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Spiritual education for all

From the March 2014 issue of The Christian Science Journal

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A devotion to helping youth. A devotion to Christian Science. Those two motivations are obvious when you speak with Mark Unger about his work. A Christian Science practitioner from Ashland, Massachusetts, Mark was appointed Superintendent of The Mother Church Sunday School in 2012. His background includes longtime Sunday School teaching, speaking with young people in jails and juvenile detention centers, and giving talks for Christian Science Organizations on college campuses. Over the past several decades, he’s helped out in youth-related capacities in more ways than we can list. We decided to sit down with Mark to ask what’s happening in The Mother Church Sunday School today, and to learn what he sees as the significance of Sunday School. And, no surprise. He didn’t mind making time for this conversation one bit!

MARK SITS IN A SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS AREA AT THE MOTHER CHURCH

PHOTO CREDIT: CAMILLE CARANDANG

Mark, how would you describe your role as Superintendent of The Mother Church Sunday School?

Funny you should ask, because that was one of the first things I had to ask myself after accepting this position, “What is my role here?” I mean we’ve got the helpful Church Manual provisions about Sunday School from Mary Baker Eddy (pp. 62–63), but how should I think about my role, really? And one of the first things I realized is that I’m here to serve. I’m here to serve the teachers—you know, “wash their feet” (see John 13), be the servant like Jesus taught us to be. If I can support and help the teachers, to me, that is the best thing I can do for the kids—that and making sure the mission of the Sunday School is fulfilled.

I ran across this Bible passage one week. It’s in Matthew 20:25–28, where Jesus calls his disciples to him and he says: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” So, I really try to take this spirit of humility to heart.

I’ve concluded that I have two major responsibilities. The first is to help maintain a wonderful Sunday School that runs well, where kids, teens, and teachers all feel welcome, where there’s good teaching, proper teaching according to the Manual, where Mrs. Eddy said the children will be “taught the Scriptures” (see p. 62).

I’d like to ask about that second responsibility, but first, can you talk a little bit about teaching the Scriptures, the Bible, in Christian Science Sunday School?

Sure, well, there are three main headings under the Sunday School provision in the Manual, and the second specifically states to teach the Scriptures, while the third is about specific lessons from the Scriptures and “next lessons” involving the Christian Science Bible Lessons and questions and answers (see pp. 62–63).

I’m coming from decades of teaching in the Sunday School. So I’ve felt the temptation, and seen it with other teachers in Sunday Schools, just to chat about metaphysical ideas rather than teach biblical ideas from a metaphysical basis—certainly not a terrible thing to do, but maybe not the most effective based on Manual instructions.

A common example I shared at a Mother Church local members’ meeting recently is that it can be typical to teach the seven synonyms for God, from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, but independently of the Scriptures. It’s wonderful to teach the synonyms, and we can do it by talking about Life, for example, and all the qualities of Life, etc., without ever cracking open the Bible. But what if we found, within the Bible, good examples of God as Life, as Spirit, as Soul, etc., in different passages and stories? Then we are teaching the Scriptures, along with the synonyms, or you could say teaching according to the “absolute Christian Science” in the Christian Science textbook (Manual, p. 63).

What I’ve seen and felt in my teaching is that there is a power and authority in the Scriptures that we may not even realize. I had a teacher tell me a short time ago that as he focused on the Scriptures, his class went better, and another teacher mentioned that when her younger kids read from the Bible, the class feels meaningful.

There is a power and authority in the Scriptures that we may not even realize.

You mentioned you have two major responsibilities. What’s the second one?

Once you have this amazing feast that the Sunday School group is preparing each week, now people need to know about it. So that is the second part of my job and, I think, a big part! It involves letting the immediate community know that we are here, what time the services are, that we teach from the Bible. And so my goal is to do that through whatever avenues I can.

For example, we just put ads for Sunday School in community-wide fliers. And on the Christian Science Plaza, to kind of bring things down to earth, so to speak, in front of this massive church building we have some handwritten signs that we put out for people to see before and during church that say “Come on in!” with hours of Sunday School and church, and balloons attached.

