Flocking back for answers Spiritual quest: Baby boomers who stopped formal worship long ago are looking for ways to introduce and explain religion to their children.

March 24, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

It was the death of two pet mice that brought questions about God into the home of Carol Uhler-Ford and her son, Essien.

Desperate to soothe her sobbing son, Ms. Ford told him that the mice were happy in "mouse heaven." For days, Essien, 7, stared at the sky looking for clouds shaped like his lost pets.

Then he asked, "What is heaven?"

As Ms. Ford, who is 42, tells it, she was off on a stressful ordeal that many parents a generation that has drifted away from formal religion face as they try to answer their children's spiritual questions.

The Randallstown woman gave her son a hug and blurted out something more like a multiple-choice question than an answer: "I told him that some people believe your spirit goes to heaven and you're safe and happy Some people say you go to heaven for a minute and then you come back to earth with a new life. I didn't know what else to say."

It is a common problem for people in their 30s and 40s. Most attended Sunday school and religious classes as youngsters but abandoned religious institutions as soon as they came of age.

Now that they are raising children, many are returning to churches and synagogues for help. A Gallup survey released in October showed that 40 percent of people between the ages of 30 and 50 regularly attend religious services.

Many parents never return to church or temple but still seek ways to teach their children how to deal with ethical and moral dilemmas, said Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

These parents often deal with spiritual issues in personal and ambivalent ways.

"Questions from children often buffalo parents because parents don't have much of a religious vocabulary or specific sets of beliefs," said Dr. Roof. "Children pro- voke serious spiritual dilemmas because they want to know not only who is God, but what is the meaning of life."

More than ballet, karate

Kathleen Capcara, a religious education consultant to the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, said, "Parents want to give their kids more than ballet and karate lessons. Parents want to give their children some spiritual tools to help them through life.

"But they are not sure about dragging their kids to Sunday school," she added. "They remember when they were dragged to Sunday school and all they did was memorize the Ten Commandments or work crossword puzzles."

For similar reasons, Dori Phelps, a 34-year-old mother of three, was turned off by church when she was a teen-ager. The Hamilton resident attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church as a child and dropped out in her teens.

"I believe in God, but I don't believe in God as most people describe him," she says. "I don't think God is one being. I believe that God is like a spirit of love inside of us."

She often tells her 6-year-old son, Max, "Mommy thanks God for you all the time." Carly, who is 7 with sky-blue eyes, believes she is protected by angels. Every night, they pray together. Most often the children pray that their father will quit smoking, Mrs. Phelps said, laughing.

Questions get tougher

As the children get older, issues get tougher. Mrs. Phelps, a homemaker, panicked when Max asked about his great-grandmother, and she had to tell him about death.

"It made me nervous because I wanted to tell Max something that would comfort him, but I didn't want to lie to him and tell him about heaven when I'm not sure that I believe in heaven," she said. "I was trying to get around saying that death is some final thing we all have to face. I didn't want to scare him."

As Mrs. Phelps struggled for an answer, Max's eyes got teary. "I don't want you to die, Mom," he said. He repeated that plea every night for months.

Mrs. Phelps reassured her son time and time again, saying, "By the time I die I'll be 80 years old. I'll be really tired and ready to die. But I'll always watch over you."

Max has overcome his fear. But the experience worries Mrs. Phelps. "It was the first time I actually thought I needed to explain the unexplainable to my kids," she said. "I need to explain the concept of a greater being and that the world is bigger than what they see right here. I just don't know how."

Like Mrs. Phelps, women tend to take the lead in their families' spiritual journeys. She is looking for a church to broaden her children's sense of community beyond home and school. "For my husband, this is not a priority," she said.

Most often, children begin to ask religious questions when coping with the deaths of relatives. Maria Jimenez, 8, is still recovering from the loss of her brother, Freddie. He died two years ago of liver cancer at the age of 13 months.

Last week, in her Sunday School class at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in West Baltimore, Maria drew a picture of herself with a thick, dark pencil. Next to the girl, Maria wrote, "I love God."

The drawing relieved her father, Richard Jimenez. He said that since Freddie's death, Maria has been "pretty ticked off at God."

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