Coming Back to Duke Youth Academy
A participant in the first Duke Youth Academy in 2001, UNC sophomore Anna MacDonald returned last summer to serve as a residential advisor, or RA. Here’s her account of what had changed—and what remained—when a diverse group of teens gathered at Duke last July to explore the community of Christ.
Sunday, July 13
The kids have arrived and are finally settled in for the night. Check-in was a whirlwind of new names and faces. As a student, I remember the first day as uncomfortable. . . . I’m sure some, if not most, feel the same, but now from a staff point of view I can observe. [I] already see kids venturing out of their shells to meet roommates, mentors and other staff. We are brothers and sisters in Christ even though we don’t know each others’ names. I think the kids are reassured by this common bond, and it encourages them to initiate genuine conversations more comfortably.
Monday, July 14
RA’ing isn’t that bad, but I hate lights out and having to come across as the bad guy. Hopefully they’ll appreciate the sleep they wouldn’t otherwise get.
I sat in on the first plenary today. I re-realized that DYA provides a unique space, an intellectual safe zone. The conversations kids have and the questions they ask are so incredibly uncommon. It’s pretty awesome to hear such intellectual, unafraid dialogue – 36 hours after we all met. The community of Christ probably isn’t a hot topic of conversation in most of their lives, but at DYA, it’s the main focus of thought and debate.
Tuesday, July 15
After dinner and a pretty intense game of Frisbee tennis, we had worship in York Chapel. The music was incredible. Songs are sung with true sincerity, student-led reading of the Scripture is enthusiastic, and there is a true joy at the opportunity to pass the peace of Jesus Christ. As time goes on, I suspect the passing of the peace will continue to get longer and longer.
Wednesday, July 16
Worship again was awesome. The different styles and preachers are really opening some of the kids’ eyes to faith practices they didn’t know existed. Daily worship, in addition to two-hour plenaries, and an hour of talking, debating, and sorting through with the kids’ mentor groups, is intellectually exhausting. Exciting, but exhausting.
In the short span of two weeks, it’s almost as if these kids must master a foreign language (theology), interpret and understand it, and apply it to their lives. It’s hard work to say the least. Most ideas challenge many cultural constructs that have become ingrained in all of us, whether we recognize it or not.
For instance, the sense of Christian community—formed and enlarged by baptism and Eucharist—flies
Sunday, July 20
One of the greatest things about becoming an RA after being a student here is that I can easily see those who are left out, and I can make an attempt to include them—especially at a meal and at free times. The other RAs are conscious about including people as well. Definite groups have evolved, but the great thing is that most aren’t hierarchically ranked as similar cliques in any given high school.
DYA provides a space in which differences are encouraged and explored, but are not labeled as better or worse. Superficially, there’s a group of kids who spend their free time making or listening to music, a group that prefers physical activity, and another that prefers to sit and think, journal or talk. On a deeper level, all denominational, religious differences—in music, Eucharistic practices, beliefs and worship style—are fully discussed. In this environment, where differences are appreciated and judgments are discouraged, DYA creates a safe space that lends itself to more honest conversations and discussions—a true gift.
Wednesday, July 23
One thing that remains constant, from my year as a student to my experience as staff, is God’s incredible ability to work in and through a diverse group of believers. Although hard to comprehend, who comes to DYA is irrelevant. God works through any and all, especially the unlikely candidates, to create an extraordinary Christian community. This points to the fact that our importance in this world is not as individuals, as our consumer culture claims: our importance lies in the fact that we, as a Christian community, are followers of, believers in, and pointers toward Jesus Christ.
Friday, July 25
Two weeks have come to an end and these kids are changed, excited and scared out of their wits. Even if they won’t admit it, I know they are; I certainly was.
They’re scared because the 2003 DYA community will only exist as conversations in cyberspace, letters or over phone lines. Most won’t ever again share bathrooms, common rooms, meals or Eucharist together. They’re leaving the intellectual safe zone and going back to an existing Christian community where they’ll find love, but not necessarily the understanding that their peers and mentors offered over the past two weeks.
Hopefully they’re better equipped with tools—Christian friendships, practices, books, prayers—to deal with the frustrations. They will learn patience as they realize they can’t immediately change everything that they want about their church, family and selves. However, they will know that whenever they struggle they have a network of friends, mentors and divinity school faculty that they can fall back on, for we are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
Anna K. MacDonald is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill where she is studying photojournalism and English. A native of Durham, she is a member of Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church.
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