Eugene B. Navias
By Joshua Thomas
Eugene B. Navias (1928- ): A lifelong Unitarian and ordained minister, Eugene Navias served on the religious education staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association for 29 years, as a consultant, field worker, and then director of the department. During his tenure, Navias was a chief interpreter of Unitarian Universalist curriculum, a trainer of local religious education leaders, and an innovator in the inclusion of arts and music in education programs. Navias was part of the curriculum team that developed the groundbreaking program About Your Sexuality and was instrumental in the Unitarian Universalist response to AIDS. During his leadership, religious education saw a greater focus on development across the human lifespan, Unitarian Universalist identity, congregational diversity, social justice, Biblical heritage and world religions, and more formalized programs of training for educators.
Eugene Navias was born in 1928 in Schenectady, New York to parents who were devout Unitarians. His mother Adelaide was descended from immigrants from Germany and Poland, and his father Louis came to the United States at age 16 from South Africa, the child of Jews from Lithuania. Louis worked for General Electric and was attracted to the Unitarian church because of its focus on reason. Eugene Navias and his one older brother attended church every Sunday and often proudly wore their perfect attendance buttons. Actively involved in the church himself, Navias fondly remembers playing the piano in his teacher Mrs. Christiansenâ€™s class. His childhood minister, Robert Weston, was an early model of ministry and an inspiration to his vocation.
The home Navias grew up in was explicitly and proudly liberal. His mother was involved in founding a birth control clinic, and both parents worked to begin a food cooperative in the basement of their church. "They reasoned, they cared, they acted," Navias remembers (1992, Notes).
His religious fervor faded over time, until he joined the Young People's Religious Union in ninth grade. This youth group was student-run, and a conviction that youth programs should be driven by the desires and initiative of young people themselves would persist in his religious education ministries. At about the same time, Navias began attending Rowe Camp in western Massachusetts. More than any other influence, Rowe Camp was, for Navias, his "path to ministry." There he met Angus MacLean, a professor of religious education at St. Lawrence University, where he would later attend (1992, Notes). At Rowe Camp, Navias found he could unite his mind and his heart. His home church had been too "GE rational" for his tastes, and at Rowe Navias could experience rich worship, nuture strong relationships, and "claim Unitairanism for myself." (n.d., Odyssey). Moreover, the campâ€™s director, Bob Killam, encouraged him to enter ministry.
Studying for ministry was one of three career options Navias considered, the others being social work and music. Music, in particular, was always part of his life. His father played the piano, Gene sang in choirs, and he dreamed of becoming a famous opera singer. In the end, though, Navias attended St. Lawrence University, enrolling in the undergraduate program in 1946 and then the Theological School from 1949-1951. Among his important teachers was John Murray Atwood, who "lived out the balance of reason and passion and somehow got the two of them together." Likewise, Angus MacLean, whom he first met at Rowe Camp, became a wise and loving mentor in the field of religious education. During college, Navias spent three summers as the night watchman on staff at Star Island conference center, on the New Hampshire seacoast. There he met many prominent Unitarian ministers and educators, developed relationships with other liberal religious young adults, and came to cherish the nightly candlelight chapel services (n.d. Life Work).
After his theological training, during which he served a united federated church in Richville, Navias was ordained on November 4, 1951. He was working then as an assistant minister to his old Rowe Camp mentor Bob Killam at First Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Navias had particular responsibility for religious education there during a time of tremendous congregational growth in the baby boom era. The childrenâ€™s program expanded from 100 to over 550 participants during his five and a half year tenure, exceeding the capacity of their original building. This required the use of temporary quarters in schools and other rented sites and eventually the construction of a new building in a suburban area. During this time, Navias began a longstanding interest in the design and construction of appropriate facilities for religious education. While in Cleveland, Navias continued to make time to sing in community choral groups.
After the Unitarian leadership became concerned that he had remained an assistant minister for too long, Navias was called as the minister of The Second Congregational Society (Unitarian) in Concord, New Hampshire in March of 1957. After a long period of discernment, the congregation decided to build a new church building to meet the communityâ€™s needs. In addition to the usual round of pastoral duties, Navias oversaw that project, continuing his interest in facility planning. While in Concord, Navias strengthened his involvement in religious education by participating in conferences at Star Island, first as a childrenâ€™s program leader and eventually as a conference dean. The conferences allowed him space to experiment with more creative forms of education and worship than he felt able to do in Concord.
