Nina West of LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) LSD (Lower Southern District)
What was the youth group to which you belonged and what were the years?
I was in LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) from 1970-75, in Atlanta, Ga. I participated in LRY through UUCA (Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta).
Was your family UU (or Unitarian or Universalist) and what was their generational history as far as involvement in UU? Had family members been involved in former UU or Unitarian or Universalist youth groups and do you know what their experience might have been? If you were from outside UU, what was your religious/spiritual/social upbringing?
My family moved to Atlanta from Oklahoma in 1961, when I was four. My father had gotten a job at the CDC (now known as the Centers for Disease Control, though at the time it was Communicable Diseases Center). My father had been raised Methodist but was unchurched by the time he and my mother had us children. I gather that while at work, getting to know other scientists, he must have talked some about his religious beliefs and philosophy. A colleague suggested that he might feel at home among Unitarian Universalists. My mother had been raised mostly Presbyterian and so we split time between UUCA and a Presbyterian Church. This went on for about a year, as I recall. We alternated Sundays, attending UUCA one week, the Presbyterian Church the next. I remember that even at four years of age I preferred the UU church. At that time the congregation met in a couple of houses located at Boulevard and North Avenue. The Sunday programs for children at the UU church just seemed a lot more interesting to me and I enjoyed going. After about a year of splitting time between the two congregations we stopped going to the Presbyterian church and only attended UUCA. By then, the congregation was meeting in a public school on 10th street. I can remember a class where the teacher created a volcano and made it explode and that we were given fun coloring books that I liked, with pictures of Bat Masterson and horses. Perhaps because we'd come from Oklahoma the Bat Masterson coloring books connected with me.
I grew up attending RE (Religious Education) and enjoyed the friends I made in classes as well as the classes themselves. I particularly recall a curriculum that was something like The Church Across the Street, where we attended services at a variety of other denominations and got to talk to people from other faiths. I also remember a class where we learned about dinosaurs and that I enjoyed that. We had children's worship and though I didn't always enjoy going, as an adult looking back, I really appreciate that we had them. The man who conducted those services was a folk artist, a wood carver, who created wood sculptures and relief artwork that often had political overtones. But in the children's worship, he used his wood carving skills to create objects that would support our worship. For instance, he had carved wooden candle holders and a pair of cupped hands that served as an offering bowl. And one time he illustrated the story of the Tower of Babel with a series of wooden models that nested in each other, depicting the levels of the tower when people could speak a common language and then what happened when they couldn't. I also remember a book I still have, From Long Ago and Many Lands, from which I remember the story of the Good Samaritan, especially. I remember that the walls of our worship room had symbols from a variety of other religions and that I liked looking at those. These latter things were from the time when the congregation had finally built our own building, on Cliff Valley. Even the process of watching the building as it was built was important to me. As a family, we went frequently to watch its progress as it was built. Another really important RE class I took at UUCA was when I was in the 6th grade. The class was called something like Decision Making. I know now, as an adult, that it was about situational ethics. Our teacher was a scientist, a virologist, with CDC, and the thing I remember the most was that he really listened to us, respectfully, as if we were as worthy as any adult. That really meant a lot to me, to have an adult who was not my parent but who seemed to value my thoughts and my efforts to develop an internal ethical system and/or articulate that system.
I'll add here that much later, my mother decided to become a UU minister and attended seminary here in Atlanta. So, although my parents and I were the first to be UU in our family, since I have now had children I raised UU, there have been three generations of UUs within the family.
How did you learn of the youth group, or what attracted you to it? What kept you there? Why and when did you leave? Did it provide an environment that was missing elsewhere in your life? Were you looking for spiritual experience, social consciousness activities, intellectual stimulation, personal friendships? How were these things fulfilled or not? What growth/change did you feel?
I have an older sister who was in LRY as I was growing up. She is seven years older, therefore her time in LRY is more squarely in the mid 60s. To me, it seemed like she was part of a cool group of people, though I don't know that I would have thought to call her cool at the time. I'm not always sure how things fit together back then, since I was a child, but she brought home interesting music, via records, that seemed to be part of her life as an LRYer, and she went to a coffee house, called Twelfth Gate, that I had some sense of as being a cool place to be.
