Human beings have a universal desire to be cared about, to care about others, and to belong to a community in which people care about each other. In our society, we have put a religious label on, and religions have given voice to, this need to care and belong. However, this is a deep spiritual need that transcends religion, social class, nationality, and all forms of identity. If we do not fulfill this fundamental spiritual need, we will not fulfill the deepest aspirations of humanity. When we do fulfill it, we liberate the best in the human psyche. If we want to raise children and youth who are good citizens, who fulfill their potential, and who take leadership for a better world, they need to belong to something that allows them to explicitly define their desire to serve and care and make a difference.
This is a spiritual need that exists independent of religion as well as within religion. It needs to be understood by secular humanists, named, spoken to, and welcomed within our programs of social change and human development.
The importance of this need is particularly apparent among disconnected youth. There are 5.4 million 16- to 24-year-old young people in America who are unemployed and not in school. More than 2 million of them are poor, and an additional 365,000 are in prison. These young people have fallen off the edge of society. For most of them, their academic, employment, social, and spiritual development are stalled, or in reverse, moving toward powerless despair, antisocial withdrawal, or acting out. They are at serious risk of becoming permanently disconnected from positive community and productive lifestyles.
Yet they are fairly easily reclaimed. The right combination of opportunities within a caring community can awaken an enormous desire to build a positive life and give back to families and communities. Having experienced profoundly difficult life crises and family problems, many of these young people hold just under the surface a passionate desire to help make the world a better place. They have seen the underside of society, and if given a chance, they would like to change it. YouthBuild is an example of a program for young people that produces inspiring results for thousands of out-of-school and out-of-work youth and young adults. In it young people build housing for homeless and low-income people while attending a YouthBuild alternative school. It has been authorized and funded as a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 1993. There are now 200 YouthBuild programs in 44 states. About 55,000 youth have participated since the first YouthBuild was started in 1978 in East Harlem.
YouthBuild is not a religious organization, yet its directors consider the program "faith based" in the secular sense, given that it espouses faith in humanity, faith in the power of love and opportunity as change agents, and faith in the sacred value of every human being no matter how damaged the person may have been by past experiences. The program believes in collective ventures to enhance the well-being of communities and society.
The adults who come to work in YouthBuild programs have faith in the value of caring about other human beings. They believe caring about others makes a difference in the world; indeed, it is the cause to which the adults in YouthBuild have given their lives. The primary motivation of those who work with YouthBuild is not materialistic, nor is it religious. It is humanistic: They care about the welfare of communities, fellow human beings, and the planet. They work very hard to make the world a better place, especially for people who have been born poor and live in an oppressed community.
YouthBuild does not deliberately recruit staff members from any religious group, and does not ask people about their religious faith or their spiritual practices, although people with strong religious backgrounds gravitate to YouthBuild. Among the people who have emerged as local leaders are a Jesuit priest, Catholic nun, Buddhist monk, Muslim imam, and many highly engaged members of numerous specific faiths. To the extent that employees and participants experience YouthBuild as a spiritual community, it is because leaders welcome and embrace the spiritual needs of members. These needs are not usually identified as "spiritual," but rather as universal human needs.
The need to love and be loved is fundamental. The need to be useful, to give, to belong, and to see the value of one's contribution to the community and the world, is universal. Simply recognizing that-within a society that is profoundly materialistic and individualistic- unleashes spiritual energy.
When youth or directors are gathered together from around the country to share their experiences and learn from each other, or when young people are given a chance to express their deepest feelings of connectedness and their highest aspirations for becoming somebody who can make a difference, what often emerges spontaneously is prayer. When people feel supported, connected, inspired, and liberated to pursue their best selves and contribute to something larger than themselves, they are moved to give thanks to whatever higher power that they have learned to talk to. This takes the connection deeper, as people feel another level of their own consciousness and identity being accepted. Soon tears may flow as young people speak freely from their hearts about their personal change, inspiration, gratitude, and vision. The role, then, of leadership is to accept the spontaneous expression of religious expression and guide the group toward ecumenical prayer that welcomes diverse faiths.
When YouthBuild held a nationwide rap contest, explicitly prohibiting lyrics that were violent, sexist, or materialistic, what developed was a wonderful array of songs about God and revolution. Deep religious energy and a desire for profound social change infused the passionate release that comes through rap. At one national conference, when the young leaders had taken a pledge to commit themselves to the wellbeing of their communities, to take leadership with a spirit of love and justice, they spontaneously called for saying the Pledge of Allegiance, drawing on another early source of a sense of belonging.
When the attacks of September 11 occurred, YouthBuild students in New York City spontaneously asked to go to Ground Zero to help. YouthBuild students in other communities held bake sales and sent money to the victims. The outpouring of their sympathy was another expression of a spiritual connection to other human beings in their larger community. When people feel cared about, they feel grateful. They want to give back. They feel connected, and the urge to give love surfaces naturally.
In most YouthBuild programs, the students say a pledge that goes something like the following (each program modifies and writes their own pledge if they so choose):
We, the Brothers and Sisters of YouthBuild, pledge before God and all Mankind:
• The love and loyalty of our hearts,
• The wisdom and courage of our minds,
• The strength and vigor of our bodies,
• In the service of our fellow citizens. We dedicate ourselves to bring about unity in our community. We promise to stand up for justice, brotherhood, sisterhood, and peace, and
• To work diligently and creatively, and
• To think generously and honestly. All this we do out of profound respect for our community and ourselves.
Such a pledge gives direction and commonality to something the young people are yearning for: belonging to something larger than themselves with positive values and a vision of the life we can lead and the community we can create. This is an essential spiritual experience.