ENGAGE Youth Theology Initiative equips high schoolers for the ministry of racial reconciliation

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As generation Z is coming of age in a post-Christian culture, Lipscomb University’s College of Bible & Ministry recently launched ENGAGE, a summer youth theology institute to educate, challenge and empower teens to take seriously Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation and service to those on the margins of society, as well as to be moved to a life of vocational ministry.

As an annual summer initiative, ENGAGE brings together high school students from culturally diverse backgrounds and Churches of Christ to explore the contemporary call to racial justice and reconciliation; the histories of both the Churches of Christ and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement; and what it means to live a life of Christian leadership and vocation.

ENGAGE_Side1After receiving a $475,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. in February 2016, Leonard Allen, dean of the college; Richard Hughes, scholar-in-residence in the college; and Claire Frederick, ENGAGE program director; worked fervently to cultivate relationships, build a curriculum and launch the 10-day youth theology institute in summer, 2017.

From July 5-14, 26 high school students from seven states including Oregon, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, Texas and Washington D.C. gathered on Lipscomb University’s campus to participate in the first annual ENGAGE Youth Theology Initiative.

“A program like this is crucial for our College of Bible & Ministry because as a college we are committed to equipping men and women to serve in God’s Kingdom,” said Allen. “Clearly we live among deep racial divides in our culture. Through initiatives like ENGAGE, we are seeking to further understanding and healing by creating an environment to educate from Scripture and allow God to move in the hearts of these teens.”

During ENGAGE, students studied theology, Scripture and history with Lipscomb professors, participated in conflict transformation workshops, immersed themselves in various historical and cultural opportunities in Nashville, as well as participated in a two-day U.S. Civil Rights pilgrimage in Alabama called the “Bus Ride to Justice.”

On this historical and interactive bus tour, students explored: the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; the Equal Justice Initiative, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and the State Capitol in Montgomery; Brown Chapel AME Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field and the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center; and students met Fred D. Gray, legendary civil rights leader and attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr., the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, the desegregation of Alabama public schools, and victims in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

“I am still attempting to put into words what this 10-day experience has meant to the students, faculty and staff of the ENGAGE Youth Theology Initiative at Lipscomb University,” said Claire Frederick, ENGAGE program director. “We have studied social and racial justice through the lens of the biblical text, stood on historic sites of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, read the speeches, sung the freedom songs and learned how to embody the ‘beloved community’ in word and deed and in our various Christian vocations.”

“Our students were eager to participate in all the activities, field trips and classes we had prepared for them,” Frederick continued. “The program was designed to bring together young people from very different backgrounds and to create a safe space in which they could share and bring all of who they are—their fears, their passions, their hopes for the future and their desire to be world-changers to the glory of God.”

ENGAGE_Side2McKenna Barken, a high school junior from Brownsville, Tennessee, says she participated in ENGAGE because she wanted to grow her relationship with God and learn how to better relate to her peers. 

“Throughout ENGAGE we’ve learned mainly, outside of the classroom, how everyone is different,” said Barken. “Back home, I’m used to the same type of people. And here, you’re looking at different opinions and different thoughts and it’s helping us realize that we are all God’s children – we’re not the same – but He loves us.” 

Rylee Russell, a high school senior who attends Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas, says throughout ENGAGE she has been reminded that everyone has been given their own story and it is important to invest yourself in one another’s narratives, just as Jesus would.

“I’ve learned so much about narrative and how important that is in the world we live in to ask someone, ‘Tell me about your life, tell me your story,’ and I think that this trip has really cemented this idea into who I am and who I aspire to be: someone who can sit down and say ‘Tell me about your life,’” Russell said. “I’ve also learned not to just ask someone about their narrative, but to fully invest myself in other people’s narratives, because in the Bible, that’s what Jesus did. Whether that was with people who were higher up in Rome, or with people like tax collectors or the woman at the well – he listened to their narratives.”

Hughes, who has a longstanding partnership with Lilly Endowment Inc., helped Allen build the program curriculum after recognizing the rich historical connections Nashville has to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. 

“Given Lipscomb’s location in Nashville, which was a center for civil rights activity during the Freedom Movement; the breach between Lipscomb and the African-American Churches of Christ in Nashville over Nashville Christian Institute; and the work of racial reconciliation that President Lowry began in 2012, especially with Attorney Fred D. Gray – this theme seemed like a natural topic for Lipscomb,” said Hughes.

During ENGAGE, Hughes taught one of two classes, and says he believes it is significant for teens to participate in a program like ENGAGE so they can boldly embrace and live out themes that Jesus teaches in Scripture.

“Many young Christians of high school age – and many older Christians, for that matter – have a truncated understanding of the gospel, framing it only in terms of (1) the afterlife and (2) personal salvation. And while that piece of the puzzle is valid, it is incomplete,” said Hughes. 

ENGAGE_Side3“Therefore, we wanted these students to supplement that understanding with the realization that the gospel has enormous implications for community and for social justice in the here and now. In fact, one of the themes Jesus hammered on time-and-again was compassion for the poor and the oppressed – so we spent a lot of time in our classes with the biblical text, trying to help these young people to understand that, in addition to an afterlife, the gospel also calls us to take this world and the people who live in it with utmost seriousness.”

Frederick echoed Hughes sentiment saying, “Our ENGAGE students learned that the teens who marched in Selma and in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham were the exact same age then as our ENGAGE kids are now—15-18 years old.”

“Those Alabama students didn’t wait to take action that would change the world and bring about freedom. And our ENGAGE students know that high school kids don’t have to wait to be the ‘church of tomorrow’ or ‘world-changers—someday.’ They can begin right now to live into God’s purposes for them.”

The second ENGAGE program will be held at Lipscomb in the summer of 2018. For more information about the ENGAGE program, housed in the College of Bible & Ministry, click here.