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Getting your hands dirty: Augsburg College hosts annual theological conference … for teens

In the face of vast ecological challenges, individuals can feel powerless. Youth are no exception. While many young people spent a week this summer at an outdoor camp, Augsburg College offered a week for 10th- through 12th-graders to reflect theologically on ecological issues at the Youth Theology Institute (ACYTI).

Youth Theology Institute students learn about Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis from Amy Behrens, the current Lutheran Volunteer organizer for the market. Photo provided by Lonna Field.

“Youth come into [ACYTI] caring for creation, but they are also overwhelmed. It is hard to know how to make a difference,” said Dr. Jeremy Myers, a co-director of ACYTI and assistant professor of religion at Augsburg College.

“That says, to me, that we find it meaningful to live close to the earth. There is something about that, it is very real.” -Jeremy Myers

Each year the theme of ACYTI changes, “I try to choose topics that are timely and critical,” Myers said. From June 13 to 18, 21 youth attended classes and participated in activities centered on ecology and theology.
“A lot of talk about ecology can be moralistic or economical, but we want to think about these issues theologically,” Myers said. The goal of the institute is not to promote a particular ideology, but to empower critical theological reflection.
“It can be frustrating,” Myers laughed. “But it is a good frustration. You know what I mean? It is the kind of frustration that keeps you thinking about things; it doesn’t always offer easy answers or lay out exactly what to do.”
At the end of the summer, the youth will submit a paper on a topic that inspired them during the institute, and then the essays will be published on-line at
The classroom dimension of the institute consisted of three classes:
One on environmental literature, another on addressing the creation story, and one focusing on ecological-theology.
“Normally we have one instructor, but I wanted students to come at this issue from multiple ways,” Myers said. To incorporate an interdisciplinary approach, Colin Irvine, associate professor of English led the session, “The Environment and Literature.” The reading was an essay from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. During the session, students read an essay arguing that there has never been an ethic addressing land use.
This class session, as well as the session addressing the creation story, struck one student. This student’s final paper will be about how reading the creation story does create a land ethic. “Essentially this student is arguing that there has been a land ethic since the very beginning,” Myers said.
Having studied how story affects behavior, the students attended the class focusing on scripture. The class addressing the creation story and the Psalms, “The Environment and Holy Scripture,” was taught by Karl Jacobson, assistant professor of religion. “This class gave the students permission to read the creation narrative in a new way and see how story shapes you,” Myers said.
In the class, “The Environment and Christian Theology,” Mary Lowe, assistant professor of religion, led the class in examining different images of God. This session was a favorite part of the institute for Katelyn Danelski, Hope Lutheran Church (ELCA), Moose Lake, Minnesota. “I am captivated by the different ways we (all people, not just Christians) understand God. Perhaps God is all, some, or none of these understandings, but the way in which we view God significantly contributes to how we respond to the world, and the environment is no exception,” she said.

Activities outside of the classroom:

For activities outside of the classroom, students attended a farmers’ market, visited restaurants that have ecological concerns, helped with the Augsburg community garden and the University of Minnesota’s organic garden, and took a canoe trip on the Mississippi. The institute also utilized public transportation. “For a lot of the students, that was the first time they took public transportation,” Lonna Field said, the co-director of the institute.
Myers discussed the impact of canoeing down the Mississippi River. “We got to see how you don’t have to go far to experience nature. Many of us drive over the Mississippi every day,” he said. “It was neat to see the relationship of nature and our urban environment,” he added.
As it rained during the canoe trip, Danelski and Myers were both impacted. “It poured on us the whole time, and while it was raining we saw garbage and oil going into the river,” Myers said.
Working in the community and organic garden had a positive effect on the students as well, although this impact was decidedly more positive. “I noticed that after working for two to three hours in the garden, while we were sweating and getting sunburned after that time, everyone’s energy-level was the highest,” Myers said.
“That says, to me, that we find it meaningful to live close to the earth. There is something about that, it is very real,” he added.

Empower theological reflection and action:

During the visit to the farmers’ market and restaurants, the students spoke with farmers and owners of the restaurants about why ecology is important to them. The students also used the food purchased at the farmers market to help prepare meals for Augsburg College’s Campus Kitchen, which donates food to those in need.
The goal of the institute is to empower theological reflection and action. “I hope that the students will take these concerns back to their church,” Myers said. “I hope these students can be ahead of the curve. A lot of our thinking isn’t long-term and it isn’t theological; most of it is just economical,” Myers said.
There’s reason for Myers to be hopeful. Danelski said in e-mail, “[ACYTI] helped me to see that change and progress with environmental problems have to start somewhere to go anywhere. I see a much greater connection between my faith and my understanding of and my response to the environment than I did before I went to ACYTI.”
Myers also mentioned a student contacting him about setting up a viewing of a documentary about food in their congregation.
“It was really great,” said Field. “We had a great group of students from different backgrounds and perspectives who really loved the topic,” she said.

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