Marin Teen Spirituality

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Marin Teen Spirituality

Tiburon's Westminster Presbyterian Church where Pastor Bethany Nelson preaches.

Tiburon's Westminster Presbyterian Church where Pastor Bethany Nelson preaches.

Tiburon's Westminster Presbyterian Church where Pastor Bethany Nelson preaches.

Tiburon's Westminster Presbyterian Church where Pastor Bethany Nelson preaches.

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“Some people really commune with God when they’re hiking on Mount Tam or when they’re sailing on the bay,” says Bethany Nelson, associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church. And some people see God when the sun shines, or when there’s a full moon. Some see God in the eyes of beloved pets. Some people see God when they volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Some see God when their family is all together. Some see God when a miracle happens, and some see God in the times that they don’t happen.

According to, roughly 44 percent of Marin County is religious. Christianity occupies 40.3 percent of the religious 44 percent, with 1.8 percent being Jewish, and 0.4 percent affiliating with Islam. To recap, the dominant religion in Marin is quite obviously Christianity and all of its denominations. These may sound like big numbers, but they’re not. From a different perspective, a whole 56 percent of Marin County is not religious at all. In an area that is primarily liberal, religion doesn’t seem to play as big of a role as it does in other parts of the country.

At Marin Academy, a private school with students from San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay and beyond, the perception of religion is quite different. In fact, it’s often stigmatized. Unlike other places in the United States, and in many places in the world, as Natalia Guerrero, leader of Christian Student Organization at Marin Academy, confesses: “coming here is a major culture shock to see people who were adamantly against religion. So that really made me question my religion and my identity for a really long time.”

Natalia Guerrero, a senior at Marin Academy, takes pride in her Christian identity while attending a family member’s confirmation. Courtesy of Natalia Guerrero.

In fact, Natalia claims that “there [are] more Jewish people [at MA] and it’s definitely harder to get a good turnout at CSO [meetings].” When asked about the population of the general Bay Area, Natalia said that she thought it was Christianity, but that “we have one of the most religiously diverse places here.”

Another student at Marin Academy, Rachel Richman, who leads the Jewish Student Organization, had a similar opinion. “I don’t really think [the dominant religion in Marin] is Jewish. I don’t know if there is any particular one that’s dominant.” Interestingly, both Rachel and Natalia perceive Marin as religiously balanced and find there to be little to no presence of one dominant religion.

Even fellow Marin teenager Ian St. John, who attends a Catholic high school near Marin Academy, said that “not one [religion] stands out a whole lot” when he was asked the same question.

So why is there such a huge discrepancy between what people perceive and the truth?

As Associate Pastor at WPC Bethany Nelson mentioned, her church (and other churches and temples in Marin) reflects the community that surrounds it: “If you look at Tiburon and Mill Valley, which is where most of our congregants are from, we totally reflect that… the community is unabashedly progressive… it has an LGBT person as their pastor.”

Bethany Nelson, Sebastopol native, acts as the current associate pastor and previous youth director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. Courtesy of Bethany Nelson.

Marin’s generally liberal culture affects Rodef Sholom as well. Youth director Rachel Altfeld at the temple said that the community at the temple’s identity is “hugely cultural and comes from how teens are raised.” She also mentioned that Rodef Sholom is a reform synagogue, so the “interpretations of Judaism are very different than in other areas… and teens love the social justice aspects” of Judaism more than anything.

Both the youth at Westminster Presbyterian and Rodef Sholom grow up in a relatively liberal culture, and this bleeds into the cultures at their synagogues and churches, and even how they interact with their religious communities. So, therefore, the culture they’re surrounded by effects how they perceive the religions they identify with.

Ben Robinow, a senior at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, identifies as a Jewish person. From Ben’s perspective, he has a different take on religion: “I feel like the older generation is more into rules like going to temple or having the actual establishment of a temple versus younger generation. I feel like for me it’s more about values, like using religion as a moral compass for your life.”

Ian St. John, who is a Marin Catholic senior, doesn’t identify as a Catholic. In fact, Ian said that “going to Catholic school made [him] less Catholic because of the way teachers at MC would like to explain stuff.” Elaborating on his disagreement, Ian said: “I didn’t like the whole belief system. I didn’t align myself a lot of what they followed because [the ideas] were pretty conservative, outdated, and misogynistic.”

Despite his religious differences, Ian St. John finishes Marin Catholic with a smile. Courtesy of Ian St. John.

For Ian, the reason why he couldn’t connect to Catholicism was that it was hard to agree with conservative ideas when he also belonged to the liberal community in Marin.

Both Judaism and Christianity, if followed religiously, result in a more conservative lifestyle. And most teens in Marin can’t relate to that. Because Marin is such a liberal area, religious teens tend to look at Judaism or Christianity from a liberal lense as well. Because their values are liberal, people see God differently. Bethany said that when working with teens, she liked that she and the teens “could have a wonderfully open, lively discussion because there is this attitude that we’re all on a learning journey together.” and that there is “openness and willingness to share ideas… and even when we disagree, we feel we can learn from each other.” Despite the fact that religion for teens in Marin is more subjective to the individual, most religious teens can agree that what’s important is not necessarily following religion strictly–but being a member of a community and sharing similar values.