I’m on a constant journey with this—how do I let people know? With The Mother Church’s worldwide reach through online classes, a goal that has come to me to consider is to make Sunday School available to every person under 20 on the planet. So we announce at the Sunday church service—a service that is broadcast worldwide over the Internet—that we have this online possibility for students who don’t otherwise have access to Sunday School. And we are at the ready to develop whatever additional classes might be needed.

You know, it seems like we can at least strive to let everyone know about the feast, so those who wish to partake, can.

I loved seeing the informal “fountain class” for all ages this summer out on the Christian Science Plaza by the Children’s Fountain. (Editor’s note: Readers may or may not know that many of Boston’s children play in the fountain on the Church Plaza during summer months.)

The fountain class is a developing idea that we see as an open door to Sunday School, at least during the summertime. It’s having Sunday School outside available for kids who want to stop by—where the kids and their parents already are, in a form that is comfortable for them. From there, we invite them to actually come into the building, which some have done. The teachers take seats to sit on, sidewalk chalk to draw out Bible stories, and other books and supplies. The kids love to get involved in the chalk drawing, and teachers share ideas about God. The teachers generally just stay available to engage in conversations.

A goal that has come to me to consider is to make Sunday School available to every person under 20 on the planet.

So how, specifically, did this idea of an outdoor class come about?

Well, actually, it was through the process of stepping outside the Sunday School walls into the community. I began meeting with other churches and organizations who are working with youth. Sadly, there are youth killing each other on the streets in certain sections of the city, and so I’ve been meeting with some of the various organizations who are striving to help quell all the violence. It’s an interesting process, because as you start meeting with these organizations and people, you might not initially know where it’s going to lead.

Can you tell readers about some of these community groups you’ve met with?

One of the first groups I met with was the Boston Ten Point Coalition, which was looking for support from other churches to help with efforts to rid our neighborhoods of crime, which typically escalates during the summer months. I went to support in my role as Superintendent of The Mother Church Sunday School. I took their training to walk the crime-ridden streets with them and then went on a walk with them. The Mother Church Community Relations Coordinator, and her husband, walked along with the group and me. You walk through these neighborhoods, just praying and sometimes meeting with people informally and saying prayers out loud, and handing out fliers that share ideas on peace.

It was an amazing experience, and you really do start making connections with people outside your church. It also starts opening up your thought in ways that you’re not even aware of. You come face to face with the issues in the community and are praying about them.

At another community event organized by the Center for Church and Prisons Inc., there were people from various organizations such as StreetSafe Boston, Black Alliance for Educational Options, and others. It was a community meeting to discuss the issues around the unfortunate “school-to-prison pipeline,” which affects young people and families all over the United States. Again, connections were made, and I’m becoming educated about youth issues, not yet knowing exactly all the ways I’ll use this information in my work as Superintendent.

I then met with the head of another organization just beginning to work with youth in rougher neighborhoods, and, by this time, I’m wanting to do whatever we can do as a Church and Sunday School to help with what I’m hearing. So I offered to bring Sunday School to the kids in the neighborhood, in a park, or in a place that is familiar to them, maybe even miles away from the church building.

And that was the impetus for the fountain class?

Yes. So you see how this is developing? I was thinking about how we can bring this idea of scriptural teaching to the kids in the community who may not be immediately comfortable walking into our church. And I realized, the fountain is where the community is—50 yards from the Sunday School entrance. Parents were thrilled to know that we had this Sunday School open to everyone, both inside and outside.

When we had a graduating student from India, from one of our online classes, she shared via Skype.

I like how you were willing to step out, not knowing where something might lead, and follow one idea, which led to another idea.

Right, that’s how I’m seeing it work. So, I’m going to keep doing that. I just went to a meeting with a group that brings the youth workers in the city together, and took the Assistant Superintendent, Zinnia Madon, with me. There were 30 to 40 groups represented. I had no idea all these youth organizations even existed, and they are right in our neighborhood. It was an unbelievably positive experience.

