The University of Evansville has received a grant of $545,107 to establish Open Table, a summer theology institute for high school youth. It is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, which seeks to encourage young people to explore theological traditions, ask questions about the moral dimensions of contemporary issues, and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service.
“As an institution of higher education grounded in the United Methodist tradition, the University of Evansville, since its founding, has labored to help young people think critically and theologically about their faith,” said university chaplain, Tamara Gieselman. “Our proposal avows that now, more than ever, the world needs theologically astute young people who aspire to be responsible leaders in a global society.”
The vision of Open Table is to empower a new generation of theologically judicious young people who can serve in their communities as those who "went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests." (Matthew 22:10)
Designed by Gieselman, Open Table will begin in the summer of 2017 and intends to model Christian community on campus for up to 30 rising sophomore, junior, and senior high school students while they study key texts related to hospitality, wrestle with the theological meaning and complexity of the Eucharist, and participate in daily Christian worship with Holy Communion.
Ultimately, Open Table hopes to ignite the passions of high school youth who desire to understand the dramatic narrative of the Christian tradition and its affirmation of God’s call on their lives. Though ecumenical in nature, Open Table will recruit significantly from United Methodist churches, reinforcing UE’s United Methodist affiliation and strengthening its valued church-relatedness.
“The goals of the Lilly Endowment and the mission of the University of Evansville are complementary, and we are extremely grateful for the generosity of the endowment,” said Tom Kazee, president of the University of Evansville. “We have been fortunate to partner with Lilly in other initiatives at UE. As a Methodist-related institution, we much appreciate their support of our proposed theology institute for high school students.”
UE will draw on strong, well-established, diverse partnerships to launch Open Table, including the Southwest District and the Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church, UE’s Neu Chapel Society, Temple Adath B’nai Israel, and the Islamic Society of Evansville.
The University of Evansville is one of 92 schools participating in the initiative. The schools are located in 30 states and the District of Columbia. Although some schools are independent, many reflect the religious heritage of their founding traditions. These traditions include Baptist, Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches, as well as Roman Catholic, non-denominational, Pentecostal, and historic African American Christian communities.
“These colleges and universities are well-positioned to reach out to high school students in this way,” says Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment. “They have outstanding faculty in theology and religion who know how to help young people explore the wisdom of religious traditions and apply these insights to contemporary challenges.”
The endowment is giving $50 million in grants to help a select group of private four-year colleges and universities around the nation to create the institutes. The grants are part of the endowment’s commitment to identify and cultivate a cadre of theologically minded youth who will become leaders in church and society.
An additional grant to the Forum for Theological Exploration will establish a program that will bring together leaders of the high school youth theology institutes to foster mutual learning and support.