High school theology institutes build community of discernment and engagement

Posing in Buffalo: Be the Light Youth Theology Institute participants Nicole Masaki, Canisius student, class of 2018, Monica Wrobel, Canisius student, class of 2017, and Sandra Stahl, Orchard Park High School. (Caleb Blodgett)

"I really want to start a teen/young adult choir at my church with the help of our piano player because there is only a young children's choir and an adult choir. I would love to see people my age get more involved in my parish," said Abigail Skakal, a senior at Mount St. Mary's Academy in Kenmore, N.Y. "I love sharing my faith with others and proclaiming it through my musical talents."

Abby was glowing after she participated in Be the Light Institute, a week-long high school theology institute hosted by Canisius College, the Jesuit college in Buffalo, N.Y.

"My relationship with God has definitely been strengthened after my week at Be the Light," she said. "I pray more often and more seriously, and I try to offer up all of my problems and put my trust in God and know he will take care of everything." She continues, "Using the things I have learned about prayer and discernment, I feel more confident that my future will be pretty bright."

Abby was one of 20 participants in the inaugural theology institute. The core group included 10 Buffalo high schoolers, six Canisius undergraduate students, two graduate students, an assistant director from Campus Ministry and a director from the philosophy department. These 20 individuals lived, worked, studied and prayed together contemplating what exactly a "faith that does justice" means in their own neighborhoods. I spent a few days with them and gave the keynote address.

Canisius College is one of 82 Lilly Endowment grantees awarded $583,000 to create opportunities for high schoolers to engage in their faith and to grow in their understanding of theology. According to a November 2015 press release, "The initiative builds on previous efforts to encourage young people to explore Christian leadership and service. In 1998, the Endowment made grants to seminaries to create high school youth theology programs. In 1999, it began making grants to support private colleges and universities as they strived to cultivate faith and vocation programs for undergraduates."

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Funding college-hosted theology institutes strengthens a person's discovery of faith in the midst of uncovering the many dynamics of politics, family, community, amidst the rising awareness of injustice. Young adult formation varies dramatically between our churches and schools. These institutes fill a gap where young people can ask questions about God and the meaning and purpose of their lives together. They experience community in the residence halls as neighbors, in the classrooms as dialogue partners, throughout the community as people eager to companion others. Without these institutes, young people are left to navigate the jarring questions and curiosities of meaning without many spaces for integration.

Canisius student Maggie Treichler speaks about her faith practice: "I consider myself a person of faith but in a sort of unconventional way. I believe that everyone has their own personal gifts and talents and that everyone must find their own way to worship God and show their faith. While for some people that means attending church, I find my faith through more direct work. I worship God by doing his work and spreading his love and advocating for peace, equality, and love of all people."

Maggie names service as a place and practice to find God.

Nicole, a junior at Canisius studying English, environmental studies and philosophy, clarifies her own belief while refusing to use names other people have suggested: "I would consider myself a person of good faith. Although I do not 'fit' into a particular religious affiliation, I know in my heart that it does not matter what other people have to say about my faith so long as I know what I believe in."

The college students deepened their experience of faith just as much as the high schoolers did. In fact, one of the students shared an originally written, sung and recorded song as her reflection of how her relationship with God was impacted.

Each day the participants prayed together, worked in the greater Buffalo community alongside agencies that encounter people in poverty or along the margins of society, ate intentionally from local businesses, learned from Canisius faculty and staff, and reflected and played with one another.

In addition to the youth, many adults have benefitted from this experience. Be the Light Institute Assistant Director Sarah Signorino's initial "yes" to the question of assisting in the program came naturally. After 12 years of working in campus ministry, Signorino affirms, "This amazing opportunity continues to allow me to lend my skills, experience and heart to an institute whose primary goal is 'to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians.'" Just as the other participants were asked to consider how they are called to "Be the Light," Signorino reveals, "Being the light to me is being a fire that lights other fires. I see my work in ministry as a spreader of seeds. I try to sprinkle them, my light, in every corner."

Yes. Light in the corner of our country. Light in and throughout Buffalo.

"At Canisius, we're ideally situated to help students understand how issues of justice are truly present in an urban setting like Buffalo, and how faith and reason can form their responses to these issues," said Stephen Chanderbhan, philosophy professor and director of Be the Light Institute.

"I see my God-given gifts being used toward a God-centered goal. I feel this whole endeavor for me has been an answer to a call to serve in the first place." Chanderbhan chuckled as he recounted his three "yeses" to the college president's request to consider championing this project last fall. "I was allowed to use my skills at teaching and the exercise of my intellect to craft the broad vision of the institute and so contribute to the cause of justice through helping to educate others."

Through the lens of discipleship and vocation, I couldn't help but notice that God's impact rippled throughout the core community and into the greater city. A deeper form of mentorship unintentionally developed out of the circumstance of living, eating, serving, praying and learning with one another. "I learned that we must have kinship with one another," Canisius student, Monica Wrobel reflects.

Canisius will continue to offer this week-long journey each summer. I pray that the practice of God's love continue to spill out into our relationships as freely as it did for these youth and their companions.

[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She directs the Community Service and Social Justice office at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at ingoodcompany.net.co or email her at jocelyn@ingoodcompany.net.co.]

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