This I Believe: Paige Heitpas (2021)

Every year I take a trip on my birthday in order to nourish my thoughts and freshen my brain to start a new year of being me. When I turned twenty-five this past February, I went on a week-long COVID solo road trip down to Missouri to nourish the thoughts in my head. As I stroked South on I-35, I got an e-mail from Jack and Victoria graciously inviting me to join a membership class for the church and then to sign my name into the membership book. This is a book I sometimes associate as like a community scripture, which is a literally a list of amazing humans in the world who teach one another. I laughed, thinking maybe they meant renew, or revisit, my commitment. Hadn’t I signed this “membership book” when I was a small child, it was probably just an illegible scribble under my since-divorced parents names, that maybe even Victoria, a Reverend and known keeper of this book, could not discern.

For someone my age, I’ve been at this church for quite a long time. For almost as long as I can remember… I do know we followed my grandparents here and switched to this church shortly after my first communion, so if that’s not sayin’ somethin’ about what we believe… I grew up in UU OWL sex ed classes, Sunday RE, visiting other faith communities, volunteering, Youth group, a Mother/Daughter family. Then there were moments in high school where I can dramatically say that I “left the church.” Where I would have much envy of all my new suburban Christian classmates hangin’ out at their “confirmation classes” on Thursday nights. Where I would storm upstairs when my now Unitarian mother told me that I couldn’t get confirmed unless I knew that that was what I really wanted. Where I even attended a Christian camp one time only to sit in the back of the room during worship with my Jewish friend, thinking silently together about all the intricacies of religion. In classic UU fashion, in high school I challenged even the things that I knew I believed, so that I could be sure that the beliefs were strong enough in me.

Despite my “spiritually rebellious stage,” I still actively made the decision to come of age within this community. Because, it’s almost a trap, like “okay, go out and learn how absolutely beautiful and incredible all these other churches are, and how miraculous and important humanity is outside of just us, and how your own body is your own church which you can meditate and tune into and it will take care of you. Then, come back into this sanctuary and tell us if Unitarian Universalism still feels right for you?” Now we all know that’s not exactly how it goes, and it’s far from being a trap. But, the point being… how could I ever not commit here? I believe in the recreation of what church is and means, so it can always be better for more and more people. We do that. And, more importantly, we realize the importance of teaching one another so we can always adapt and do more.

Now, for the past seven years out of high school, I went to church only semi-regularly. Me not having a car has been a semi-joking but mostly serious push back on fossil fuels, but it also has meant sacrificing the ability to attend church more regularly (which, obviously, the virtual services this year have helped). In college, I still listened to services via podcast, and often bribed up the chain of command of my St. Paul family to borrow a car to attend church in person at least once a month. And, reflecting on it, I still recognize that any time I was out of church over the past however many years has brought me closer to it. Because of the innate sense of purpose Unitarian Universalism has given me, I feel important out in the world. This church has taught me that church can look like anything I want it to, as long as I’m learning and leaning into the movement of my body and the vibrations of the world and its needs.

I have now evolved to be a young, queer, activist who has been met with the contradictions of being a white-bodied colonizer, a gentrifier and a natural part of a system which we all know only uplifts the few. These years rarely regretfully and mostly thankfully, have led me to learn about the deep injustices in the world. Some of it realized as it resurfaced from lessons as a child, but most things new to me and seemingly outside of my control. It started with learning very young about immigration, asylum seeking, mass incarceration. It evolved to witnessing racial justice, environmental stewardship, liberation theologies. The learned lists are extensive. It culminated and culminates in practicing community action, political involvement, mutual aid, allyship, radical inclusion practices, reparations, dialogue and, sometimes, your body put on the line. I believe that none of that learning would have been possible if I didn’t have the base foundation of this type of congregation which has only inspired action outside my semi-frequent church attendance.

This past year, after months of racial justice actions in the Twin Cities, I spent the winter going back up North regularly to stand in solidarity with our Anishinaabe and Dakota thought leaders, two of whom we heard from a few weeks ago during the Earth Day service. They’ve been out inviting community to link words, letters, finances and bodies against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline. For a refresher, and to put it far too simply, Line 3 is a pipeline that is recognized as being one to bring nearly a million barrels of oil through our state each day, just to ship them off on the other side. A pipeline that carries tar sands, which are equated to essentially raping Mother Earth and putting the health of indigenous communities at dire risk. A black snake that travels down through sacred treaty territory and through hundreds of major MN wetlands and watersheds, including the headwaters of the Mississippi. In short, I’m standing up against the persistent extraction economies, greed and theft which they, and we, just do not need or deserve. Have not needed or deserved. I could do a whole “This I Believe” on just that, but I am definitely digressing.