After going to a Jewish School his entire life, Ben Robinow said that rather than focusing on the rules of Judaism he focuses on how he interprets it: “The most important parts of Judaism to me are the values and the community interests. I think that’s what the reform movement is all about.”

Ben Robinow, a senior at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, explores his Jewish relationship with community while on a school trip to Israel. Courtesy of Ben Robinow.

This wasn’t just with Judaism but was rather across other religious sectors as well. Natalia’s religious beliefs surrounding Christianity seemed to align with Ben’s: “For me, it’s more about being a good person and following and using the church to guide me to do that.”

Maybe it’s the liberal area in which we live or simply that teens don’t want to be held down by the strict establishment of rules, but teens in Marin had a stronger connection to values as opposed to adults. Along with this, other teens had a strong connection to the community.

Rachel Altfeld, teen director at Rodef Sholom Temple, touched on this subject about the community that is built at the temple. Having grown up in a town where their family was one of the only Jewish families, coming to work in the Bay Area was culture shock as there is a fairly large Jewish population in comparison to her home: “I think I come from a really unique situation because my town has about 20 Jewish families. My family was really involved, but there weren’t any other kids who are Jewish who are my age or even around my age.”

Rachel Alfeld, a graduate of the University of Arizona, grew up in Tennessee where she was apart of one of the only Jewish families in her town. Courtesy of Rachel Altfeld.

Despite this change, she found one thing that stayed consistent in all Jewish communities was the community: “I think the biggest thing that I see Jewish teens in Marin appreciating is the community that we’re able to create and the friends that they make at the temple.”

And even for adults, the community is an incredibly important part of the practice. Bethany describes the importance of having a place to come together: “It’s also important to come together with other Christians to worship together and serve together. For me that’s what the [people] of Marin who are not part of a faith community are missing. You know, so much about faith for me is doing it with other people.”

Natalia similarly cited the idea of community for why she wanted to become a leader of CSO: “I wanted to just bring a safe space for the people who are Christian, and I think that there’s a lot of stigmas against Christianity and a lot of people are really against religion here at MA. I just wanted a space where I could feel like I could show that part of myself considering it’s such an important part of who I am.” Having always been able to be surrounded by her fellow Christian peers outside of Marin Academy, she felt the drive to find this community again.

 Marin Academy’s own senior Rachel Richman’s love of the Jewish community also lead her to lead JSO: “I’ve always found like a really strong community with the Jewish people around me so I think I wanted to take a bigger role with that.” Rather than the establishment of religion itself, more value was found within the community religion helps people build.

Centered, Rachel Richman, a senior at Marin Academy, creates lifelong friends while attending Jewish Camp Tawonga near Yosemite. Courtesy of Rachel Richman

Ben also prioritized his religious ties to the Jewish community rather than strictly following the religion: “It’s hard for me to continue believing in God and continue believing in like all the spiritual stuff. And really I just think religion is a community thing more than anything else.” Having both attended Jewish school and gone to Jewish camp since before he can remember, you’d think he would be more attached to the Jewish religion itself, however, it’s not.

Even at his Jewish high school students are required to attend some type of prayer service, known as Tefillah, however, the school really leaves it up to the students how they want to approach their own religious experience. “They’re not conventional to Tefillahs there are lots of different interpretive Tefillah that are more about just being together in community. Right now I’m in one called Havarah, which is all just about community and togetherness and sharing stories and there’s no prayer aspect to it.” Through this manner, Ben was able to express his Judaism in his own way.

Religion is a daunting idea in Marin. Often interpreted as having strict rules and almost a thing of the past for younger people and in liberal areas, how does religion play a role in the lives of Marin’s teens?

At pretty much every grade school in Marin, there are days off for most Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holidays. And at many schools in Marin, learning to respect different cultures, no matter what race, ethnicity, or religious belief, is part of the curriculum. The Bay Area’s ultra-liberal, politically correct “everybody belongs” mentality makes people think that Marin may be religiously diverse, although it’s not. The way that this liberal culture affects religious populations is in practice, not in population.

After experiencing Marin’s liberalism and atheist majority, Natalia’s beliefs were questioned: “And I thought I didn’t believe in God and all that. I still have to deal with like a lot of people saying you’re stupid for believing and all of that. It’s definitely hard to deal with that. But I think it also helped me kind of realize why I believe in the things I believe in and like see what’s actually important for me.”

Religious teenagers in Marin are a minority. Although the culture may cause them to question religion, Marin teens have found a way to embrace everything that’s a part of their identity: whether it be their communities, values, and home.

As our culture evolves, it seems people find less time for religion. But rather finding a different meaning within oneself, whether its a connection to community or simply using religion’s guiding values, is the new religious fad in a liberal community such as Marin.