Do you remember the last day of … whatever? Summer camp. High School. A mission trip. The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.
For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative. Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.
YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians. They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism. YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved). It is a school for prophets. It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are. Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.
Which brings me back to the last day. On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold. They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.
One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them. The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist. At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there. “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”
Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon. At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors. Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.
Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.” Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers. She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking. She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.
All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice. Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)
This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary. I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following. The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble? In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.
“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)
That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah. Yet, how often young people lead the way. From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square. How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.
But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word. Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall. God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.
Surely God can use us.
All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets. Now the seasons are changing. Children go back to school tomorrow. Classes start up at the university, at the seminary. Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us. But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us. We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.
As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed? As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place? As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?
Do not be afraid of them.