Religion and Young People: Relational Authority and the Potatoes in the Basement

Kenji Kuramitsu is a clinical social worker, writer, and spiritual care professional who currently serves as psychotherapy groups coordinator with Howard Brown Health, a LGBTQ health care provider in Chicago. Kenji is a 2020 Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow


The inner lives of young people today abound in apparent paradox. The most wired generation on record is also the loneliest; desire for non-partisan political exchange is soaring even as opportunities to engage in it are shrinking; traditional religious labeling is popularly eschewed, while other markers are retooled and reclaimed. Our standard categories also fail to capture the nuance of young peoples’ experience of meaning and belonging. Many of the denominationally “affiliated” disclose intense mistrust in their own faith institutions – even as many “disaffiliated” youth report startling rates of spiritual interest.

It is clear that new frameworks are needed to effectively serve and work with young people, and a major contribution in this area of research is Springtide Research Institute’s annual report: The State of Religion & Young People 2020: Relational Authority. The result of more than 10,000 surveys and qualitative interviews with over 150 young people aged 13-25, this report offers the largest domestically-available data set on this demographic. Drawing from insights from sociology, theology, and developmental psychology, the report accessibly reviews key findings and offers implementable recommendations for those committed to meaningful work with young people.

Presented in direct relationship to the ongoing wages of the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of the mass protests that swept the nation following the killing of George Floyd, the report asks pressing questions that defy easy resolution. Why does young people’s participation in religious groups or activities offer virtually no protective effect against feelings of isolation? What can those of all ages do to combat the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness now commonplace among younger generations? Especially as that inner striving towards which we are all called may feel more distant than ever before.

Springtide offers a framework emphasizing the way that intergenerational, mentoring relationships produce all manner of good emotional fruit, and identifies “Relational Authority” as that special array of credentialed expertise alongside skills that take decades to cultivate well: listening, transparency, care, integrity. Trying on this frame for myself, I began recalling the kind mentors I had as an adolescent whose Relational Authority helped smooth things out during times when I felt most off-track, as well as strategizing about ways to offer a measure of that grace toward the young people in my own life.

As I engaged this text in conversation with colleagues, I couldn’t help but note the similarities between this report’s emphases and my own training as a psychotherapist. Successful outcomes in mental health treatment are directly linked to exactly the kinds of skills presented here as best practice for youth workers: boundaried and authentic self-disclosure, demonstration of care preceding exertion of influence, asking attuned questions and listening deeply to what is shared. I am certain that many effective carers, coaches, clergy, and clinicians will recognize the portraits painted here, and may feel validated by data that backs up what has felt true in their bones for a long time.

Lyotard famously summarized postmodernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives” – a distillation that resonates with contemporary lament about the erosion of public trust in our civic institutions in the Trump era. Yet these trends have been long-ascendant, particularly for young adults who across the board report an utter lack of confidence in not only organized religion (considered less trustworthy than the banking system!) but also big medicine, Congress, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—the Presidency. Institutions that purport to serve young people must engage directly in the political and identity-driven conversations that are inextricable from most young people’’ lives; #DoBetterYoungLife is one example of what happens when communities don’t do this well.

Springtide’s report is careful to avoid the kind of alarmist, even moralistic panic about the fate of future generations sometimes characteristic of religious elders—one recalls Helen Lovejoy’s tortured refrain: “oh, won't somebody please think of the children!?” Yes, there is much more work that needs to be done to better understand and honor the inner and outer lives of young people, particularly in a current moment that has revealed our interdependence and shared vulnerability. But... the kids are going to be alright. There is  a dynamic and animating force within the testaments of the young people interviewed in this report. Reading reveals the stories of their flourishing: the ways they are growing and becoming, the novel ways they are seeking after and answering timeless questions. We can be hopeful that,  as people of conscience, we can build the kind of strong and supportive bonds so utterly needed in our world: communities that are safe from exploitation and predation, and where no one feels lost in the crowd.

I can’t help but remember a story that the theologian turned therapist Carl Rogers used to tell about coming across a long-forgotten bin of potatoes in the basement of his childhood home. Even in the clammy dark of his family’s cellar, unfavorable as those conditions were, those spuds sprouted pale, thin tendrils that sagely, inexorably wound themselves towards the light falling from a window. Something embedded within each of us, not unlike those subterranean tubers, makes a movement toward life, nourishment, belonging. Rogers could not deny what he saw: “[even] under the most adverse circumstances, they were striving to become.”

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

North Carolina is not alone in regard to macro-level efforts by state governments to increase access to vaccines, subverted by micro-level actions by individuals.
A través de mi experiencia, sé que las familias hispanas han sido gravemente, y desproporcionadamente, afectadas por la pandemia, y los datos de la Encuesta sobre Diversidad Religiosa y Vacunas de 2021 de PRRI-IFYC lo corroboran.
"It is permissible within our religion to defer, or to make up your fast later if you're feeling sick."
From experience, I know that Hispanic families had been greatly, and disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and survey data from the 2021 PRRI-IFYC Religious Diversity and Vaccine Survey corroborates this.
As the last few days of Ramadan are upon us – take our interactive quiz to find out how much you really know about this holy month.
We weren’t sure what to expect or how to navigate the complexities of getting to know colleagues from a distance, but IFYC team members Silma and Nadia welcomed us into their homes, their traditions, and their faith.
As the final project for the class, we wanted to do something that would make our campus a more inclusive, interreligious place.
IFYC is collecting prayers and meditations from diverse faiths to show our solidarity with the people of India, as well as links to charitable organizations that people can support.
Generally, tradition holds that the body is to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, and within three days for Sikhs. This need for rapid disposal has also contributed to the current crisis.
“Humanitarian Day embodies why Islam is relevant in America today. It’s why many Black Muslims embraced Islam, to be part of the solution, not only in their personal lives, but in their communities." - Margari Aziza Hill, MuslimARC
Recently, I asked a group of IFYC Alumni to share what they do in one sentence. I love their responses because they capture who they are so well.
As a nurse and a physician occupying different spheres in relation to the patient, Anastasia and I held comparable but also differing views about the role of religion and interfaith in the realm of patient care.
El movimiento necesita artistas, educadores, trabajadores de la salud, padres, funcionarios electos, científicos, clérigos, directores generales, y cuantas personas sea posible para hablar en contra de la injusticia donde sea que la veamos.
The scholarship covers the students’ tuition, as well as housing and living assistance while they pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees across all 18 of Columbia’s schools and affiliates.
En esta foto del sábado 9 de mayo de 2020, el Rev. Fabián Arias lleva a cabo un servicio en casa, al lado de los restos de Raúl Luis López quien murió de COVID-19 el mes previo, en el barrio Corona del distrito de Queens en Nueva York.
It is certainly within the rights of philanthropic and political institutions to 'not do religion,' but such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based humanitarian efforts in much of this country.
Last month, Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, brought two interfaith leaders together to discuss their respective publications and the consequences of the Equality Act on religious organizations, institutions, and places of worship.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to...
Imagine my surprise upon coming to USA and celebrating my first Easter, but didn’t people realize it was Easter? Why are all the egg die and chocolates already sold out and none left for us celebrating a few weeks later?
They will, in other words, be learning the skills of mindfulness meditation — the secular version of the Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America's go-to antidote for stress.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.