Palo Alto religious leaders Monday night offered their traditions of community and faith as a way for teens and their families to find hope and support in the wake of recent teen suicides.
"We are the makers of sanctuary, safe places where kids can know they matter, that each is a person of irreducible worth, irreplaceable, entitled to a place in the world," Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills said.
"We're the builders of values-centered communities, … where you're not judged by your grades, your SAT scores, what you look like, how much you weigh, your car, your clothes or the size of your house."
Citing the 23rd Psalm, Marder said, "We dwell in the house of the Lord, where nobody is mocked for not fitting in or not being cool."
Marder spoke on a multi-faith panel of religious leaders moderated by Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier and sponsored by a variety of religious and community groups.
The title was "Supporting Our Teens in a High-Pressure Environment."
A crowd of parents, religious leaders, mental health professionals, city, school and police leaders -- and a small sprinkling of teens -- packed Cubberley Theatre, which holds 320 persons.
While promoting values-based mentoring for youth, several panelists said it is critical to address teen mental-health issues, screening students for depression or mental illness and getting them treated. Clergy will gladly cooperate with mental health providers to address student needs, they said.
Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie summarized city and police responses to the three recent teen suicides. He said "quick fixes" include trimming trees and bushes and adding police presence at Caltrain crossings. He said longer-term measures include a planned task force involving "many stakeholders."
City Manager James Keene and school Superintendent Kevin Skelly will meet Thursday to "set the tone," Emslie said. Skelly was in the audience Monday.
In a brief, impromptu appearance, Michael Kang, the uncle of Jean Paul "JP" Blanchard, a Gunn High School junior who died at the Caltrain tracks in May, thanked panelists for their concern.
"Nothing is going to be the cure-all. Children growing up in Palo Alto may be too sheltered, parents should get to know their children's friends and families should make every effort to have dinner together," he said.
"I don't know what else we can do other than to try everything," he said.
Panelist Samina Sundas of the American Muslim Voice contrasted her childhood, surrounded by extended family and neighbors in Pakistan, with the loneliness of many people she observes in the United States.
"We pay a heavy price for privacy in America. We design our homes, our electronics, everything to make us independent. There is too much pressure to be independent in our society that might just not be good for kids," she said.
"We need to create that 'village' that raises all our children regardless of who they are, what their faith is, what their economic background is. We need to be the keepers of these kids."
The Rev. David Howell, pastor of First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, said faith communities "connect us more fully to each other so we can support each other.
"When we're part of a faith community, we have a stronger sense of belonging and connection to each other and hopefully to God and to all of creation, and with that comes a sense of responsibility to each other."
Church youth groups offer teens an opportunity to develop close relationships with adults who are not their parents, he added.
Asked later how to make religion "cool," Howell said, "'Cool' might be overreaching but I'm going to shoot for 'relevant.' We can become more relevant by talking more honestly about what the issues really are. Honesty can be lifesaving."
Sherry Cassedy of the Catholic Community of Palo Alto told a story of how she found support from "two cores of the Catholic tradition," community and ritual, following the suicide of a 15-year-old member of her extended family.
"We clung to each other and cared for each other. … No one was alone. We felt too vulnerable and found strength in one another."
Catholic ritual, allowing community participation as a priest took time to share peace with 80 young people lining the aisles at a memorial service, also offered some measure of peace, she said.
Eric Nelson of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, said the New Testament story of the prodigal son, in which a son is welcomed home by his father despite years of wasteful living, offers "a clear-cut illustration of how we are to love our children, no matter what choices they make, what grades they get, what sports teams they're on or what college they choose or don't choose."
The Rev. William Masuda of the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple shared some of the struggles of his own youth as a Japanese-American with a Buddhist background growing up in the Bay Area.
He described the Buddhist focus on the "existential reality of suffering as the very cause by which we're spurred to move forward, trying to make sense of our life."
There is a necessity for "a kind of awareness, mindfulness, persistence and effort in trying to understand the sense of self. This process is absolutely necessary in my mind to address this painful issue of teen suicides. …"
Monday's panel discussion was taped by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center. It will be transmitted on channels 27, 28 and 30 in September. See www.midpenmedia.org for times.
For a list of community resources, follow-up events and information on ordering a DVD of the panel discussion see www.councilofchurches-scc.org/teensupport.