Across the UCC: Thanks be to Lilly

Across the UCC: Thanks be to Lilly

December 31, 2004
Written by Staff Reports

Carol L. Pavlik

The Lilly Endowment funds hundreds of youth-oriented theological programs

For years now, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment—committed to strengthening congregational life and honoring ministry as a vocation—has dispersed millions of dollars to many seminaries throughout the United States and Canada through the Fund for Theological Education. Several vocational programs, designed and implemented by the various seminaries, now target high school youth in hopes that they will explore and develop their own faith through theological study, mission and youth gatherings. In the process, some youth are feeling called to the ministry. Others will become lay leaders in their churches. At the very least, high school students touched by these programs will find ways to minister to others through their eventual vocations, no matter what they may be.

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Youth-oriented retreats to explore Christian vocations
'Before I got involved, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life'

UCC-related Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania uses "Leadership Now" as their vehicle to reach out to youth.

The seminary holds "Confi rmation Days," occasions when confi rmation classes spend a day on the campus to see what a seminary is like and talk to seminary students about faith and vocation. Similarly, "Spring Youth Events" are days designed for high school students to spend an entire day talking, learning and playing alongside seminary students and other youth.

For students interested in delving into deeper, there is the "Girls and God" retreat, a prototype developed by some Lancaster seminary faculty. At the retreats, girls explore issues of faith on sexuality and gender. The retreat was such a surprise success that a "Guys and God" retreat is now in the works.

Cameron Barr heard of Leadership Now through his church, Second Reformed UCC in Lexington, N.C.

Through that program, he took part in the "Summer Global Experience," a trip to TaizZ, France and Geneva, Switzerland. The following year he returned as a peer mentor for a leadership academy where he helped prepare the next batch of students for the Summer Global Experience trip to South Africa.

"Before I got involved in the program," says Barr, "I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The program, especially in TaizZ and Switzerland, introduced me to theological inquiry. This past summer, [being a peer mentor] reaffi rmed my convictions."

Barr, now a high school senior, plans to major in philosophy and religion, with the ultimate goal of earning a Ph.D. in theology and becoming a professor.

"Obviously," says Barr, "I realize that not every student that goes into this is going to become a professor of theology!" But Barr says that the strength of the Leadership Now program is the tolerance it teaches of all religious faiths, convictions and cultures.

Jacquie Church-Young, associate director of Leadership Now, says that students walk away from the experience knowing that "ministry is something you can do no matter what your job is. Spirituality can be part of your everyday life, and is not necessarily reserved for people who are in the pastor position."

UCC seminary, college partner to create unique youth experiences

UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, in partnership with UCC-related Elmhurst College in Illinois, used a nearly $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to create DEPTH (Discover, Explore, Partner, where Transformation Happens)—a program that facilitates youth groups to take part in discovery weekends where participants visit either the CTS or Elmhurst campus, then visit with those who can provide a fi rsthand account of ministry as a vocation.

DEPTH's "Partners in Service" weekends pair two youth groups from very diverse settings. Together, they work on a common service project. "We match these groups intentionally across differences," notes the Rev. Nicole Havelka, assistant director of DEPTH.

Over the weekend, connections occur between the youth, while they work on a project pertaining to one of six possible themes: homelessness, affordable housing, hunger, non-violence and peacemaking, economic justice and environmental justice.

"We believe theology doesn't happen in a vacuum; it happens when you're living your faith," says Havelka.

Debra Reynolds, youth leader at Resurrection Community UCC in Chicago, says youth from her urban congregation enjoyed working at a homeless shelter with their suburban partner church. Reynolds believes a strength of the program is the pre-event and post-event curriculum so prepares and assists students with reflecting on their experiences.

Since their DEPTH experience last April, which concerned homelessness, Reynolds' youth group is exploring the possibility of sponsoring another local homeless shelter, so that they can continue their involvement.

"It really made the youth think about who they are," says Reynolds. "who they are, in Christ."

The youth of Primera Iglesia Congregacional UCC in Chicago spent the weekend with a Michigan church group doing repairs on a Methodist church building in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. Immediately, Liza Torres, youth leader from Primera Iglesia, a predominantly Puerto Rican congregation, discovered something new about her youth.

"[Before DEPTH], the youth were challenging [Primera Iglesia] to incorporate English, because our services are in Spanish. Yet here they were, proud to be of Latin American roots. They were wonderful ambassadors of their culture, of their church and community," says Torres. "Both groups were naturally curious about the other group, asking questions about where they were from, what it looked like, and so on."

Torres remembers hearing the chatter of the youth into the wee hours of the morning on the first night of the Partners in Service weekend. "The group bonded really quickly," she says.

Since the weekend with DEPTH, Torres notices more changes. The leaders of the congregation are looking to the DEPTH youth for input on how services should be run.

The youth are more apt to offer to help at church. Torres says they're even praying differently. "They're more open," says Torres. "They feel more comfortable, perhaps because they became closer from the experience, perhaps because the experience just changed them from within."

Havelka says the third part of DEPTH will begin in summer 2005, when "exploration events" will offer a reunion of sorts for students and group leaders who have gone through one of the weekend experiences and wish to refl ect and renew

UCC minister helps lead Iliff's leadership development program
Lilly grant supports theological and vocational diversity

FaithTrek, the high school program for theological study and vocational development at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo., is a year-long study made possible by a $1.2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. The Rev. Allyson Sawtell, a UCC minister, serves as associate director of the program. The core value of the program, says Sawtell, is diversity.

The program begins with a threeweek "Summer Community." Youth, adults and staff live on the college campus in a close, diverse, intentional community. During those three weeks, Sawtell says important questions are raised: Who am I in the midst of this diverse community? What do I believe? How do I understand other folks and what their lives are like?

"The youth realize not everybody sees the world like they do," Satwell says. "Yet they can still live together."

During the three weeks, the intentional community meets with seminary students, visits nearby sites to broaden their understanding of diversity (for instance, one group visited a Buddhist temple to learn about meditation), and local artists even stop by to help students express their faith through visual arts.

"Some of our youth discovered gifts they didn't know they had," says Sawtell. "One young lady found that when she painted, that was her prayer. She felt so close to God."

Living in close quarters with people of differing backgrounds and beliefs sometimes creates tension, which provides a learning opportunity, as well.

"We had town hall meetings, which everyone complained about!" laughs Sawtell. "It was a way of helping us go through a process of conflict resolution, or else creating a group covenant as to how we wanted to live together. A lot of hard work went into the program."

Sawtell says the diversity of the groups come in many forms, giving the students many opportunities to fl ex their community-building muscles. Last year's close presidential election brought a whole new set of differences. Sawtell recalls a particular morning when a more-conservative young person was sitting across from a quiteliberal one at breakfast.

"She was going on about how much she liked George Bush, and somebody else started putting her down," remembers Sawtell. "This real liberal kid jumped in and said, 'Don't you dare put her down for what she believes in!'"

Once the students are back home, they are paired with an adult mentor from their church to work on a project. Sawtell was impressed with the way the students incorporated their gifts to meet a need in their church or community. One young woman organized AIDS education seminars at her church. Another enlisted the help of local merchants to raise money for a homeless shelter.

The following summer, the students come back for a week to share their projects and talk about how their lives have been changed.

"I think we're hoping that wherever they go, they'll bring this sense of being in the world in an active and empowered kind of way," says Sawtell. "One of the most empowering things you can do for a youth is tell them that they can make a difference. Hopefully as they go on with their lives, as they go to college, or the military or their jobs, they can live from that framework, the importance of working towards community and relationship."

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