I fold my arms across my chest, take a deep breath, and pray I won’t drown as the choir sweetly sings: Take me to the water. The notes fill my senses. Take me to the water, to be baptized.
White robes sway in unison like ocean waves as I stand in the pool that lies beneath the church floor. Next to me in the water, which reaches just above my waist, is Rev. James Goodwine, pastor of Fort Motte Baptist Church in the Bronx. Regular attendance was a promise extracted from my mother by my grandmother as she lay dying. At 9, I enjoyed the pageantry of it all. The drumming and the tambourines. The synchronized steps of the choir marching into the sanctuary. The magical stories I studied—lions and snakes and whales, oh my! The recitations I delivered to the congregation and still remember today.
Once I turned 13, I decided I was ready to be taken to the water, to be baptized. It wasn’t so much a calling as an inner knowing. Nevertheless, as I now await full-body immersion, I am trembling. I never learned to swim. The thought of having my face submerged terrifies me.
Rev. Goodwine, who sheds his quiet demeanor and transforms into a fiery orator during his Sunday sermons, places one hand in the small of my back. My heart is beating so fast I wonder if he can see it through the layers of my white gown. He dips me backward into the pool and dunks me. I am falling, gurgling, and bubbling over. The choir beckons: None but the righteous shall see God.
Immediately, I feel more mature, wiser, and expectant. The world is brighter, and so are the days of my life ahead. In the years that follow, this rite of passage will become the beginning—and not the apotheosis—of my spiritual unfoldment. I will venture down paths vastly different from Fort Motte, guided by a deep interest in becoming “closer to God”—my No. 1 New Year’s resolution for many years, starting as a teenager.
Even though my mother and I will not share the same beliefs, I deeply appreciate the spiritual sustenance and encouragement with which she nurtured me. On the walk to church one Sunday morning when I was 16, I shared I didn’t want to go. “Why not?” she asked while we waited at a corner for the light to turn green.
Unable to identify the peculiar resistance I was sensing, I replied, “I just don’t feel well.”
“Well, that will change once you attend service,” she said quietly. And to my great surprise and relief, it did. The morning’s inertia melted away. This memory—the promise of a better moment that was mystically fulfilled—sticks with me. A few years later, I became disillusioned with the church I was attending while away at college. “Any church is better than no church,” my mother said. While I didn’t agree, her words did inspire me to keep seeking. Nearly a decade later, when I entered the doors of the Agape International Spiritual Center (at that time in Los Angeles, now in Beverly Hills, California), I felt I had come home.
Benefits of a Spiritual Practice
At 13, I was ripe for a spiritual awakening. It’s no wonder several spiritual traditions choose this age to observe pivotal rites of passage. In the Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah for boys and the bat mitzvah for girls, held at age 12 or 13, signifies when they can decide how they would like to practice Judaism. The Latin-American quinceañera, marking the 15-year-old girl’s passage to womanhood, begins with a Catholic mass.
In a landmark 2020 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, many teens reported having spiritual or religious experiences at least once or twice a month. Among the 1,811 pairs of teenagers and parents surveyed, half of the teens felt a sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least monthly. Some 46 percent said they think about the meaning of life, and 40 percent revealed they experience a strong sense of awe about the universe. A staggering 77 percent of the teens reported they feel a deep sense of gratitude.
Janet Dion, a licensed practitioner with Agape and a marriage and family therapist, counseled youths at a Catholic high school in Los Angeles for 20 years. She observed that a spiritual practice can be especially helpful for teens, yielding enormous physical, emotional, and psychological benefits at a time when their brains are rapidly expanding. “It’s a great stress reliever,” she says, naming a litany of pressures adolescents face today, such as the college application process and even the isolation endured during the global pandemic.
Dion notes she rarely used the word “God” in her sessions. Instead, she guided students to discover an inner awareness. This aligns with a national trend of Americans moving away from organized religions and choosing to pursue more individualized spiritual paths. Instead of solely relying on formal religious institutions, their parents, teachers, or even friends, it’s imperative for teenagers to cultivate a trust within themselves. To that end, Dion taught her students meditative practices such as body and breath awareness to “light up the brain’s prefrontal cortex,” which regulates our thoughts, emotions, and actions. “The teenage brain likes a challenge and likes to take risks,” she says. “If doing some of these practices feels different or exotic, they might be more inclined to take it on.”
Tools for Teens
Lisa Poliak, founder and director of the educational consulting company Inner Genius Prep in Santa Monica, California, is another expert on teens and stress management. “Teaching teens tools such as positive self-talk, visualization, and affirmations empowers them to handle their many stressors more effectively,” she says. “Using these tools helps teens have a sense of agency in their lives and connect with their inner essence so they can thrive amidst myriad pressures.” At that age, everything feels like life and death, and teens often become overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and insecurities about their ability to succeed, especially in today’s highly competitive landscape. While Poliak does not call it spirituality per se when working with clients, she uses the same spiritual tools, now often referred to as mindset practices, that she gained from her spiritual study.
The next time a teen tells you they are overwhelmed, stressed, or even feeling hopeless, you might suggest they try a mini meditation or guided visualization (easily found online or in free apps like Insight Timer), take a few minutes to breathe, or become aware of their negative self-talk and replace it with something more self-supportive. You—and they—just might be surprised by how their mood and mindset transform.
“Teens want this information,” Dion says. “They want to know that they have wisdom, that they’re connected and can trust themselves.”
And that’s true inner awareness—seeing the God within themselves.
Unity Books has just rereleased The Simple Truth, by Mary-Alice Jafolla and Richard Jafolla, originally published in 1982. The book is an interactive collection of 24 short essays about spirit, soul, and body; heaven and hell; love and prosperity; and more. Perfect for teens or anyone beginning to explore spiritual ideas. To order, visit unity.org/shop.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.