As I grew up in the RE program at UUCA, I knew that as I approached my teenage years I could be in LRY. I knew that there was no RE for me at UUCA, or for any teens, so if I wanted to continue participating in the church, then it would be through LRY. I wouldn't have called it a rite of passage I was looking forward to, because I wouldn't have had that vocabulary and there was not, at the time, any sort of ritual about moving from RE to LRY. I remember by the time I was 12, the congregation had what they called Jr. LRY, and that I participated in a weekend conference at UUCA where I met young people from other UU congregations in the south. I remember especially meeting some youth from Birmingham and that I had a wonderful time and was eager to have weekends like that again and to meet other young people. It had all seemed so exciting, to spend the night at church, to meet people from other cities, to talk to people. While I was in Jr. LRY, we had someone from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War come to talk to us. I had already been aware of growing anti-war sentiment because my older sister had married a Vietnam Veteran and he talked about his experiences as a helicopter pilot. He also talked about his disenchantment with this country's government and with what we were doing in Vietnam. So when the person from the VVAW came to talk to us young people, and invite us to help, I was on board about doing that and remember going to Quaker House, where the VVAW met and organized, to help with their efforts. At the time, they were doing what they called "guerrilla theater" as a way of trying to make people understand what it was like to live in a place where a war was taking place. I participated in some of those things.
My family had, as a family, also participated in various ways with aspects of the Civil Rights movement, with UUCA. It seemed natural to be a part of these movements, both of them, Civil Rights and objecting to the Vietnam War.
As I got more involved in LRY, it wasn't so much a matter of being drawn to social justice or spiritual things or even friendships; it was more about a natural move toward continuing my life as a UU. That was where I did find friends, true, but it wasn't just that they were friends. It was that the folks I met seemed to be interested in similar things -- reading books, thinking, talking, asking questions, being playful, being creative, being a part of a bigger world. I felt that I fit, that I belonged and that these were my people. I felt that they mattered to me and that I mattered to them and that I was valued for who I was. I did, of course, meet boys that I was interested in as boyfriends, and I met girls, some of whom became very good friends. As I made friends, that became very compelling as a reason to stay. It was also why I loved going to conferences, because every time I went to another city or another place, I met more people who were interesting and lively and exciting and engaged and we had fun together, talking and playing and laughing and thinking, staying up all night and wondering about ourselves and our place in the larger world. Life just seemed to exciting and wonderful and LRY seemed to be a place full of life, full of wonderful people. I fell totally in love with LRY. As I became more involved in my local group I also got more involved in planning meetings, in doing things like re-writing the bylaws for our federation's constitution, planning conferences, registering people, managing funds, taking up dues, managing business meetings of our local group. I got involved in the Youth Adult Committee, too, where youth and adults met together, regularly, to discuss a variety of things. I felt that adults were my friends and youth were my friends and I felt like a valuable part of a large extended family/community. I also met my very best friend, at a conference in Atlanta, who remains the person I have known the longest. And at this point in my life, there is a lot of depth and richness, the many years and miles she and I have traveled together. I could say the same about a few other people I also came to know through LRY, and have sometimes been amazed at how deep that bond seems to be.
