anyone.