July 13, 1998
Volume 50, No. 35
Youth Theology Institute helps create 'public theologians'
For many of them it is their first time away from home. But for all of the 60 rising high school seniors enrolled in the Youth Theology Institute, this summer represents a step into a larger world of faith.
Currently in its sixth summer, YTI attracts top-notch young scholars to come to Emory's campus for four weeks and find out what it means to be "public theologians." They live together, study together, worship together and learn how to be Christians in an increasingly diverse world.
"Whether they're going to be professional theologians or not, they're able to draw on theology as a resource, a practice that informs whatever they're doing in life," said YTI Director Don Richter, a professor in the Candler School. "They'll find ways to integrate their faith with their life work."
"We've been accused of messing up their senior year," added Reggie Blount, an African Methodist Episcopal minister who is serving his second year as dean of YTI. "They can't approach life the same way when they go home. Generally seniors can have an indifferent approach to life, and we teach them that as public theologians they must take seriously what's happening in their lives and the lives of others."
Lilly Endowment Inc. provided the initial grant to launch YTI, and Richter and Blount are grateful the corporation has decided to continue full funding. After all, each of the 60 scholars gets full tuition, room and board, and the program employs some 20 staff during the summer. Because the theology school has significant funding priorities in other areas, such as building renovation, Lilly agreed to fund YTI on a cyclical basis. Lilly plans to establish other programs like YTI around the country to connect theology schools with high school students.
If Emory's program is any indication, Lilly should have little trouble. "We had 262 applicants for the 60 positions this year," Richter said, "and we easily could have accepted 200." He said the College admissions office sends a YTI brochure to high school juniors who inquire about Emory, and YTI also recruits scholars through certain schools and church denominations around the country; in the 1998 program, there are more YTI scholars from California than from Georgia.
Scholars choose one of five classes that they'll take for the duration of the program, courses such as "American Law and Christian Faith" or "Creation and Chaos: A Dialogue Between Science and Religion." But YTI involves much more than coursework; scholars take field trips to study the effect following one's faith can have on society. For example, the week after they arrived, all 60 scholars traveled to Americus, Ga., to meet Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller and help in a Habitat project.
"Meeting Millard Fuller was the highlight of my week," said scholar Blake Smith, from Hattiesburg, Miss. "He is an amazing person."
Meeting people of different faiths, actually, is one of the themes of the program. Though YTI focuses explicitly on Christian theology, Richter said persons of faith must learn to harbor "both a zeal for truth and a zeal for tolerance." "As a society, we are wary of people who have strong religious perspectives and convictions because we see cases where people try to force others to accept their beliefs," Richter said. "We're trying to help young people see ways their faith can encompass both truth and tolerance."
"All I knew about [YTI] is some alumni told me it would be the closest I would get to a 'perfect community,'" said scholar Michelle Lye, from Pembroke Pines, Fla. "And it has been like that. Everyone's open and willing to share their perspective and listen to other people's perspectives. Everyone makes you feel loved and accepted."
Blount felt strongly enough about YTI to leave his pastorate in Iowa City for a summer and help mentor the scholars. His experiences contribute to his doctoral work at Northwestern University in Christian education and ethics. "We help them wrestle with difficult questions they've always had but never had a forum to explore," Blount said. "Even in their own church, they may not be encouraged to ask the questions they have."