As I continued to stay in LRY, some of these things began to change. One thing I got from LRY increasingly, a positive thing, sort of goes hand in hand with something that was not so positive. As I got older, and it was farther into the 70s, drugs were more of an issue in the larger culture and within LRY. Since I was not interested in drugs, and as people in LRY did do those things, I sometimes spent chunks of time by myself at conferences. I didn't like the feeling of isolation that began to creep in, didn't like the feeling that I was different even from LRYers. But the time I spent on my own at conferences also became valuable to me as a place to connect with something quieter in myself and in relation to the natural world. This was especially true at Frogmore, Penn Conference Center in the low country of South Carolina. I wandered the island there a lot, by myself, and on one occasion with a good friend, and I do think that the time deepened something in me about a spiritual life in relation to the natural world. So, I felt disconnected increasingly from peers who wanted to do things I didn't, but I felt a sense of place among trees and in nature in a way that was new and different for me. Some of this may also have been a natural result of simply growing older, of necessarily turning my attentions to the business of growing up and finding my way into adulthood. And some of it was the times. I was at odds with the times and in some ways at odds with my peer group. But I couldn't imagine my life without LRY. The thought of that seemed impossible. And then I moved away from home and was working and had a modest place of my own and when I went to a conference for the last time, I simply knew it was no longer for me, that I had changed, that I didn't feel the same sense of excitement about being there, that it was no longer novel to think of staying up all night in some other city and some other place because I had moved and had my own place and was beginning to find my own way in an adult world.
What were your experiences local and non-local? Did you prefer one over the other or did they complement each other well? Was non-local experience accessible?
Participation in the local LRY was a way to keep connected in between conferences. I loved my local group and loved the people in it but I especially loved going to conferences and being with friends I met there, being away from home, doing fun and exciting things that were outside of my normal life at school. I looked forward to Sunday evenings hangout with my friends in LRY, at UUCA, but we all looked forward to whenever the next conference would be.
How did your experiences affect your life in the short term and long term? Were you UU as an adult--why or why not?
In the short term, the effect of being in LRY was that I had found my tribe, the people I felt a kindredness to, the people who were interested in an intellectual life and in having fun, who were creative and had lively minds. The effect all of this had on me in the longterm is related to being UU as an adult. When I aged out of LRY, I had moved to another city. At that point in my life, I didn't feel like I belonged in LRY anymore. I had aged out, was too old to be in LRY according to the rules we had set, but it was more than that. I was growing up and increasingly my focus was on how to earn money and pay bills and establish my own life, but also, it seemed to me that the younger people were interested in what I was not interested --experimenting with drugs. I am quite sure that not everyone was doing that, but it seemed to be what a lot of folks did as a way to be social with each other. I didn't want to be a part of that and so I felt increasingly on the outside. As I say, it was a mix of what was a natural process of growing up along with some things that were specific to me and what I wanted. The odd thing is that even though I didn't feel like I belonged in LRY anymore, I also didn't feel grown up enough to feel like I belonged in a UU congregation as an adult. I didn't quite see myself as an adult. So I worked for a few years and didn't attend any UU congregation. I still thought of myself as UU, but without a congregation. After a few years of working, and realizing that I didn't meet people in work settings that I wanted to have as friends outside of work, and as I became increasingly lonely for like-minded people, I started thinking about where I had found friends in the past, where like-minded people seemed to be, and I started thinking about UU congregations again. I was in my mid to late twenties when I started attending UUCA again, having returned to Atlanta. By then my mother was an ordained UU minister and she had also returned to Atlanta where she was beginning to work with a small group of people in Gwinnett, establishing a congregation. She urged me to attend. I did, and found that in a small congregation, it was easier for me to meet people and easier for me to feel as if my contributions mattered. I also liked my mother's sermons and her worship services. So I became a member of UUCG. And I followed my mother to several other metro Atlanta UU congregations she served. Over time, I have developed a pretty extensive network of UU friends. About a dozen years ago, I also began finding an LRY community of people online, initially through a yahoo group, though much of that now occurs on Facebook. Some of the people I've met that way are still UU, some not, but most of them, whether I knew them back in the day, or got to know them more recently, feel like part of my vast tribe that grew out of my UU and LRY roots.
What was your awareness of the group and its activities as far as being youth-directed and the history of youth-direction in UU youth groups? If you hadn't much awareness of the history of UU youth groups, would you have been interested in learning more? If you hadn't awareness of the history of the UU youth groups, would education in that history have further molded your experience and expectations of yourself and others? Would it have affected a sense of legacy? If you were interested in legacy, did you feel you were able to contribute beneficially or not?