At these meetings everybody gets to announce whatever they want about their organization, so I was able to raise the issue of the need for “spiritual education” with the youth everyone is trying to help. And I got the feeling the participants were on board with that sentiment.

I let them know I was the Superintendent of the Sunday School at The Mother Church, the Christian Science Church down the street, and also what time it is in session. I also felt inspired to candidly tell them that nothing “weird” goes on there—since lots of people don’t even know about Christian Science, even in the neighborhood of the world headquarters of the Church. I also mentioned that our Church is Christian, Bible-based, that we teach the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and Bible stories. I shared that we have a very culturally diverse group, which we do, and that we have 30-some teachers. This seemed to spark something with another youth worker who jumped right up after I finished, even though he had already had his turn to share. He started talking about the kinds of morals and values we need to be teaching the kids.

A really important point to me is that my motivation at this meeting wasn’t simply to share bullet points about our activity. That wasn’t why I went—I wanted to learn what’s going on in the city and to pray and be inspired along with my neighbors, and work together with them. And when it felt right to share, I did, along with others.

Then I came across this amazing youth organization, where our Sunday School teens could both share and learn from their peers.

Can you tell us something about that?

It’s an organization called Youth LEAD, which started in a culturally and religiously diverse town near Boston with a focus on diversity and understanding each other. I ended up helping out and taking a Sunday School teen with me to their yearly three-day conference called Teen Identity and Diversity Education conference (TIDE). It was a place where both myself and this student were able to share Christian Science throughout the weekend and learn about other cultures and religions. We’re planning to do it again next year and to take more teens from the Sunday School with us.

What are some other things you’ve been doing in Sunday School that have worked well?

Well, right now we have several online classes going. Students from these classes are from all ages and several countries.

One thing I also love is that we have several teachers dedicated to a class for newborns up to preschool age—the nursery class. Each week, a flexible lesson plan is prepared with singing, storytelling, instructive playtime, etc., to introduce the Scriptures to these little ones in creative ways. The nursery class sits in on the opening and closing exercises in Sunday School, too.

Also, when there’s a “graduation” for a Sunday School student (who is turning 20), we want to celebrate that at the end of Sunday School. Once we’re done saying “the scientific statement of being” (see Science and Health, p. 468), we welcome the parents in, let them join in on the graduation, just listen in, and be a part of it. The teacher will say a few things about the graduating student, and, if the student wants to, we’ll have them share some thoughts about what they got out of Sunday School and why it has been important. Then the student gets a parting gift. The Readers in the church service will also—again, if the student feels comfortable with this—introduce the student to the congregation when he or she starts attending church.

When we had a graduating student from India, from one of our online classes, she shared via Skype, and the kids were all excited about that—waving to her, seeing her face on the computer screen. She was really excited about Sunday School and had lots of thoughts to share with the other students. This might be something branch churches already do—or could do: have their graduating students share via Skype, because a lot of times the teens go off to college and you never see them for months and months. It’s a great opportunity for peer-to-peer sharing.

Maybe you could talk about what it means to you to “receive” the children into the Sunday School?

I’d love to. The Manual provision you’re referring to starts out “Pupils may be received in the Sunday School classes of any Church of Christ, Scientist, up to the age of twenty years …” (p. 62).

So, in praying about this, I looked up the word “receive” and thought, well, how do we “receive” the students and their families? Are we too busy planning for our classes, rushing around, or are we ready to warmly acknowledge each child and parent who walks in? A dictionary definition of receive is “to greet or welcome visitors or guests upon arriving, to accept or acknowledge,” and it also means “to accommodate,” which is “to do a favor or kindness to; to serve, assist, help, harmonize, comfort, provide, make comfortable, make welcome, roll out the red carpet, usher in.”

So, I realized that the Manual was covering how we need to be welcoming people. We all need to be thinking about how we are welcoming, receiving, students and their families. Our Sunday School has been striving to keep this uppermost in thought and practice.

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