In February of 1963, Navias was appointed to a position in the Department of Education at the Boston offices of the newly merged Unitarian Universalist Association, where he would serve for the next twenty-nine years. His first role was as one of three Religious Education Field Workers, responsible for consulting with local congregations and districts to serve their needs. His territory was the East coast, and he traveled widely to hundreds of congregations of all sizes during a time of thriving interest in religious education on the part of baby boom parents seeking programs for their children.
Navias worked with his colleagues to establish a new infrastructure for religious education. He gathered a New England Interdistrict Religious Education Committee to promote conferences in that region, including at Star Island and Ferry Beach. Navias developed a wide network of relationships with local leaders who consulted him about various issues in person or by mail. During the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist movements, capital campaigns by both groups provided substantial funding for a large staff at their new, joint offices, in hopes that membership and financial growth would sustain this level of central support. But by 1967, the monies were running out, and after cuts to staff and programs, Navias was left as the lone religious education field worker.
Now with responsibility for all of North America, Navias could no longer serve congregations individually. So his focus shifted to district level events, largely centered on training leaders to use newly developed curriculum resources. These kits pioneered interactive and multimedia approaches to religious education within the Unitarian Universalist Association, requiring more extensive instruction in methods and materials.
In 1968, Navias began work on what would be one of his greatest contributions to religious education: the About Your Sexuality curriculum. As part of a curriculum team led by deryck calderwood [sic], Navias and his colleagues developed a program that responded directly to the questions and needs of teenagers. Because of its explicit visuals and narrations of sexual experiences, the program received extensive, controversial publicity. Navias was responsible for designing and co-leading a fifteen hour training program to help local leaders feel comfortable and skilled in conducting this complicated educational experience (1992, Tales).
Other responsibilities that Navias undertook included the development of an Accreditation Program for Directors of Religious Education, for which he served as the Staff Associate or Dean through 1981. He provided personal guidance and mentoring to these candidates and their teachers through extensive mail and telephone consultations. During this time, Navias was also part of the development of the Meadville/Lombard Summer and Winter Institutes in Chicago for religious education leaders. He collaborated in the late 1970s on the development of the Renaissance Program for the Unitarian Universalist Association, a modular form of training in religious education conducted at the district level.
As the Unitarian Universalist Association matured into its own sense of identity, the needs for religious education also changed to reflect this reality. Parents and ministers wanted a curriculum that was more explicitly "Unitarian Universalist," less exclusively rational and more connected with the religious heritages of the movement. Around this time, Navias was influenced by James Fowlerâ€™s work in faith development and Tom Groomeâ€™s characterization of religious education as a political activity. In a paper for one of Fowlerâ€™s courses, Navias wondered "What are the short and long term effects of a tradition-void LRE [Liberal Religious Education] where church and parents put negative values on God talk, Biblical and other religious tradition, and ritual?" In contrast to this, Navias saw the "need for faith exploration. Unitarian Universalists typically define themselves according to the beliefs they no longer hold, and secondarily by those they hold by rational scrutiny. … Yet they live by more than rational belief. There is that which they trust but which lies beyond belief" (1980). This deeper level of positively-defined and emotionally-rich faith, religious practice and commitment to social change characterized the emphasis Navias would add to Unitarian Universalist religious education in the years to come.
In 1982, Navias was called to be the Director of the Religious Education Department in its implementation of the goals of the Religious Education Futures Committee, a task force convened by the Associationâ€™s Board of Trustees to chart directions for the future. Chief among these was a desire for a religious education approach that would encourage children of Unitarian Universalist parents to chose to remain UU as they grew up. It was in this era that the term "lifespan religious education" came into popularity, as new resources were developed for people of all ages.
