Emory Report
July 10, 2006
Volume 58, Number 34


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July 10 , 2006
Teens challenged, transformed at Candler summer academy

BY Elaine Justice

More than a dozen young singers stood in a close circle around the grand piano in Cannon Chapel last week. Shoulder-to-shoulder, singing phrase after musical phrase, the singers followed the lead of director Maury Allums, who took them through the hymn without sheet music. But they didn’t need it.

Allums, who directs Emory’s Voices of Inner Strength during the academic year, smiled at his temporary choir. The singers listened to each other and lifted their voices to the arched ceiling above, strong, sure and in remarkable harmony for a group whose members had only met five days before. “It feels more like five weeks,” said Martha Baumgarten, a 17-year-old from a suburb of Chicago. She is one of 49 rising high school seniors who are participating in Candler’s Youth Theological Initiative Summer Academy (YTI), now in its 14th year on campus.

The month-long residential program is an ecumenical experience in “justice-seeking Christian theological education” that challenges students to connect Christian theology to the world around them. “We believe that young people need theology,” said YTI Director Faith Kirkham Hawkins. She heads a YTI staff of 26, many of them Candler students who are working with the program as a way to “try on what a permanent calling for youth ministry might look like.”

The YTI scholars, 20 male and 29 female, include members of 10 different Christian denominations and some members of nondenominational communities. They represent a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds and are from 21 states, and for the first time this year, Mexico.

Their reasons for coming to YTI are as diverse as they are, but all seem to share a hunger often awakened in the young—they’re restless to talk about something other than the latest music video. They want to engage the world and each other in a way they cannot at home.

“I’m from an intellectually diverse town where not a lot of people identify themselves as Christians,” said John Rogers of Montclair, N.J. “If you attempt to have a theological discussion with someone, they’d probably ask you to make an appointment. Here, if you approach any staff member with a theological question, they will drop everything to discuss different perspectives.”

Among those engaging the young scholars is Candler student Sheila Elliot, a professor at Columbia College in South Carolina who is pursuing a master of divinity degree. As she led a large group discussion with the scholars on justice and diversity issues, she revealed how she found politics as a passion. When her father was killed in Vietnam, “that helped shape who I would become,” she said. Growing up with issues of desegregation in the South “shaped how I viewed the world.”

“I grew up highly motivated around issues of women and children,” she said. “In high school I cared about apartheid in South Africa, even if none of my friends did.”

“What are your issues?” she asked her audience. “What motivates you to act? What concerns press upon your heart that you can’t explain where it’s coming from?” The initial response was silence. “That’s not a rhetorical question!” she exclaimed. Hands went up around the room.

Such engagement is typical of YTI, which this summer will expose students to public theologians such as Presidential Distinguished Professor Robert Franklin, who led a week-long session on religion and public theology. Franklin said he showed scholars “the variety of ways religion and God-talk are already present in our public life,” and then provided them with some critical skills for assessing its impact. “I’ve tried to suggest that religion and theology should foster the common good, and that that is the highest ethical ideal that religion serves.”

Other public theologians who are leading YTI sessions include: Emory President Emeritus James Laney, former U.S. ambassador to Korea; Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core; Beth Corrie, faculty member at The Lovett School in Atlanta and leader of a movement for peace and justice in Palestine and Israel; and Roslyn Satchel, founder of National Center for Human Rights Education.

Complementing those sessions, scholars each take one exploratory course during the month; topics this year range from science and religion to apocalyptic literature or interpreting the Bible through the arts. The scholars also visit a variety of religious communities throughout Atlanta and spend one day a week with a local service or justice-seeking group, chosen because of ways it links to or illustrates themes addressed in the exploratory courses.

Evenings find the entire YTI community engaged in worship, from contemplative evening vespers on Sunday to a variety of weeknight services that scholars help plan and lead. Then there is the late-night talk, the bonding, the friendships—and applying what you’ve learned.

Jass Stanton-Harrell, a scholar from Florida, put it succinctly: “Everyone leaving here will have a transformation.”

Such transformations aren’t limited to the scholars, said Hawkins. Most staff members report that the academy has shaped fundamentally their own understanding of ministry practices, which will be a growing emphasis of YTI at Candler in the years to come, she added. “This kind of education—interdisciplinary, directed toward the common good, ethically engaged—is needed by both youth and adults.”