Campus News

August 2, 2010

High schoolers explore theology

The halls of Candler School of Theology were abuzz with activity this July, as 39 rising high school juniors and seniors gathered at the school for the 18th annual Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) Summer Academy, an intensive, residential program of theological education.

The young scholars — who came from the United States, the Bahamas, Jerusalem, and Mexico — represented a variety of Christian denominations, including Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, non-denominational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Disciples of Christ. They were on campus July 10-31 to take classes, engage in ecumenical worship, attend workshops with Candler faculty, work with agencies in the Atlanta community, get involved with public issues from theological perspectives, and build intentional community with one another.

YTI’s goal is to cultivate public theologians for the church and world and foster opportunities for youth to explore questions that shape beliefs and action in the public sphere. The program is rooted in Christian theological education, yet learning to engage in respectful and effective interfaith dialogue is an important part of the Summer Academy.

It’s important for public theologians to engage in meaningful interfaith interactions within the public sphere, says Elizabeth Corrie, director of YTI and assistant professor in the practice of youth education and peace building at Candler. “YTI creates a safe space for interfaith dialogue.”

While in Atlanta, YTI scholars learned about Judaism and Islam through both classroom discussions with practitioners of those faiths and by attending Shabbat services at The Temple and Jummah prayers at a local mosque.

YTI scholar Alberto Hernandez of Lawrenceville, Ga., thinks that this combination of classroom learning and experiential learning was especially effective. “Experiences like these offer us a full understanding of the tradition,” Hernadez says.

Gerald Daigle of Houston, Texas, adds that he could see immediately how he could apply what he’s learned: “Learning about other faiths from the tradition’s leaders allows me to go back to my hometown and dispel misconceptions about other religions.”

Interfaith engagement reached an even deeper level at YTI’s “Interfaith Day of Youth Service” on July 26. YTI scholars partnered with Atlanta-area youth from several faith traditions, including Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Sikhs, to complete a service project, sorting books at the local nonprofit Books for Africa. After the project, the youth gathered for a time of interfaith dialogue facilitated by YTI staff. The camaraderie they developed while working on the service project allowed them to ask each other probing questions about their faith—questions they might not feel comfortable asking an adult religious leader.

“We spend a lot of time learning from scholars and religious leaders, but the day of service gives us a chance to learn from our peers,” Daigle says.

Corrie agrees: “The interfaith youth service day allows students to put what they have learned about interfaith cooperation into action, serving alongside other students from various religious backgrounds.”

Hagop Sivzattian, YTI’s first-ever scholar from Jerusalem, pointed out that “such exposure to other traditions increases my faith in God.”

Some of this year’s YTI scholars have aspirations to pursue degrees in religion and careers in ministry, and some are interested in other professions. No matter what professions they choose, Corrie believes they will be the kind of leaders who can change the world—leaders who model peace-building, conflict resolution, respect for others and ethical engagement.

“They will have a sense that God has called them to work for the common good, drawing on their religious tradition as a formative resource.”

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