Rites of Passage into Adulthood

This year, our small meeting (about 25 attenders of all ages per week) began a new practice—celebrating the coming of age for one of our young members. Beth is 16 years old and the meeting wanted to do something to acknowledge her growth into adulthood and the changes she is experiencing. With this report we are sharing our experience with other meetings, especially small ones, so they can consider if they, too, would like to develop a coming-of-age process.

Davidson (N.C.) Meeting has been gathering for about 14 years. In 2001, we became an independent monthly meeting after being under the nurturing care of Charlotte Meeting for many years. With our newfound independence, we have been examining our procedures—or lack thereof—and determining what we should do as we grow individually and collectively. For several years, we have been aware that our small size restricts our ability to have youth activities with enough people for a critical mass. The meeting has about ten young people ranging in ages from 1 to 16 years. Our query: What should we do as a meeting to provide rites of passage for our young members as they approach adulthood?

We contacted a few Quakers and collected ideas in order to find out what other small meetings have done. One meeting created an elaborate ceremony with candles. Another meeting organized several adults to join their teens for walks and conversations around a lake to discuss topics that felt appropriate. We decided to ask Beth what she felt would be the best option, and she chose to incorporate whatever we developed into a regular meeting for worship. She did not want to make a big deal of her coming of age, nor be the center of attention. As a group, we decided to select a date and have everyone in the meeting bring a reading, a piece of wisdom, or share some personal story that seemed especially suited for Beth.

In addition to the need for a rites-of-passage process for our oldest teen, the meeting felt our one-First-day-school-fits-all approach had outlived its utility. It was becoming increasingly difficult to create First-day school lessons that were meaningful to children ranging from a junior in high school to a kindergartener. So, the First-day school committee devised a new plan for the coming year. For the first week of each month, the two high school students would go with one adult to discuss topics that were more mature. The second week of each month, the two high school students would stay in meeting with the adults. On the third week, all children would work on a yearlong service project making gift cards for sale to benefit the Heifer Project, which helps people obtain a sustainable source of food and income (see www.heiferproject.org). For the remaining weeks, all children would meet for a common lesson.

The new curriculum began in September and ran through May. The two high schoolers appreciated being treated differently. They read a book called Children in War by Alan and Susan Raymond and later watched the video documentary of the same title that spawned the book (see www.childreninwar.com). We walked to the cemetery and talked about the price of war in human terms. We discussed the perception they and their friends from school had about the pending/ongoing war in Iraq. The last part of the curriculum was centered on a book written by a college junior during his National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Kenya (In Mind/In Country by Worth Allen). This diary recounts several stories about personal choices and responsibility, making the most of your time, and coming of age.

Next year we will have three high school students, and the overall curriculum will continue.

The Celebration

On December 6, 2002, we gathered as usual for meeting for worship. Fifteen minutes after meeting began, the younger children left for First-day school as they always do. Over the next 45 minutes, nearly every member stood and spoke to Beth. Her father spoke midway through meeting. Five minutes before we adjourned, her mother shared her thoughts and feelings. A few people passed written messages to Beth for her to read later. This hour of worship, centered on Beth, was like no other meeting before or since. Frequently our meeting will remain silent for the entire hour, but on Beth’s week nearly everyone spoke to Beth. It was a moving ceremony.

Everyone knew about this celebration months in advance. Initially, Beth was not wild about the idea, but she was not dreading it either—until that morning. Beth told her mother she’d like to skip meeting. For the first 15 minutes, you could read the apprehension in her body language. However, once it began in earnest, a change came over her. Several attenders expressed their satisfaction with our celebration for Beth. Now we are anticipating our next coming-of-age celebration for Dean when he turns 16. After that, we have another member who is turning 15, and as he approaches 16 we will talk with him to devise a welcoming celebration that is suited for him.

There are many issues small meetings must address. We have many more challenges to come, no doubt, but it seems we have developed a very good method for welcoming teens into adulthood. The original goal was to acknowledge the changing roles of our young adults within the meeting and in their everyday lives. We have developed a process that helps us nurture our children as they mature. In return, each adult was able to grow, too, and see Beth in a new light—as the newest adult member in our meeting.

A. Malcolm Campbell

A. Malcolm Campbell, a member of Davidson (N.C.) Meeting, teaches biology at Davidson College.