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Growing Youthful

Leading with a prayer for a youthful Maine, I double my business and my passion to match.

Nourishment—Courtney Sanders with her employees Jack and Dakota at her restaurant, Belfast, Maine, February 2024. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

by Courtney Sanders
Belfast, Maine

Summer brings a steady stream of tourists to Belfast and, so, a great many mouths to feed. What I did not expect was the river—no, the torrent—of tourism that visited our little seaside town last summer, swamping my tiny restaurant with demands for soup.

I began Daily Soup in 2014, after requests for soups I’d been making friends from home swiftly outgrew my kitchen’s capacity. When needed, I tended to hire women like me—middle-aged, experienced. We understood one another; we were chummy. But in 2023, themed the “Year of Youth and Triumph” in the SGI, I decided things would be different. I made a personal resolution to double my business, led with a prayer, or rather, a vow, to raise capable youth in every area of my life, my restaurant included. 

As summer approached and demand grew, my prayer became tinged with desperation—I wasn’t just determined to raise youth—I needed them! And I realized that I was overlooking the youth right in front of my eyes.

My daughter’s boyfriend, Ben, had, at 16, never before held a job. Lumbering, somber, with speech patterns belonging to the turn of the century, he was unlike any hire I’d ever made. Had the need not been so urgent and my prayer so strong, I might not have taken the leap, but in June, I did and was blown away—he’s a rock star on the register. 

But it wasn’t nearly enough—July saw the answer of my prayers: a doubling of customers. Desperately, I reached out to friends for leads. One recommended her son, Jack. Sensitive, artistic, he came anxious to our interview. He’d recently dropped out of college, he told me, and was figuring out what he wanted to do. As we got to work in the kitchen, we both discovered that, for the moment, this was it—he loved the work! A few days later, I mentioned a feeling I get sometimes—of having met someone before, not just in passing somewhere in Belfast, but elsewhere, in another lifetime. The notion piqued his curiosity. We got to talking about Buddhism, and he jumped at an invitation to our August discussion meeting. There he made another discovery: He likes chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

About Maine: It has the oldest demographic of any state in the country. Its SGI family reflects this. Time and again, youth have emerged but time and again have moved away or graduated from the youth division. It was not only me who began 2023 chanting lion’s-roar daimoku for youth to emerge in our state—it was every SGI Mainer I knew. That year, I hired one young person after another—eight in total—young people who brought an energy and passion that my restaurant had never known. 

Nov. 18, Soka Gakkai Day, has a personal significance for me. It happens to be the day I moved to Maine in 1998, and also the day, in 2013, I signed the lease on my restaurant. With great appreciation for my 25 years in Maine, I made a strong determination to bring five guests (mostly youth) to my district’s Nov. 18 celebration. I did lots of visits and made arrangements for the big commemorative meeting at my house. I invited everyone I knew. So when Jack and other youth from the restaurant said they couldn’t make it, I was crushed. Who would come? During the pandemic, I had invited a young person, a former schoolmate of my eldest child, to several Zoom meetings. Her struggles reminded me of the struggles of one of my own children. I’d reached out to her then because I felt I could be someone who could support her. But she, too, said she couldn’t come, and I felt dejected that my nearly yearlong campaign to draw youth to our organization seemed to be failing. But defeat is not the hallmark of youth; hope is. This was my mentor’s firm conviction, and I held onto it fiercely.

Recalling that a youthful Maine begins with me, my daimoku became fiercer, my determination greater, in the days leading up to the meeting. 

Three days out, I got a Facebook message from a teller at my bank, someone I didn’t know well, asking if my restaurant was hiring. She hated the stuffiness of the bank, she said, had quit the job and longed to work for someone with positive energy like me. Regrettably—maybe a little ironically—winter is the slow season for Daily Soup. I wasn’t hiring, I told her, but would she like to come to a Buddhist meeting? Yes, she said, she would!

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Sanders. At her local district meeting with four youth guests in attendance, Nov. 18, 2023.

On Nov. 18, four youth attended—my former bank teller, my eldest’s childhood friend (she made it after all!), a young woman invited by another member and my daughter, who stuck around, I think, because she wasn’t the only young person! Personally, I received the news of Ikeda Sensei’s passing the morning of. While for us longtime members the meeting was a place to process his passing, it was also a gathering full of laughter and joy. All our guests loved it. My former bank teller felt a deep sense of family and community that was missing in her life. The other member’s guest admitted she’d felt skeptical but was amazed at how great she felt afterward and wanted to keep coming. My eldest’s childhood friend kept saying, “I’m soooo glad I came!”

We kicked off the Year of Fresh Departure for a Youthful Soka Gakkai Worldwide with eight youth in attendance at our New Year’s gongyo. And just a few weeks later, at our chapter kickoff, Jack received the Gohonzon! He and two other young people have been joining me every Wednesday morning for daimoku. Belfast isn’t the only place experiencing this kind of growth—youth are appearing in districts all across the state.

Our Maine Chapter team chants an hour of united daimoku each week from our homes for an explosion of young people to appear in our chapter. We are all chanting earnestly—our chapter team, our district leaders, our group leaders and our very strong Many Treasures members—to draw forth young Bodhisattvas of the Earth from the universe, who will practice strongly, achieve all their dreams and contribute to kosen-rufu in Maine.

My heart is with them and grows more youthful by the day.

February 16, 2024, World Tribune, p. 5

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