This summer, Loyola Marymount University’s Department of Theological Studies offered its first-ever Youth Theology Institute, a weeklong faith leadership experience for high school students. 85 students from across southern California participated in an inspiring, fast-paced week of activities centered on themes of identity and ethical leadership.
The Institute was funded by a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., which sponsored 82 similar programs for high school students at faith-based colleges and universities around the United States.
“Teenagers are at a place in their lives where they’re asking big questions, like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my role in the world?’” said Brett Hoover, theology professor at LMU and lead faculty member for this year’s Youth Theology Institute. “We wanted students to learn that they can draw on the wisdom of religious traditions to negotiate those questions.”
Students learned about each other’s faith and life experiences – and their own – through a full week of discussions, activities, and field trips. In discussions on themes like cross-cultural leadership, students developed college-level analytical skills. In a Bible Lab exercise, groups created games to explore and teach complex Bible stories.
Excursions included visits to three houses of worship and two community service and advocacy organizations. The church visits – to Chinese and Arab American Catholic communities and to the Greek Orthodox cathedral parish – exposed participants to different ways of worshiping, and created a platform for students to think about what they believe and how they practice their faith. “A leader comes in all religions,” one participant reflected.
Students also visited St. Joseph Center and Homeboy Industries, where they learned about homelessness, gang life, and the criminal justice system in Los Angeles from those people who have experienced them up close. They were asked to apply the Christian tradition’s call to social justice to what they saw and experienced.
As one student put it, “[YTI] has changed my view in life; I am thinking more about the other person.”
LMU undergraduate and graduate students served as mentors in the program, leading small group discussions and chaperoning field trips. The mentors were there to facilitate learning for the participants, but for mentor Audrey Harris, a graduate student in pastoral theology, the learning went both ways. “These kids have really ignited a flame in me to strengthen my prayer life and to volunteer more,” she said. “The astute questions they’ve been asking all week have really made me challenge myself to become a better person.”
Throughout the week, small groups of participants worked on video projects that let them creatively reflect on all the visits and discussions. With names like “Group High Five” and “Facundo’s Flamingos,” the groups had lots of fun, even as they tackled big questions like “Who am I?” and “How do I pray?” in video form.
Students were nominated by campus ministers, youth ministers, and teachers at a geographically, racially, and economically diverse set of schools and churches across the region; students came from as far as Oxnard, South Orange County, and Lancaster to be a part of the program.
For the program’s planners, this diversity was intentional. “We wanted this program to be as accessible as possible,” said Hoover.
That diversity is what made the program so meaningful. “We all came in with different opinions and experiences,” one student reflected, in his group’s video. “Now, our opinions are still different, but there’s a common thread that runs through them.”
LMU will offer the Youth Theology Institute again next summer. For more information, including how to involve your school or church, visit the Youth Theology Institute website.
Enjoy more photos from the week here:
Follow what you believe is right,
Even when blurred is your sight.
– Youth Theology Institute participant