Amid these broad responsibilities, Navias took on some special projects that were close to his heart and driven by the needs of the time. With a long interest in worship and music as forms of education, Navias was part of the team that studied the feasibility of the first Unitarian Universalist hymnal. His office served as a clearinghouse for worship resources, and he contributed his own songbooks, Singing our History and Bible Songs on Timeless Themes. In the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis spread through the United States, Navias edited the RE AIDS Packet, with practical and compassionate resources for congregations as they discerned how to respond to AIDS from the Unitarian Universalist principles (n.d. Tales).
Throughout his ministry, Navias was involved in the LREDA (Liberal Religious Educatorsâ€™ Association. It was a source of both personal support and professional collaboration.
Navias retired from his role as Director of the Religious Education department in 1992. In that year, he organized a program of narrations and hymns for the 1992 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly entitled "Singing - Shouting - Celebrating: 200 Years of Universalism." Again he brought together his interest in worship and music to craft an educational experience that celebrated the identity, roots, and legacy of the movement (n.d. Tales).
In 2005, Navias was given the Distinguished Service Award by the Unitarian Universalist Association, its highest recognition. In accepting the award, Navias reflected on the extensive involvement of UU congregations in the Gay Pride March in Boston that year. "The big surprise," Navias said, "was seeing that not only had the march been televised, but that the announcers read the name of every single church and read every banner. At that moment, my hopes for the world began to be restored… That this remnant could make its voice heard and make its voice for freedom and justice be heard.
For years, Navias had been involved in the Boston UU Lesbians and Gays organization, finding a welcome at Arlington Street Church in Boston even while remaining private about his sexuality. Using a false name, he had included his own story as the lone homosexual voice in the first edition of About Your Sexuality, at a time when gays and lesbians were still marginalized in the Unitarian Universalist Association. After the Stonewall riots, opinions began to change among Unitarian Universalists, and teachings more affirming of homosexual persons came to be included in sexuality curricula. When he applied to be Director of Religious Education, Navias came out to then UUA President Gene Pickett, who offered only support and affirmation.
Navias continues to serve as Associate Minister Emeritus at Arlington Street Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Boston, MA.
Contributions to Christian Education
Eugene Navias presided over a period of significant growth and change in religious education, during the formative years of the Unitarian Universalist Association. As a teacher, mentor and administrator, Navias trained and supported thousands of local leaders of religious education ministries.
As Navias began his ministry, religious education was most strongly influenced by the ideas of Sophia Lyon Fahs, embodied in the New Beacon Series that she edited beginning in 1937. Fahs invited Unitarians to "consider the children, how they grow," by turning attention to the experiences of children themselves and the natural inclination toward religion implicit in human potential (n.d., Short History).
By the time Navias came to work at the Unitairan Universalist Association, Hugo Hollerorth was bringing to popularity a "discovery method" in religious education. Curriculum resources were no longer simply texts but multimedia kits with visual aids, games, leaderâ€™s guides, filmstrips and audio recordings. These curricula, like Decision Making, Freedom and Responsibility, and The Haunting House required a corps of well-trained religious education leaders at the local level. Here Navias excelled as a teacher, consultant and promoter of this new methodology that took hold in Unitarian Universalist congregations.
One chief contribution of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Navias, to the wider field of religious education is the About Your Sexuality curriculum. Its revolutionary character cannot be over emphasized. "The program affirmed values held by Unitarian Universalists," Navias writes, "open inquiry, respect for human diversity, the freedom to make individual choices, and the responsibility to make them in light of accurate information and with respect for the rights of other persons" (n.d., Short History).
Navias and the curriculum developers took seriously the real questions of youth and believed that Unitarian Universalist congregations should be places for open and honest conversation about the whole of human life. As a then closeted gay man, Navias spoke of About Your Sexuality as the "most gratifying single project" he worked on (1992, And One to Grow On). The success of this program, even amid its controversy, rested on the skill Navias brought to training leaders to deal with sexuality issues in more open ways with youth. His work on About Your Sexuality influenced the updated sexuality curriculum Our Whole Lives, a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.
