What UU Youth Have Taught Me About Covenant
Youth and Young Adult Ministry Development
Over the past 4 years, through my work with youth and young adults, I’ve been part of many a covenant making session and along the way I’ve learned some really useful, although perhaps unlikely, phrases: ‘Respect Umbrella,’ ‘the Vegas Rule,’ and ‘Oops/Ouch.’ Making covenants each time youth and young adults gather has become embedded in UU youth and young adult culture and some of our young people have gained a depth of experience with this practice that offers insights to all of us.
Through the past decade or so, the concept of covenant has come much more into the forefront of our UU consciousness. Making covenants has become pretty widespread in our UU communities as we have (re)turned to this practice of naming and committing to our best intentions for how we want to be in relationship with each other. Sounds a bit lofty and yet in my experience this is actually one of those places where our talk ‘hits our walk’ so to speak.
Covenant is not a new idea. It has deep roots in our UU tradition, tracing back to the early puritans as they grappled with creating a free church in a new world, and beyond them, all the way back to biblical times and the promise G-d made to the Jewish people.
But it’s not covenant’s history that has been tugging at me lately – it’s how we, and our youth in particular, are using covenant today.
Although I was very active in my congregation as a teen, I don’t have memories of using covenants when I went to youth group and Youth Cons. I know we had many of the same hopes as youth today do, deeply valuing the open acceptance we found at church. In looking back at our events and gatherings and then looking at how today’s youth Cons are, it feels like we could have gained something from taking more time to be explicit about how we were going to try to be together.
If you are a youth or young adult now, or worked with UU YaYAs at some point in the past 8 or so years, you are likely familiar with the phrases ‘Respect Umbrella,’ ‘The Vegas Rule,’ and ‘Oops/Ouch’. For the rest of you, each of these phrases are a kind of shorthand to larger aspirations that are commonly found on a youth-created covenant.
Respect Umbrella – a way of saying have respect for what’s all around you; other people, their belongings, boundaries and feelings, the physical space you are in, and for your own self.
The Vegas Rule – a riff on the adage ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ this is a shorthand way of lifting up privacy and discretion. When at a Youth Con or in the context of youth group, all individuals can feel safe to share personal thoughts, stories and reflections with assurances that they will not be repeated.
Unpacked, these terms aren’t that revelatory and versions of these sentiments can be found on covenants created by all ages and stages. It’s this next one however that has been transformative for me – deceptively simple and truly challenging when taken seriously.
Oops/Ouch – Simply, this offers a way for a person to alert others they have been hurt by something that was done or said by saying ‘ouch.’ To which ‘oops’ can be replied as a way into acknowledging and apologizing. For simple misunderstanding or mis-speaking it offers a quick way to ‘call someone out’ (hopefully) without putting them on the defensive or for someone to apologize while saving face. That’s the first layer.
Saying ‘oops’ is also an option when a person catches themselves saying or doing something they realize could be hurtful to others or was said in bad taste. A way to simultaneously acknowledge to the community that you stumbled, but that you are willing to own your words and that you want to do better next time.
These ‘layers’ can be powerful moments as our youth (or anyone) makes the effort to walk our talk. This is the true part of how covenants become living documents – not just that the words and phrases on them can change, but that the intentions they contain, come alive like a hedge row along a walking path reminding us of the direction we want to go in.
At youth Cons, many youth love to be able to express physical affection with their friends through copious hugs. But not everyone likes to hug and so elaborate strategies have been devised to make it easier to ask, receive and turn away hugs in a friendly way. Marker drawn ‘hug buttons’ on hands signifying “I’d love a hug,” to flying high fives or a swooping ‘airplane dance,’ to reject having a hug you don’t want to receive, have all been invented.
It’s tempting to ask why all these tools are necessary – can’t we just be direct with each other? How hard is it to say “No, thanks” to a hug or to tell someone “Your comment upsets me.” Why all the code? We have a covenant after all…
These strategies are a kind of step ladder. As anyone who has ever been too short to reach the coveted item on the high shelf knows, often we won’t even try retrieving that thing beyond our grasp without support – it’s just too scary or dangerous.
It’s here that the silly sounding phrase of ‘oops’ and ‘ouch’ offers a deeper layer still – sometimes, in the heat of a passionate debate or as an off-hand comment, things are said that touch, simultaneously, a wasp’s nest of a complex, nuanced issue and our most tender places from which a whole wellspring of thoughts and feelings are released.
We’ve all been in those conversations. Where that walking the talk along a gentle path turns into a hike through the Rockies, where broken ankles and awe-inspiring vistas are equally likely.
So instead of staying silent in that moment, I can say ‘ouch’ – to your comment that ‘anyone who can serve in the military doesn’t actually want peace,’ ‘young people don’t want to come to church anymore,’ ‘anyone who doesn’t contribute to the canvass doesn’t care about this church’ – that you-name-it-statement-of-fact-that-is-really-an-opinion-and-is-different-from-mine comment.
And in that moment I know that your ‘oops’ will likely not be enough to heal my ‘ouch.’ But these silly, little words offer a starting point and a way to get to – “what you said really hurt my feelings,” “your experience is not my experience,” “tell me more about that” and “I’m sorry.” And in those heart opening moments of humility, of pain, of listening and being listened to, a relationship is deepened.
In that moment as we call someone out – we also get the opportunity to call them in too. As activist, writer and storyteller Ngọc Loan Trần writes:
I picture ‘calling in’ as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do f*ck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. ‘Calling in’ is a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.
All these strategies, these tools – they aren’t ends in themselves but are in service of something bigger. Isn’t that what covenant (and church for that matter) is about – being in relationship.
UU Minister Victoria Safford offers that covenants are ‘declarations of interdependence’, saying:
A covenant is a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day. It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up
For me these kinds of awkward, uncomfortable conversations, this covenant work – this is the interdependent web of existence happening around us, this is what covenanting to affirm and promote ‘acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth’ can actually look and feel like. Doing this work, is messy and fraught to be sure, but ultimately calling each other in, when we fall short, seems like one of the most important calls we can make. And maybe, just maybe, committing to do so will give us more glimpses of those breathtaking views along the path we walk together.