Jolena James-Szanton- Keeper of the Flame
This is the second article in a series where I, Lee Elliott Carnes President-Elect of the Board of Trustees, ask questions to the Leaders of our gatherings. This month, Jolena James-Szanton, Director of Religious Education will share her experience and wisdom. Jolena has many responsibilities including: designing the annual curriculum for our gatherings; leading the Children and Youth Religious Education team; coordinating with the Adult Religious Education Team; and making periodic visits to UU Lake Norman Fellowship and Salisbury Gatherings.
Lee Elliott Carnes: What was your first experience with Unitarian Universalism?
Jolena James–Szanton: I moved my family here from Los Angeles to Charlotte. As my children began to make friends in the neighborhood and at school, one of my biggest worries was that my children would either become intolerant of others’ beliefs or be ostracized because they had different spiritual beliefs than what I felt was mainstream religious beliefs of the South. The idea of going “to church” really wasn’t my thing, but my children needed something. I had driven past the church several times and saw the rainbow flag each time. “I want to check THAT church out.” So one day, I made the right-hand turn into the parking lot. First service was just getting out, so there were lots of folks in the hallway. And so many people were warm and welcoming – as if they had been waiting for me. I didn’t attend a sermon that day. I spent my time perusing the information posted on the wall. What I saw, I liked. “I could grow my children here. I could grow here.” A week or so later, I returned with my family and the journey began. Turns out that I made the right turn.
Lee: What do you hope that our youth will take away from Youth CONference?
Jolena: I want our youth to get from Youth CONference the same thing I want them to get from coming to our gatherings each Sunday – quality time with other UU youth’s. Our children are growing up in a unique fellowship, one that allows – no, encourages them to define, adopt, and/or adapt their own spiritual self. When they are out in the world of other children and adolescents, I suspect that our youth could feel like “others”. At PUUC, they are surrounded by not only adult UUs who create a safe space and net for them to explore, but also by other UU youth who make this exploration feel normal. Youth CONference will be the first time many of our UU youths will meet non-PUUCs UU youth. I want our youth to, literally, see that the UU youth world – this safe space – expands beyond Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church. I want them to return an associate their enjoyment with being an UU.
Lee: What do you view as your greatest teaching strength to use at our community?
Jolena: Hmm? I would have to say my greatest teaching strength is the ability to teach children and adults how to create safe spaces to learn with others. With the youth, I am working on teaching them to be empathic, active listeners, and agents of positive feedback (I’ve made up the concept right now. Simply put, I ask them to applaud themselves and others in their group). With adults who enter youth’s space, I am mentoring on to be mindful of language, physical positioning, question frames, and honoring youth as thoughtful beings whose ideas may not have the right words yet.
The teacher in me hesitates to expand on my “greatest teaching strength” as it relates to adults in our community. I think it is because when I am talking about teaching youth how to create safe spaces, the teaching is explicit. When I am with adults, I model, not teach safe space practices. This means that I have to constantly reflect on my behaviors and my reaction to a behavior. Let’s wait a few more months before I complete this question. I’m still growing, so…
I have so much to say on this one, but I haven’t finished the first dissertation on which I am supposed to be working, so my 10-page answer to this question will have to be for another time.