Navias brought this same direct, holistic approach to the Unitarian Universalist response to AIDS, especially since he knew people affected by the disease. When he edited the RE AIDS Packet in 1985, he brought together a liberal religious search for reasonable and accurate knowledge, a commitment to the worth and dignity of people living with AIDS, and a commitment to principled action in light of these theological orientations. The packet included simple yet significant information for children and youth, including a story about a person with AIDS and advice that it was okay to touch someone who had the disease. "Since AIDS is not only a health crisis but a crisis of fear," he writes in this packet, "we need to deal with facts and feelings."
Another significant contribution of Navias was the development of a distinctively "Unitarian Universalist" approach to religious education. Guided by the Futures Committeeâ€™s work, Navias oversaw the creation of educational resources that embodied and taught the new Unitarian Universalist principles and that rested on the four "pillars" of Unitarian Universalism, Jewish-Christian heritage, World Religions, and Social Action (n.d. Short History).
In the face of major world problems, from racism to nuclear proliferation, Navias communicated a powerful sense of Unitarian Universalismâ€™s collective vocation. "I now believe that Unitarian Universalism must set about intentionally to become a major force in the world," he said. "I believe that we are needed to help our world surmount the greatest challenge it has ever faced, and that challenge is the threat to life itself" (n.d., Mission). In a speech to the Michigan District Meeting, Navias called his coreligionists to realize that "we are needed once again … to be a fount of reason, of passion and of action. We are needed to be communities where people companion one another in kindling faith, in finding and sharing deep spiritual resources, in growing all of their lives long, and in gaining the strength and commitment to act" (n.d).
Throughout this effort, Navias offered his gifts of music in collections of songs that presented Biblical stories as well as the historical traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism, grounding the new movement firmly in its past. Ever since his days at Rowe Camp, Navias was concerned with the more-than-rational dimensions of religious education. In his introduction to Bible Songs on Timeless Themes, Navias writes of his intention to "help children… to absorb the stories into their memories, hearts, and voices; sense the deep feelings the stories evoked in those who put them into song; sing the meanings others have found in these stories and express our own; experience the bonding that group singing creates and become a community united by song; have the fun of singing, dancing, and playing songs on musical instruments; and enjoy making beautiful sounds" (1991, p. v).
The contributions Navias made to religious education are not visible in a long list of publications but rather in the growth of religious education within Unitarian Universalist communities during his long and steady leadership. During the ten years of his directorship, participation in religious education grew by nearly forty percent. Among his more than a dozen boxes of official papers, now housed in the Harvard Divinity Library, are countless sermon texts, worship services, and newsletters full of ideas and inspiration for local religious educators. There are pages focusing on "Unitarian Universalist Identity for Pre-Schoolers" that include stories, a puzzle activity and poems. There are resources for dealing with the Persian Gulf War, reflections on pedagogy like "Team Teaching: Friend or Foe," and energizing ideas like "Fun for your youth group," through which Navias hoped to bring more joy to religious education. Many of these are undated, reproduced many times for use in large and small Unitarian Universalist communities across North America.
In his sermons and talks, Eugene Navias often spoke about being inspired by this quote from nineteenth century educator William Ellery Channing. Its content could well describe the contributions of Navias as well:
The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs; Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, But to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision; Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought; Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment. In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish the spiritual life. (Channing, 1890)
- Hotchkiss, D., Blakey, L., Conn, M., Harnar, A., Ibrahim, L., Navias, E. & Scott, R. (1989). YRUU: A Five Year Review of Programs for Youth. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- Navias, E. (Ed.). (1975). Singing Our History: Tales, Texts and Tunes from Two Centuries of Unitarian and Universalist Hymns. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- Navias, E. (1983, June). Parish Ministry and Pedagogy: 1823-1983. Berry Street Essay. Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
- Navias, E. (Ed.). (1985). RE AIDS Packet. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- Navias, E. (1987). RE Growth: On Your Mark â€“ Get Set â€“ Go! Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- Navias, E. (1990). Itâ€™s a New Day for Religious Education! Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- Navias, E. (Ed.). (1991). Bible Songs on Timeless Themes. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- Paddock, T., Fields, A., Navias, E. & Robinson- Harris, T. (1987). Search Manual for DREâ€™s and Congregations. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
Joshua Thomas (MDiv Union Theological Seminary) is a PhD Candidate in religious education and practical theology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.