Special Insights from Texas Youth Academy (TYA)

Date Posted: 7/24/2014

From ultimate Frisbee team selfies to the significance of the sacraments, students and adults who experienced the unique spiritual formation opportunity known as the Texas Youth Academy are quick to share their experiences – via social media and good “ole fashioned” conversation.
It is that time of year again. According to Baylor University senior Patrick Neitzey, a member of the inaugural 2008 Texas Youth Academy, “The weather was a ‘perfect’ 110 Texas degrees, and students were showing up at Southwestern University for the sixth (yes SIXTH) TYA.” As he watched the students get off the bus from their first bonding experience at a food pantry, Patrick was immediately reminded how awkward his first day had been. “What followed was something amazing, all of the students already seemed comfortable talking to one another. I mistakenly assumed some students had been friends for years when in actuality they had met only hours before. How great is the Holy Spirit that it can create connections that are otherwise impossible? All of these students come from different cities, different churches, and different stories, but they have already begun laying the foundation for a strong covenant community that will go with them for the rest of their lives. This community is the magic of TYA, from the outside looking in you can’t imagine it and from the inside looking out you can’t explain it without turning to the grace and love of God.”
Two weeks of Togetherness
TYA students learned about baptism, creation, covenant living, the incarnation, passion, discipleship, social justice, the resurrection and more during their two weeks of togetherness. Allyson Wermelskirchen was one of the students blogging about her experiences. She particularly loves the Arts Village aspect of TYA. “Each group created a collaborative poem as a team,” Allyson blogged, “and worked on personal poems based on the day’s scripture and theme. While no one admits to writing poetry before, after hearing their poems, that is hard to believe. The students are so much more creative than they realized, and I pray that they would lean into their newfound gifts as they leave this place.” Although Allyson loves the arts activity she says, “Creativity in worship is where my heart beats fastest. To be able to express that to a group of such special students, and to help them find their own rhythm, has been a dream.”

Ashley Hamel adds her experiences and revelation related to communion. “We were graced with the words of Rev. Meredith Wende on Friday evening. She spoke about ‘the cup’ referencing communion. She spoke to the suffering that happens in our lives and how the cup that we receive is not always good. The bread that we receive is not always sweet. Sometimes the bread and cup before us are bitter and hard to swallow. The good news is that God does not lead us to the cross to leave us there but rather to prepare us for resurrection. The road towards the cross can be long and painful but resurrection and new life is coming.”

According to TYA mentor Jennifer Veres-Schrecengost, Dr. Brent Strawn of Candler School of Theology, gave the students a quick education in Hip Hop and R&B sampling practices, and then taught them about the word, “juxtaposition,” which the group practiced on Sunday. “After breakfast that day,” Jennifer blogs, “we rode down to Austin to join the community in worship at the Church Under the Bridge. We brought nothing but ourselves–-our stories, and most importantly our ability to listen to the stories of the men and women and children that gather there to worship. A majority of this congregation sleeps out of doors. Coming to a gathering like this without something to hand out is in itself a juxtaposition for many of us; we are accustomed to playing the role of advantaged provider, handing out food, clothes, or whatever else we might have brought to a community of the disadvantaged. So our time at Church Under the Bridge was confusing for some of our group. It was also loud, messy and full of life and diversity.”
An hour later, the TYA group was on a Texas Hill Country summit in a luxurious retreat. The resident directors of this facility gave students a nearly free-reign of their 28-acre property. Adds Jennifer, “Texas Youth Academy is, in large part, about ordering our lives after the example of Christ. In the gospels we read about Jesus living days even more full of this kind of juxtaposition–moving back and forth between “street-level” ministry and places of restoration. At TYA, we are experiencing our call to share our stories and be engaged in the messiness of the world, but also our call to be tethered to Christ, rooted in God’s love, and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. May we be always faithful to this call.”

Dr. Natalie Carnes showed the students the importance of the incarnation by showing them the dangers of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. According to Rev. Thera Freeman, Young Adult Ministries Director for TAC, students were challenged to remember that Christianity involves seeing the goodness in creation and coming together as the body of Christ and can never be reduced to a purely spiritual relationship one-on-one with Jesus. “Taking the body and spirit connection to heart, we experienced a time of mission that afternoon,” she adds. “We heard the true stories of teenagers experiencing homelessness, many of whom were simply abandoned by their parents or forced out. We worked together to raise awareness of the things in society that create homelessness and discussed it together. It is a different way to experience mission work, but often we can serve to bring change to the world by exposing and focusing upon issues of brokenness in the world.”
A Newcomer’s Perspective
A recent addition to the TAC staff, Marylyn Green dropped in on TYA to learn more about this unique program offered by the Center for Congregational Excellence. Shares Marylyn, “When I visited on July 9-10, I could only describe my experience as WOW!  Upon my arrival at Georgetown University, I joined one of the groups in the art villages, where I had the opportunity to do some painting.  As I walked around the room, I could see faith stories unfolding in these works of art.  One young lady’s painting looked like a book and to me I saw a book of life, because it portrayed light and darkness with words to songs, and even though there was darkness it seemed that the light brought everything to life and some of the words she used were, Just as I am, which is an amazing way to describe oneself.”
After the artist village, Marylyn journeyed with the group to sit in a session with artist Ken Medema. “When the youth shared a story about themselves Ken put their words to music.  I cried along with a young lady as she cried through every word she shared with the group. Her tears dried as she began to smile when Ken sang her story in song. Seeing sadness turn to joy was another ‘WOW’ moment.”
Marylyn also enjoyed observing the manna bag mission project that involved learning more about homelessness. “TYA is a wonderful experience for the youth that are able to attend,” notes Marylyn. “After sharing with them for two days I was blessed abundantly -- so I can imagine how they feel when they leave after being together for two weeks!”