“Muslim, Christian, Jew, Baha’i—YTI Diversify! Go justice, go peace!”
Chanting these words as they walked down Peachtree Street with thousands of others in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day March, high school, college, and graduate students of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds held signs with quotations from Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, as well as slogans proclaiming their commitment to interfaith cooperation for social justice and peace. In between their chants, they broke into song, ranging from the South African freedom hymn “Siyahamba” to the civil rights classic “We Shall Overcome.” The group of marchers behind and ahead of them thrilled at the sight of so many young people joyously singing and chanting their vision of a better world—a world in which people of all faiths can draw on the richness of their different traditions not only to support their work together, but also to encourage each other to become more faithful practitioners of their own traditions. These students marched into the public sphere—a sphere shaped by the shootings in Tucson only a week prior and by Qur’an burnings only a few months before that—and made their voices heard. They embodied what we at the Youth Theological Initiative call “public theology.”
The Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) began in 1993 as an experiment in theological education with high school students at Candler School of Theology. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the designers envisioned an intellectually rigorous, spiritually rich experience, in which youth from around the country would live in community with adult mentors, including Emory faculty and graduate students, activists, artists, and church leaders. From the beginning, the program sought to embody a radical pedagogy, one in which young people—and their questions about faith and the world—would be taken seriously and engaged critically. Based on the assumption that young people have been “domesticated” and ignored, not only by the Church but also by schools and society, this pedagogy sought to empower young people to speak prophetically to the world. By bringing one’s faith commitments into conversation with the needs of a broken world, YTI set out to “cultivate public theologians.”
According to Duncan Forrester in his 2000 book Truthful Action: Explorations in Practical Theology, Christian public theology seeks “to contribute to public discussion by witnessing to a truth which is relevant to what is going on in the world and to the pressing issues facing people and societies today.” In so doing, “it offers convictions, challenges and insights derived from the tradition of which it is a steward” and “attends to the Bible and the tradition of faith at the same time as it attempts to discern the signs of the times and understand what is going on in the light of the gospel.”
At YTI, we begin to explore what this means very concretely. In one of our first classes, students pick up sections of the daily newspaper and skim through the pages looking for an image or story that draws their attention, makes them upset, or gives them inspiration. After identifying something, students open their Bibles and look for stories, images, or passages that seem to “speak” to what they’ve found in the newspaper. Through discussion, students then share with each other insights gained by putting these two sources into conversation. Only after completing this activity do I share with them the oft-cited saying of theologian Karl Barth that one must “do theology with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” This helps us begin to understand ourselves as “public theologians.”
Students spend time in the classroom developing some of the skills needed to “do public theology,” exploring historical examples such as the church’s role in the U.S. civil rights movement and the South African anti-Apartheid struggle, and identifying contemporary forms of public theology in youth culture. But their learning also extends into the Atlanta community. For example, through the “Faith, Ethics and the City” curriculum, students focus on three different contemporary issues facing Atlanta—environmental justice, racism and civil rights, and immigration and labor—by working with and learning from organizations engaged in organic farming, addressing homelessness, and fighting sex trafficking. After each trip, students return to the classroom to reflect on their experiences in light of theological and ethical perspectives.
Although our program is rooted in the Christian tradition, YTI has evolved over the years to include a significant interfaith component—an addition requested by the youth themselves, who are eager to find ways to develop their own faith authentically while understanding and appreciating the faith traditions of others. In addition to attending Shabbat services at The Temple and Jumma prayers at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, YTI hosts a “Day of Interfaith Youth Service” in which Atlanta area youth from the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, and Sikh traditions join them in service and dialogue, culminating in a picnic on Emory’s quadrangle. It was this experience that led to the participation in the MLK Day March. Passionate about the experience of interfaith dialogue and collaboration, these youth sought to proclaim this publicly as they walked down Peachtree Street chanting and singing.
As students develop the habits of mind of public theologians, they also begin to learn strategies for articulating their convictions and insights in the public sphere—the habits of action of public theologians. Drawing on the work of Mohandas Gandhi and Gene Sharp, we introduce both the theories and methods of nonviolent social change. Returning to the historical examples of public theology such as the German Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration and the South African Kairos Document as models, students break into groups focused on issues they’ve identified as important and work together to develop their own “Kairos Documents.” Finally, students are invited to develop projects to make changes back in their home communities and apply for mini-grants that can support them in this work.
The Youth Theological Initiative exemplifies one way that the academy, the church, and the local community can come together to contribute to the training of public scholars. The staff members of the community organizations we work with help us to deepen our curriculum with their expertise and perspectives on the social issues they work to address. The leaders of our interfaith partner organizations see the Day of Interfaith Youth Service as a way to engage their own youth in articulating and embodying their beliefs and practices with others. Teachers and pastors in the home communities of our students provide the local support and guidance needed to help our students’ projects make a meaningful impact beyond the Atlanta context. Finally, the staff members of YTI, typically graduate students, learn an innovative form of teaching and ministry that they later apply in a variety of settings, including secondary and higher education, campus and church ministry, and non-profit work.
At its establishment, the designers of YTI knew they were creating a “laboratory” in which to engage in an experiment in religious education with youth. The “laboratory” has now extended beyond the classroom into Atlanta and beyond, and “experimenters” have grown to include not only YTI staff, but pastors, teachers, activists, religious and civic leaders, and, most important, the youth themselves.