How parents keep the faith: Mandate a moral code, not theology

For the Unitarian Parker parents, to keep the faith is to offer a universal moral code and let the child pick theology.

Ann Hermes
This article – part of the cover story project on how parents keep the faith – appears in the Dec. 20, 2010 Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.
Ann Hermes/Staff
Her parents drove Keely Parker (r.) 200 miles to worship with kids her age and with her religious sensibilities at a Baton Rouge, La., Unitarian church. Her parents keep the faith by mandating a moral code, but allow their children to sort out their own theology.

When high school students in this small city decide it'd be fun to pick on somebody, they're apt to face a public shaming – at least if 15-year-old Keely Parker gets wind of it.

Keely has spoken up to groups of girls as they've made fun of "nasty" Mexican boys. She's stood up for gay friends when others have insisted they're going to hell because God loathes them. She takes these steps, despite pressure to join in the mockery because she claims a moral duty that she learned at home: to make sure everyone is treated with respect and kindness.

"Maybe I'm supposed to be the one who says, 'Hey, it's cool to be nice to this kid because he doesn't have any friends,' " Keely says. "We're all called to do it, and someone has to start it."

Keely has learned her faith practice from parents who don't see eye to eye on all things religious. Her father, Ty Parker, an oil field operations manager, grew up Baptist and prays to a personal God. Her mother, Jill Parker, a part-time computer teacher, sees God not as a personal force, but rather as a spirit of love and kindness. They're glad to let their kids figure out their own beliefs, but not their own moral code. That exists apart from what their kids might believe about its origins: They expect their children to uphold it because it reflects a universal standard – relationships marked by kindness and compassion – and it protects everyone's well-being.

"We want to pass on our values to our kids – as far as being respectful and kind and polite – but not necessarily our beliefs," Ms. Parker says. "They're free to search and find their own truth. [But] doing the right thing because it's the right thing – that, to us, is important."

"It's about doing the right thing, even when nobody's looking," Mr. Parker adds. "That's how I want them to grow up."

The Parkers know from experience what it's like to be misunderstood, even reviled. They're Unitarian Universalists in a swath of the Bible Belt where their beliefs make them a distinct minority. (Many Universalists believe all people will be saved, while many of their Christian neighbors say individuals are saved by their faith in Jesus Christ.) So, by example, they teach Keely and their 7-year-old, Wade, to stand in solidarity with outcasts. Keely notes, for instance, the time her father confronted a mall security guard for unfairly singling out a Puerto Rican boy in her group of friends, and when her mother led a church collection drive for local Hispanic families who were left without a breadwinner after an immigration enforcement raid at a nearby plant. She's learned from them how to stand for justice, namely by protecting vulnerable souls who might cross their paths.

"Maybe we don't teach the little ones what God is, but we teach them: Be sweet so that you're friends on the playground; be sure that nobody is mistreated," Ms. Parker says. "It all goes back to the golden rule."

For the Parkers, it's never been an option to let an institution handle faith formation in their children. Their church, Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, Miss., counts only 33 members. It doesn't have enough kids for a youth group or Sunday school. Still, it's a connection the Parkers value. They drive 20 minutes, past a half-dozen churches, to get to Our Home, where a sign out front reads: "Torture is a moral issue." Yet when it comes to helping their children tap into the deepest values and meaning, they embrace the challenge as a job for parents.

The Parkers weave faith into daily life where it seems to fit. They don't get to church every week, but they do special activities, such as driving five hours with the kids to Memphis, Tenn., to hear the Dalai Lama speak. His message of compassion and transcending religious differences was worth time off from school, the Parkers say. Now and then at mealtime, the family offers a blessing, which includes gratitude to farmers and to animals who gave their lives to become dinner.

In this environment, Keely says she takes after her mother: "I guess my belief is more like my mom's.... I don't see God as being as important as being nice and being kind."

And every night, Wade is put to bed by Mr. Parker, who then rests a hand on his sleeping son and prays in the way he was taught as a child.

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