Years ago I served as a mentor to a seventh-grade girl going through the confirmation process, discerning whether or not she wanted to make her membership with our church “official.”
(To clarify: In our tradition, though we practice infant baptism, it is followed by a time in middle school when these same children then learn more about what it means to be Presbyterian. They can then choose whether or not they feel led by God to take vows to become adult members of the congregation.)
Toward the end of the year, as the confirmation participants were asked to share why it was they felt led to join the church, my charge gave an answer that surprised us all:
“I love the old people.”
At first we laughed, but when pressed to explain more, she proved to us that her response was in fact quite sincere:
“I’m at school all day with people my age. All my after school activities are with people my age. My grandparents live far away so I don’t ever really get to see them. I’m an only child, so it’s just me and my parents. But when I come to church, it’s like I have all these grandparents who care about me. We all know each other’s names and they ask me about my life. It’s like I have this huge family beyond my own tiny family. And, old people are just fun!”
This conversation happened at least 15 years ago, if not more, but has always stuck with me as I’ve moved in and out of intergenerational congregations. Having not grown up with local grandparents and now raising my children without any family other than immediate in town, with each passing year I am more and more grateful to be a part of an intergenerational community centered in our faith, able to uplift one another and offer unique perspectives on life.
A few years ago in the season of Lent, our church engaged in an intergenerational Sunday School series on the book, "Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race" by Debby Irving. All ages, mixed into small groups, shared personal stories about their experiences of race. Some recalled being taunted at Auburn High School for going to an integrated church in the 1960s. They shared their stories and then listened intently to teenagers, now at that same school, talk about how their peer group included friends who were Muslim, black, children of same-sex parents, immigrants who spoke little English, etc.
“Old” is a relative term. My cousins and I used to exchange glances across the table when our grandmother would talk about the “old ladies” at church. No one had the heart to tell her that they were younger than her. But then again, Grandma remained young at heart until she died at 95.
I think that’s what my confirmand saw in the “old” people at church she loved so much — their hearts were young, curious about her and her walk of faith, open to learning from her experiences and invested in the journey they were walking together.
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed serves as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Journal for Preachers, The Christian Century, and Presbyterians Today.