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Virtues

Sophie, though only 4 years old, possesses at least 52 virtues. And her mother, Cynthia Wand, wants to make sure that the child grows up recognizing and using those virtues to weave a rich and fulfilling life for herself.

She doesn't say, "You're a good girl, Sophie."Instead, she praises the child for her cleanliness, her kindness, her generosity and truthfulness.

It's an approach called the Virtues Project - and Wand has become a missionary of sorts, working to spread its news to churches and schools in hopes of building a stronger future for the generation that's just starting the journey through life.

The Virtues Project was born in Canada six years ago. It "calls people to remembrance of the virtues, the qualities of character and the simple elements of spirituality honored by all cultures and sacred traditions," according to the project headquarters news release. The project is based on a book, "The Virtues Guide: A Handbook for Families," by Linda Kavelin Popov, Dr. Dan Popov and John Kavelin and is supposed to serve as a guide for parents in raising morally and spiritually responsible children.

But it's not just for children, according to the Rev. Mike Fotheringham, pastor of Salt Lake's Unity Church, which has just completed its eighth week of a yearlong virtues project.

Wand first suggested that the church, which meets in Murray High School and has 600 members, use the list of 52 virtues and the handbook in their youth classes. Fotheringham saw more potential than that. Instead, he chose to incorporate a virtue a week into his sermons, while the classes study those virtues, too.

"It's provided tremendous cohesiveness with my ministry," Fotheringham said. "It's bringing our adults and youths together as a family. And for me, it's challenged me to go deeper with what virtues I live and can live. And to find their spiritual importance for my life and hopefully for other people."

He's learning about himself as he shares virtues with the congregation, Fotheringham said. Take tolerance, last week's virtue.

"One of the challenges of churches and ministers is to practice tolerance of other churches. I heard someone a few years ago say, and I have agreed, that churches generally shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to tolerance of other religious faiths.

"We say, `Teach love and unconditional acceptance,' but there's more strife between religious bodies and they have caused more disturbance than anything else. We have an opportunity to call it out with our religious leaders and to be tolerant of other faiths. Frankly, I've re-looked at how tolerant I am of other faiths and the answer has been, `not very.' "

From the sainted late Mother Teresa to the man on death row, everyone has virtues, according to the project. And when you note - and praise - that virtue, it's more apt to be displayed again and again.

Members of Unity Church believe that human beings were created by God, but that they choose their own paths and "create" what they become. It also believes there is "innate goodness in everyone and our focus is to draw that out," said Fotheringham. Hence the Virtues Project.

"You primarily create your life through your thoughts first," he said. "Then they combine to create your actions."

Choosing virtue over vice means a fuller life, he said.

The project is now part of church and school curriculums in more than 80 countries, according to Wand. Some prisons use it. But it only recently came to Utah, where Wand hopes it will spread in many directions.

The project is not just a touchy-feely "let's talk about a virtue" program. It's also a primer for action.

Parents act as four different people to their children. They are authority, educator, counselor and guide. And they have five definite strategies to work with those children.

First, parents need to speak the "language of the virtues."

If you fill an office or home or school with words like lazy, stupid and bad, those behaviors tend to come about. Change the words to courage, helpfulness, flexibility, and "you empower those behaviors, instead."

Folks also need to recognize teachable moments, set clear boundaries and "honor the spirit," which means awakening and touching people's "unique sense of the sacred." Finally, they must study the "art of spiritual companioning."

"This is a skill and an art to be used in families and by caregivers and counselors in times of grief or celebration, with the dying and their families, to help children and adults to make moral choices," the project guide says.

Wand's excited about it because, once exposed to it, the Virtues Project "helped me to see people in a light that is more whole."

It allows people who on the surface have little in common to become friends, she said. "It makes me feel like I'm able to connect with other human beings at all levels.

For more information on the project, call Wand at 583-0702.