I bring it up because one day while up near a resistance camp, I gave another water protector a ride back to camp from a demonstration where we narrowly escaped the grip of law enforcement. This woman was a mother, a permaculture farmer and a self-proclaimed psychic and astrologist, who still made the time to tell me she grew up Unitarian. With a tinge of both gratitude and resentment for her faith community, she said “I’m glad to be raised to do this. And yet where are all my parents?” Now, this evolved to a long car ride of processing intergenerational work. And I’m not telling this story to say that UU’s aren’t focused on action in all age groups, because they and we obviously and absolutely are. Every action I’m at I can surely bump into a UU person and I will often find those who are handing out UU buttons or Standing on the Side of Love shirts in a crowd. I’m bringing this story up because I believe in the power of reflecting on how we teach one another, despite our different generations, especially when it relates to how I was taught as a kid about pressing matters such as this one and how I’ve come to think the way that I do. I am glad to be raised to do this. And I want all my teachers involved.

Tara Houska, a well known water protector and founder of the Giniw Collective once led an action where they placed a prayer lodge directly in an active Line 3 construction site. Amidst the destruction, and the prayer, she said it well: “This movement is being led by young people all over the globe… I think that’s for a reason. Young people see straight, they talk clear. Everyone tries to put them into categories of being ‘idealistic.’ How is it idealistic to care for life? It is not idealistic to demand justice. And so we stand strong and we stand proud.” As young people who grew up Unitarian, we similarly were taught that our perceptions of injustice were true and we naturally learned to put issues like this at the forefront of our minds. We see straight and we talk clear and we show up. Because we want to live in an ideal world and there is nothing wrong with that, therefore we should always be striving towards that.

That said, young people still need the utmost support, like I did during my spiritual rebellion. That can be seen in parents, mentors, teachers, spiritual guides, elders. In anyone who has lived to realize wisdom and insight into the world. I am privileged to have received this type of guidance my whole life, including at WBUUC, and continue to receive it today in the middle of my twenties. Older generations can nurture the soul of a young person to care deeply for this world. But it’s important to recognize that this is all done while still learning from them. My own personal work with high school international students day in and day out has a serious focus on youth development. And yet, they teach me something every single day. Together, we stand strong and we stand proud.

So as I’ve been getting older, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differentiation between youth and young people. There is a lot of pressure from older generations towards “our youth” as we lean on the word as if it is separate from our own older being. As if “the youth” are our young people who are out learning lots about the world and will eventually teach us the new norms. But the term has become fluid in my mind, or almost like a frame of mind. Because “youth” is actually inside all of us. It’s the inner person who thinks straight and talks clear. “Youth” has become any sign of learning, unlearning and learning again so we can be the idealists that we sometimes fear. So yes, listen to young people while simultaneously bringing out your inner youth that agrees with them because you more than likely played a role in teaching them to see the world in that way in the first place. When that water protector expressed gratitude for her upbringing as a Unitarian and history which led her to these moments, it was wound up in a desire for even our parents to show up in whatever way they can. Because we were taught this growing up, and therefore the work needs to be done together. Together we can teach one another and take church everywhere.

Now let’s go back to my road trip. Remember that part? Here I was in Kansas City, attending a virtual membership class with folks who have just joined the church who spoke such inspiration about their decision to be there. And I was thinking, dang… there should be a membership ceremony for every stage of life. Like class reunions commemorating the day you grew into thought exploration and action together. But also, a time where we remind ourselves that we have learned things and how they are useful in the wider world outside of just the church. A membership ceremony where we give a “This I Believe” speech to ourselves for each stage of our lives. Though I still believe I’ve signed that membership book twice now, the renewed commitment was important to me. I started contributing myself financially, I’ve been facilitating a trans inclusion class with some pretty dope people, and I’ve shared the things this community has taught me. Because I believe in this church and our recommitment year after year to growth, adapting, to showing up, and that re-creation of what church is. And most importantly, I believe in doing what we teach our young people to do. In what I was taught to do. Because it will land us all in some pretty important spaces together doing some pretty important work. So, if you’d like to go up to Line 3 or any action together with our young people, please let me know. We can be youthful together.

I want to take a moment at the now end of my “This I Believe” to extend the deepest of thank you’s to Victoria for her long time at this church, and by association, her long time in my mind. I believe she is a reason I think in this way and a reason most White Bear UU “youth” (all of us) think the way they do.  As one who writes a “This I Believe” does, I read through other peoples’ “This I Believes” first to just make sure we didn’t believe all the same things. I’m kidding, but I did go back and read some and one of them in 2016 read that Victoria was out that day of their “This I Believe” demonstrating in Standing Rock. She was engaging in a resistance that still is persistent today and which is now directly linked to actions around Line 3 and the like. We all have learned from her many engagements like this where she has gone to learn from and be with others. And I find peace and confidence that as Victoria goes forth into the world, I’ll be thinking of it as just taking our church everywhere. And probably expanding her own personal membership book and getting people to sign twice.

Thank you.