I knew essentially nothing about the history of youth-direction in UU youth groups. As I was growing up, so far as I could tell, there had always been LRY and only LRY. It is only through my adult affiliation with the LRY Reunion online communities that I learned that LRY had formed in 1953 (I think I have that right) and that the youth groups of the Unitarians and the Universalists and their joining as LRY was what led to the merger of the two adult denominations. It's funny to realize, now, that when my family started attending UUCA in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist denomination as that entity was brand new. And I had no idea that it was the youth groups that led to that.
It is only in adulthood, for instance, that I have also learned why LRY had a conference at Frogmore, Penn Conference Center. I remember knowing, as a teen, that Martin Luther King, Jr. used to go there, on retreat, so I do remember that. But it was only as an adult that I learned that that was one of two places in the south where integrated groups were allowed to meet and since LRY was integrated, Frogmore was a place that would allow us to have conferences, where we were relatively safe, in the south, to be together. I wish I had known and understood that back when I was a teen.
I wish I had known more about the general legacy of the youth movement, when I was a teen, and am eager to learn more now. Yes, I think it would have been important to me, and important to us as a group, to have known. I think it would be important for the denomination, and for my local congregation, to understand and acknowledge this history and it's own relation to youth groups. I think that's pretty well lost at this point. Or if not lost, then certainly not given the importance and weight it deserves. I think the teens at my congregation should know about this, too, to know the valuable contribution their predecessors made to the religious heritage within which they are being raised.
What was your sense of youth-adult relations between the youth group and the host congregation? The youth group and advisors?
In my particular youth group and congregation, here in Atlanta, I think youth adult relations were generally good. By the time I was in LRY, we had an associate minister who was a great advocate and friend of ours. He attended some, though not all, of the conferences. We also had other adult advisors who seemed to be good and thoughtful people and who were well-boundaried with us. We were very fond of our advisors and they were very fond of us. I think Atlanta had some really great adults, who were incredibly generous with their time in relation to us.
It seems to me it would be useful to not just learn what individuals found beneficial or not about their experience in the youth group, but to contextualize it generationally. What was going on in your area outside the group in other formal and informal groups of individuals of similar ages? What was going on societally that you feel affected your experience of and participation in the youth group?
Having grown up as a teen in the early 70s, I saw, increasingly, the use of drugs/alcohol. This was true both within LRY and outside of LRY at school. I think this is a part of why I objected to the use of drugs at conferences; it was already a part of life at school and not a very attractive part. I already didn't feel as if I belonged at school, felt that I didn't find people easily who seemed to have the same interests or who weren't interested in asking questions, exploring the depths, not in the same way, not at school. LRY was this thrilling island of intellectual curiosity and creativity that seemed so unlike school. So having drugs creeping in at conferences, increasingly, as we moved toward the mid 70s, was especially unwelcome. That aspect of LRY was a lot like school, and school wasn't what was lively and engaging so I didn't want LRY to become something like the same culture as school. Moreover, and in some hindsight, I think I did understand that those things like drug use that had been a part of counter-culture in the 60s were attached to bigger issues at work in the world -- the protests against the Vietnam War, work in the area of Civil Rights, Women's Rights. None of those issues required drug use, but young people who supported those issues had set themselves apart from society as it had been in so many ways, were distinguishing themselves from the preceding generation. I think I understood that. But as we moved deeper into the 70s, the visible work, the protests, were not the way to proceed with the ideals of peace or the continuing work of Civil Rights, nor were drugs even necessary to a spiritual awakening that had also arisen as an undercurrent of the 60s, so that the drug use seemed pretty empty and hedonistic and pervasive, and was no longer something that marked young people as counter-culture and instead was, to my way of thinking, an indication of having become part of an empty status-quo.
Over the years, and through online LRY forums, I've gotten to know people who came along in the years after my time in LRY. I get the sense that some of these problems, as I saw them at the time, that seemed entrenched in LRY were beginning to turn around, to change, and that perhaps there was more of that magic, that spark, that creative surge that I had loved about LRY.
Added 2013 Dec 31.
Return to Voices from the '70s.