Emory Report
July 23, 2007
Volume 59, Number 35

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July 23, 2007
‘Life of Faith’ finds new meaning at Youth Theological Initiative

by carol clark

Most teenagers are not inclined to devote part of their summer break exploring complex theological questions. That’s part of what makes the rising high school seniors who spend several weeks immersed in Emory’s Youth Theological Initiative a unique group.

“Our Summer Academy is for people who are willing to pursue these questions even when it becomes scary and difficult,” said Faith Kirkham Hawkins, YTI director. “They have to be willing to embrace the messiness of it. YTI has taught me that this is what it means to live a life of faith. Not just faith: I think it’s what it means to truly be alive.”

Emory’s YTI program, begun in 1993 through a grant by Lilly Endowment Inc., inspired several dozen similar projects at theological schools and seminaries across the United States and in Canada. Emory’s program strives to encourage a life-long love of theology and social action in its teenaged participants through service projects, discussions and classes led by Candler faculty and Ph.D. students in the Graduate Division of Religion.

The 15th Summer Academy, ongoing through July 28, features a day of informal workshops and dialogue with guest “public theologian” Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s popular show “Speaking of Faith.”

Many of the faculty and staff involved with YTI have long histories with the program. Hawkins served on the YTI faculty from 1995 to 1996. She earned her Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Emory in 2001, and became YTI director in 2002. In August, she plans to follow her spouse and move to Indiana to work on a book. That means resigning from the program, which Hawkins said has changed her as much as any of the teenaged participants.

“Your personal self is deeply affected by this job,” she said. “I’m not nearly as results-oriented as I used to be, in both my personal and professional life. I now trust that the process is the point of teaching and learning, and of faith itself.”

That lesson was driven home for Hawkins three years ago. The YTI Summer Academy was in its second week when she received a devastating phone call from New York: Her mother, who had just turned 70, had been diagnosed with end-stage, terminal cancer. “She played golf on a Sunday and had a backache,” Hawkins said. “She went into the hospital and, by Friday, tests showed that cancer had spread everywhere: her lungs, liver, bone marrow.”

Hawkins shuttled between Atlanta and the hospital in New York to visit her mother, who died three weeks later, and also lend support to her father, who was undergoing daily radiation for prostrate cancer.

“At one point, my mom apologized to me, saying, ‘This is the worst possible timing for you,’” Hawkins recalled. “I said, no, it’s not, because I’m supported by a staff and a group of young people who are committed to being helpful in whatever way they can.’”

Hawkins said she became a better administrator because she learned to fully trust the YTI staff with the details of running the program while she was in New York. And while she was in Atlanta, the staff and teenaged scholars treated her “with lots of grace,” she added. “I felt that my family was being held by the whole community at YTI.”

After one visit with her mother, she complained to a colleague that she wanted her former, healthy, mom back. Her colleague advised Hawkins: “You’re going to mourn the memory of that woman the rest of your life. But the woman in the hospital is your mom right now.”

It opened Hawkins’ eyes to the need to accept her mother’s condition so that she could fully be with her. “When my mom was dying, I realized that my task was a paradox: to somehow accompany her on a journey that she had to take by herself. And the YTI community that summer was doing that for me,” she said.

As a result, Hawkins said, “I got to have this brief, but really important relationship with my mom. I wouldn’t trade anything for what we experienced in those last three weeks. You just have to be who you are in a situation like that. No hiding. That’s not the way most people live their lives from day-to-day, in complete honesty.”

Similarly, teenagers are too often viewed as people going through a transition that must be endured instead of valued, Hawkins said. But the YTI program strives to see teenagers as valuable and important right where they are. “We’re trying to create a space that’s safe for young people and staff to talk about their understanding of God — including the times that they may hate God,” she said.

YTI has evolved to reflect changes in society and the needs of teens. While the participants are predominantly Christian, in recent years more of them began identifying themselves as “bi-religious,” Hawkins said. “They will tell you that they go to church with one parent, but their other parent may be Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist. And they don’t want to leave one parent out of the conversation about how they understand the world.”

Last year, the YTI program invited Atlanta area high school seniors who are Muslim and Jewish to join the Summer Academy teens in a day of community service projects, followed by a group picnic and dialogue. The event won praise from the local nonprofit agencies and faith communities involved, and received the Building Bridges Award from the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. This year, about 15 Muslim and 15 Jewish high school seniors participated in the interfaith day, which has become an important part of the program.

YTI is primed for more changes as Hawkins leaves. Candler is taking over more of the financial responsibility for the program, which had been fully funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.

Beth Corrie will serve as the incoming director of the program. She received her Ph.D. in theology from Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion and is currently the character education coordinator at the Lovett School in Atlanta.

“She is well-known in peace and justice circles, especially movements in the Middle East,” Hawkins said. “She can expand the reach of the program in ways that it’s now ready for.”