July 18, 2005
Scholars seek answers of faith inside themselves and each other
BY Eric rangus
What is heaven? What is hell? Depending on perspective and personality, spending a month on a far-off college campus with 53 strangers just before starting one’s senior year in high school, the answer could be one or the other.
More likely, it will fall somewhere in between. Or maybe it will be both at one time or another. Regardless, exploration of big-picture themes like heaven and hell have their place alongside smaller, more personal issues like getting along with a roommate or co-existing with someone whose beliefs are different than yours, among this year’s scholars in the annual Youth Theological Institute (YTI) Summer Academy, taking place from June 25–July 23 in the Candler School of Theology.
“All the beliefs I hold dear are challenged every day, but that’s all right,” said Caitlin Vaughan of St. Paul, Minn., one of the 54 scholars attending this year’s academy. “We can all hold different opinions and all be friends in the end.”
Of course that doesn’t stop the disagreements. For instance, the scholars argued for more than three hours earlier this month about whether Independence Day should be celebrated. Even after passionate discussion, no one’s mind was changed.
“This is how great social, artistic or thought movements get started,” said Chelsea Mansulich, of Fayetteville, one of 13 Georgians in the academy, showing wisdom beyond her years. “People get together and talk.”
They also read, study, visit faith communities and bond in many ways—at least that’s what the YTI Summer Academy scholars do.
“We get fish-out-of-water people,” said YTI Director Faith Hawkins. “Generally, they are either students who are part of a religious community who ask questions, or those who are not part of a religious community but are very religious.”
Now in its 13th year, the YTI Summer Academy brings together 54 rising high school seniors from around the country to Emory for an intense, month-long program of theological education and service-learning.
In its early years, the summer academy was YTI, but the program has matured into a yearlong endeavor that includes youth ministry education, research and even publishing. For instance, in partnership with Pilgrim Press, several books are in the pipeline either ready for release or already on shelves, including the recently published Practicing Discernment With Youth: A Transformative Youth Ministry Approach, written by Candler’s David White.
Still, despite the growth, the core of YTI is the summer academy. So much so that whenever the academy is discussed, it’s referred to simply as “YTI”. No matter what it’s called, YTI has been effective in keeping the scholars it has touched engaged in faith.
Studies show that many young people who are active in their faith communities begin to disengage from those communities in their early 20s. YTI scholars, though, have kept their ties. More than 70 percent of YTI graduates have remained active in their religious communities. The summer academy bonds them not only to their faith, but also to each other.
“The closeness is set up by the program,” said Cami King, of Mesquite, Texas. “If you aren’t close to everyone else, you must be on a mission to rebel.”
Get any group of scholars together, despite their wide range of geographical and ethnic backgrounds (but not religious; all self-identify as Christian or, interestingly, not religious) and their chemistry is so strong that they appear to have been friends since birth.
The program not only forces the scholars to band together, but it challenges them in many ways. One of those is by not directly answering questions.
“Sometimes that can be disconcerting,” Hawkins said. “For every question they ask us, we ask three more. If a scholar asks if Jesus is the only way to salvation, we respond, ‘What would it mean if we said yes? And what would it mean if we said no?’”
“We’re never given any answers, only more food for thought,” King said. “We’re asked to look inside ourselves and find our own interpretations.”
The YTI curriculum includes on-campus classes led by YTI staff, along with improvisational, role-playing modules and field trips around the Atlanta metro area, not only to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples but also to social-justice agencies. Each year also brings to campus a variety of “public theologians.”
“We really try with our public theologians to look for folks who are not necessarily theologically trained and ordained, but folks who in their work or their lives live out clearly not just faith, but some theological reflection,” Hawkins said. “We try to distinguish between faith and theology.”
One of those public theologians is singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer, who visited YTI earlier this month. Newcomer, a folk artist with a national reputation (she will release her 10th album later this year and has played with the likes of Grammy-winners Alison Krauss and Mary Chapin Carpenter), not only performed shows in Cannon Chapel and had casual lunch with the scholars, but she also led a creative writing workshop called the “Sacred Ordinary.”
“We talked about the idea of writing with a spiritual but not necessarily a religious current,” said Newcomer, whose own work falls perfectly within that “spiritual but not necessarily religious” description.
“It’s very hard to write about ‘world peace,’” she continued, extending her arms, metaphorically wrapping them around the big theme. “Sometimes its very powerful to write in that small moment.”
“Everything was in metaphor,” said Kyle Jeter of Oak Hill, Va., recalling the workshop. “We had 10 minutes to write down what we felt was sacred and use in a metaphor—the mist after you open a root beer is sacred,” he said, giving a vivid example.
“You focused on small things you didn’t notice before. It might be just a chewed-up pencil, but I appreciate it,” he said, symbolically summing up the entire YTI experience.