Vital Friends: Reflections on Religious Education and Parenting as a Quaker during COVID-19

For the October 2020 issue of the Vital Friends eNewsletter, Quaker religious education teachers Mim Lilly Coleman and Melinda Wenner Bradley share their reflections on how the coronavirus pandemic changed their work, and ways we can encourage children’s explorations of their faith while also offering reassurance during these uncertain times.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Vital Friends. View the full issue.

Zooming through First Day School

By Mim Lilly Coleman

Like many other communities, North Pacific Yearly Meeting started out the year with grand plans for our Youth Program. In my planner, there is still a page with upcoming Quaker events titled “Immovable Dates”. Of course I learned all dates are movable, and all plans are hopes, not accurate predictions of the future. We had to move all of our events online, and sadly saw quite a dip in the numbers of participating families. The communities where I have seen the most participation are the ones that already had thriving and robust Youth Programs in place. Encouraging, but not very helpful for those of us who were hoping 2020 would be a year of nurturing and growth for our own meeting’s smaller programs. 

Youth Programing online gives us a chance to see what we can offer kids on their own terms. Instead of silent worship in a room full of grownups, we’re now competing with playing outside, reading new books, and playing with favorite toys. The things I have seen work best are the simple and the familiar. Singing songs (well, one Friend singing and the rest of us on mute…otherwise it sounds more like a conductor’s fever dream than a sing-a-long.), reading stories (local libraries often have robust ebook offerings that can be screen-shared), and collaborative art projects using Zoom’s “Annotate” features. (Note: It’s important to turn OFF this feature when using screen-sharing to read stories. Unless you want mysterious squiggles and shapes to suddenly appear on your book’s pictures).

Most importantly, youth programming is about giving kids a space to share what’s on their hearts. “Roses and Thorns” is a group favorite, especially for kids who may have trouble initiating sharing. For those who aren’t familiar: We ask each Friend “What’s something that you’re happy about?” (Your Rose), and “What’s something that you’re not so happy about?” (Your Thorn).

While I can’t wait to see Friends again in person, I’m grateful that our connections are strong enough to reach through lines and wires and keep us together. Holding all of you in the light.

Mim Lilly Coleman attends Salmon Bay Meeting in Seattle, WA. She is North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Youth Program Coordinator.

Parenting in COVID-19

By Melinda Wenner Bradley

For the past six months, I’ve worked from home with my three children around me. My kids are older; this summer the youngest turned thirteen. And while I’ve been able to focus on my own work and called on very little to support their online learning last spring or this fall, their need for emotional and spiritual support has been present and often intense. One of the things I’ve discovered about parenting is that my growing children don’t need less of my care; they need it in different ways. 

What do older youth and teens need? Like younger children, normalcy and routine, alongside spaces where they can just be with peers and trusted adult presences. Sometimes it helps to offer young people their own space to process before bringing concerns forward. Coping with COVID-19: A Work Book for Kids and Teens is designed with writing and drawing prompts to help children and teens communicate and cope with their feelings and emotions regarding the pandemic. There are several books for younger children to help parents and caregivers discuss COVID-19 and its continued impact on our daily lives this fall. One of my favorites is Sacred Spaces by Mehgan Rohrer, about how we are loving our neighbor through our actions. These three titles can be downloaded to explore together at home:

There may be a time in coming days when, in our experience as a meeting, or as a family, or as friends and neighbors, there is a child or young person dealing with loss. A study conducted by a Penn State associate sociology professor and other researchers concluded that every COVID-19 death leaves an average of nine survivors who have lost a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child. Some of the more difficult conversations I’ve had in the past months with my own children have been about death. My college-aged child remarked during a conversation one day, “Death feels closer,”and has expressed anxiety about family and friends getting sick. A younger sibling has shown up at my bedside unable to sleep, and shared their deep uneasiness about the inevitability of death. “Darn existential questions!,” he tried to joke through tears.*

As a parent, I hold my children close and provide what comfort I can. I’m glad for the Godly Play stories they heard and wondered about as younger children, which gave them images and language for big questions about the Divine and created spaces to come close to those existential questions like death and aloneness. Thinking about how we talk about death and helping children develop a vocabulary for loss and grief is pastoral care preparation we can also do across ages in meeting communities. There are excellent books for children through adolescents for talking about death and dying that could be recommended to a family in need of support. A lovely, gentle book for younger children is The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup and another, Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higginbotham (author of The Ordinary Terrible Things series) is a thoughtful and refreshingly candid exploration of a child’s experience.

There have been moments during these months when it felt like we recaptured some of the feeling of when my children were small and home together every day. There is an intimacy in depending on one another so completely for care and fellowship, as well as spiritual nurture. There is wonder and connection in moments I’m not looking for. The time with them feels precious and fleeting all over again, even though I know they would rather be at school and with their friends. They sometimes tease me with the language from Godly Play stories, “God came close to them, and they came close to God,” but all teasing has an element of truth, and I am comforted that this image is present for them in this time.

*My children gave their permission to be quoted in this piece.

Melinda Wenner Bradley is a member of West Chester Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) and currently nurtures the spiritual lives of children as a Godly Play trainer for Faith & Play Stories and as Philadelphia YM’s Youth Engagement Coordinator.

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