Candler's YTI gathers uncommon teens to find common ground
By Molly Edmonds
Swimming pools, sleepovers, sports camps: These are the places that most teenagers want to spend their summer vacations. It’s quite rare to meet a teen who wants to spend the long sunny days of summer at a seminary asking tough questions about theology. Perhaps that rarity is what made it so special when 40 such teens descended upon Candler School of Theology July 7 through July 28 for the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) Summer Academy. For these teens, this summer was an opportunity to dive into deep dialogue with a community of like-minded spirits.
YTI’s Summer Academy, which began in 1993 with a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., is a three-week residential experience of Christian theological education for rising high school juniors and seniors. The program is directed by Dr. Elizabeth Corrie, assistant professor in the practice of youth education and peacebuilding at Candler. This year’s academy drew participants, known as “YTI scholars,” from nine states and four countries and from a variety of faith backgrounds, including United Methodist, Roman Catholic, non-denominational, and Baptist.
“Everyone at YTI is open to listening,” said YTI scholar Zach Denton of Atlanta. “Even if we have different religions and believe we know our own truths, we are still open to hearing others.”
Denton said that YTI is special because it bridges the gap between reading a textbook about an issue and seeing a person affected by that issue. As a Catholic, he said he was grappling with the Vatican’s prohibition on in vitro fertilization after meeting a fellow scholar who was born through that method.
Nadia Abu Ata, who lives in Jerusalem and was also raised Catholic, said that YTI provided her first exposure to people from Protestant denominations. “I’ve learned how other people understand God,” she said. “I didn’t know any other way to believe in God, but now I know that it’s acceptable to find different ways to the same idea.”
Another way scholars bridged classroom and hands-on learning was through site visits to Atlanta landmarks and social justice organizations. Students interested in issues of race and identity, for example, went to CNN to learn about the media’s portrayal of different ethnicities. Those interested in homelessness and poverty spent time at a shelter, while others interested in immigration went to a refugee community in Clarkston, Ga.
The scholars’ busy schedule also included visits to a mosque and to Shabbat services, lectures by Candler faculty on topics like theology in Tyler Perry movies and artistic renderings of Jesus, and community worship services four times a week. They also engaged in a day of interfaith service, which included dialogue with Muslim students and a project packing medical supplies at MedShare International. There was time for fun, with events like YTI Olympics, improv, dances, and picnics, but scholars seemed to relish the harder parts of the curriculum.
“I’m learning so much that I’ll be thinking about it for the entire year,” said Cristina Adams of Alton, N.H. “One of the most challenging things I’ve learned about is structural sin. I want to think about ways that I’m a part of it as well as ways I can stand up to it and create change.”
“I wish this is what school was like,” said scholar Emily Phillips of Atlanta, who most appreciated the way in which the YTI staff treated the students as equals in theological debates. Phillips came to YTI, in part, because she wanted to have intelligent and responsible dialogues with her atheist friends at school.
Denton hopes to take the lessons of YTI back to his school. “I feel re-energized,” he said at the end of the academy. “I want to build off what I’ve learned. I want to take this energy and put it to work at school and in my church group. I feel like I can make a change.”
“I came to YTI because I wanted to have my questions about God answered, but I think I’ll leave with even more questions to think about,” said scholar Jamaya Powell of Atlanta. “This summer I’ve learned to think critically. I’ve had interesting conversations that have broadened my thinking. And I’ve gotten closer to God.”
To learn more about the scholars’ summer activities, visit YTI’s website: http://youththeologicalinitiative.wordpress.com/.