Comings and goings were extraordinarily common when I worked as a chaplain to at-risk youth at a residential treatment facility in northern Illinois. “Transitions,” as they were called in the local vernacular, were extremely stressful. If a young person was “transitioning,” it meant they had progressed enough to go to a “less restrictive setting” — usually another institution, foster care, or, more rarely, their family’s home.
Anxiety would skyrocket during these transition periods. The air would especially be electric during summer and semester breaks, at which time many young people would be moving to accommodate school schedules. The stress of yet another move and the pressure of maintaining “good” behaviors often resulted in a regression to the far less desirable behaviors that got them placed at the institution in the first place.
As chaplain, I thought about how I might create space for those transitioning to honor the change in an appropriate way. I added a “Transitions” section to our weekly chapel service liturgy. I would invite any young person who was making a change to come forward, tell us what they had learned, then we would say a blessing and sing the song “Don’t Be Afraid” by John Bell of the Iona Community.
Although that simple ritual didn’t necessarily prevent these young people from regressing, I was teaching them how to honor the change, remember what they’ve learned and remind themselves that they went forward with the help of God and this community. This is why church and other religious traditions have been the mediators of life transitions such as births, deaths and marriages for millennia. In these moments we are reminded what we take forward and the support that our community and our God promise us.
It’s not surprising that I would be thinking of rituals around transitions and milestones in my first week of living in Michigan. As many of you know, I left Iowa last week to start a new position with the Michigan Conference United Church of Christ. The transition (even for me, a seasoned “mover”) happened at the speed of light. Saying good-bye to so many friends I’ve made in the last five years is incredibly difficult. Excitement at the new possibilities and the grief of the community I’ve left behind intertwine inexorably in my heart.
When these emotions rose up in my heart, I reminded myself that what I always tried to teach young people — to honor the emotions while turning to God and community. I carry so many wonderful things from my friends, colleagues and communities in Iowa. Indulge me while I name just a few of them:
- Living in an agricultural state, I’ve learned to appreciate the rhythm of the seasons and power and unpredictability of weather patterns as well as the importance of connection to the land;
- Having lead an experimental ministry for the past 5 years, I’ve learned about the importance of taking risks, even when those risks result in failure. Equally important is the ability to admit when you’re wrong, learn from it, and change course;
- From my Shakti Yoga community, I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of community to support and challenge you. That community helped me to say, “I can,” far more than I say, “I can’t;”
- Always, ALWAYS remember to thank people (and God) for the amazing blessing they give every day. A grateful heart is an open heart.
THANK YOU to my Iowa friends and colleagues for teaching me these things and many, many others. Although we may not be physically near one another any more, you will always be part of me. I would not be the same person without you.