The ARISE youth program at Wycliffe College in Toronto is designed to teach teens community-engagement and leadership skills. Photo: Diana Swift
For many teenagers, March break is a welcome hiatus from desks and blackboards-a chance maybe to hit the tennis courts or even head south. But this year, 15 Anglican 11th– and 12th-graders opted to spend the week before spring in Wycliffe College’s seminar rooms and lecture halls-not to mention its spartan basement accommodations.
Led by director Gayle Doornbos, a Wycliffe PhD student, the ARISE youth program is designed to teach teens community-engagement and leadership skills that will stand them in good stead in their home parishes. The group, drawn from the Toronto area, also visited several mission projects in the city.
Underwriting ARISE are Wycliffe College, several Anglican churches and the Anglican Foundation of Canada.
The students took part in college life, met professors, ate meals with students and participated in worship. The Anglican Journal caught up with them in a seminar on silence, solitude and connecting with God in a wired world.
Session leader Sam Shin, a Master of Theology student, threw out the premise that “noise is a major factor that impacts our relationship with God because God speaks to us in silence in our silent times.” He added that although silence and solitude require spiritual discipline, they give God an opportunity to speak to us. “Prayer is a two-way conversation with God.” Shin said.
Pretty well everyone in this group of thoughtful teens agreed that the intrusions of busy schedules, smartphones, computers, iPods and TV made it hard to find the time to connect with God on a daily basis. And quiet time runs counter to our culture’s obsession with deliverables. Said one girl: “When I sit quietly, I feel kind of aimless and that I am seen as unproductive because there’s so much emphasis in society on being busy and productive.”
Another girl admitted that she got agitated when she tried to communicate with God because she wasn’t getting a response. “I would feel crazy. How would God speak to me?” she wondered. One of the boys said he thought about God when he found himself at loose ends with no busy work to do.
“We expect God to give us a huge sign,” offered another youth. “But we have to look for signs of God. We can’t expect flowers falling from the sky.”
Doornbos asked the young people to talk about the practical ways they found to connect with God. For one girl, walking outdoors in the community was the best milieu. “I’m out in the ‘fresh’ air surrounded by people and cars but they are not intruding on me,” she said.
One youth said he thought about God when zoning out on long rides in the family car. Another sought the solitude of her room; a fellow student set up her contemplation area during spare classes at school. One young man connected with God before going to sleep after family prayers.
Referring to Bill Hybels’s classic book Too Busy Not to Pray, Doorbos encouraged the teens to have the discipline to take even five quiet minutes out of the hectic day to be aware of the presence of God. “It feels like a really long time at first,” she warned. But it can be done, added Shin, citing the example of a mother of 12, whose children absolutely respected her quiet time with God whenever she was sitting in her special rocking chair.
Despite the difficulty of finding contemplative time, the students rejected the idea of having set times for obligatory prayer throughout the day, as in monastic Christianity and Islam. Prayer, rather, should come as an individual feels the need to communicate with God. As one young man put it, “In the way we contemplate, that’s how God wants us to come to him, not just when we have to. He wants us to have a relationship with Him.”
Afterwards, the group attended a lecture by Dr. Joe Mangina, professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe. Mangina gave them an assignment on interplanetary anthropology: complete the observations of extraterrestrial observers visiting from Mars after they are forced to cut short their study of the phenomenon that earthlings call “church”-including its basic purpose and its many denominations and forms.
In the following discussion, the students noted that the many different denominations are human inventions and that God never intended that such divisions should exist among Christ’s followers. They also agreed that all believers worship the same God, who is the creator of all people, regardless of religious differences.
These divisions often drive Christians to be intolerant of each other and to fight and argue, they said. The students also expressed the belief that the way they live their lives and treat other people is the truest manifestation of their inner faith.