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Youth 'learned deeply, thought deeply' at Monmouth's inaugural Lux Institute

Barry McNamara
TOP: A demonstration on beekeeping at the College's educational garden is just a portion of the food security focus. BOTTOM: Organizers the Rev. Jessica Hawkinson, Monmouth associate chaplain (left) and the Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott, chaplain (right). Not pictured: organizer Dan Ott.
During the inaugural Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth at Monmouth College, the third floor of the Center for Science and Business was transformed into a spiritual center.

But on the institute’s final day, Lux staff needed to return the Center for Science and Business to its original state, which made one of the staff members a bit sad.

“We were moving desks back to their proper classrooms and taking down the prayer slips from our prayer tree, which was visible from Broadway,” said the Rev. Jessica Hawkinson, Monmouth associate chaplain and the institute's director. “One of our staff said, ‘No one will know what happened here.’ I said, ‘We’ll see the fruits of what happened here in the impact our students will have in the world.’”

Hawkinson and her staff welcomed 17 high school students from seven states to the first Lux Summer Institute, a two-week program funded by a gift from Lilly Endowment. The institute’s goals are to nurture and equip students to be servant leaders who are spiritually enlightened, globally engaged, socially responsible and vocationally driven so that they can meet the challenges of church and religious leadership.

“The students learned deeply and thought deeply,” said Hawkinson. “They developed leadership skills, spiritual life skills, meditation skills. They really grew to love one another, and they were really sad to leave. They left enriched and able to contribute to their church and community in a profound way. I couldn’t have expected the program to turn out any better.”

One student had an epiphany while answering a question about what she learned during the institute.

“My (vocational) direction would be being able to bring any type of community together,” said Cara Bridgman of Louisville, Ky. “Wow, I finally put words to it. That was really exciting for me.”

Another student appreciated the opportunity to be a Monmouth pioneer.

“On the first night, we were all in the chapel taking communion together and just sitting there,” said Max Fris of Joliet, Ill. “I felt connected to everyone even though I hadn’t met them yet. It was like this moment where you feel special because you’re the first ones – the founding fathers. I felt like we were on to something.”

The trust the students developed in one another through a variety of activities – including improv comedy under the direction of May Monmouth graduate Johnny Williams – carried over into their times of discussion and reflection, opening the door to more productive sessions, said Hawkinson.

The institute focused on issues related to food security, and the students were immersed in the topic.

“The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a history of advocating for solutions to food injustice, which also fits with the mission of the College,” said Hawkinson. “We introduced them to food security through all things Monmouth.”

Students were introduced to the Monsanto Agronomy Center and the Jamieson Community Center, met members of the College’s Global Food Security faculty, and visited the College’s nutrition lab, educational garden and research farm, where a demonstration on beekeeping was one of the students’ highlights.

“One of the students said, ‘Now I know more about food security in Monmouth than I do about my own town,’” said Hawkinson.

Focusing on food security was another one of the institute’s strengths.

“It’s a place to meet people from all different walks of life and learn about a subject that you wouldn’t normally look at through a Christian perspective,” said Max Choi, of Princeton, N.J. “Just getting that opportunity is something I would encourage a lot of people to try.”

Hawkinson said the important next step is for the students to apply to their communities what they learned at the institute.

“That was a focus toward the end of our time together,” she said. “I walked them through how to take what they learned home, and what they can do next. They left with a better understanding of their role for social change and for making changes in the world.”

And the students said the impact of the institute was felt immediately.

“No other summer camp will make such a dramatic change in your life,” said Eli Weiskirch of Deerfield, Ill.

Hawkinson said she also hopes the institute’s first participants will spread the word about the Lux Summer Institute.

“They can help other students understand what happens here and encourage them to attend,” she said. “Our goal is to make this an institutional fixture. ... The Lux Institute is a perfect example of how we can use the vibrant resources we have and show off the unique nature of this campus. Through this and other programs, we’re making a name for ourselves at Monmouth as a place of theological reflection.”