Middle schoolers have chance to explore faith and theology

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

SALISBURY — During the inaugural year of two week-long DISCOVER programs, the overall number of attendees was small, but the questions they pondered were large and mighty. Junior high schoolers gathered to participate in the second week-long DISCOVER program offered through Catawba College’s Lilly Center for Vocation and Values July 31 through August 6.

These DISCOVER participants came from Kannapolis, Rockwell, Mocksville, Salisbury, China Grove, Hickory, Spencer, Lexington, Thomasville, Granite Quarry, Asheboro, Woodleaf and Chesapeake, Va. Some had no affiliation with a church or denomination, while others represented Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, UCC, Presbyterian and non-denominational faiths.

One mother posted on social media about her child’s experience: “Soooooooo thankful for Catawba College’s DISCOVER Camp!!! My daughter had an amazing time this week! She came home confident, happy, amazed and appreciative of this week. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your love with my little love. ‪#‎catawbacollegerocks ‪#‎catawbacollege.”

Another parent shared: “I just wanted to say thank you so much for allowing our son to participate in DISCOVER. This was an experience of a life time. He had so much fun last week that he is still talking about it.  He also met some new friends that he now chats with almost daily through social media. He wants to go back next year. I just wanted to tell all of you that helped to make this camp happen for the kids.”

The final DISCOVER program of summer 2016 allowed junior high school students from an array of communities to ponder their faith while learning basic theological concepts. The first DISCOVER program targeting senior high school students was offered in late June. The two-weeklong programs drew a total of 37 participants, but impacted the lives of the Catawba College students who served as counselors for the programs, the parents and families of participants, as well as their spiritual leaders and mentors.

Funded by a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, the DISCOVER program is designed to educate junior and senior high school youth about theology and ministry and help prepare the next generation of leadership for the church. It involved collaboration from faculty at Catawba, Livingstone College, Hood Theological Seminary and local clergy to provide participants a vibrant, challenging curriculum as the youth explore theological traditions, ask questions about contemporary issues and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service.

Some of the junior high school DISCOVER participants dished out their own praise for the program. “Thank you so much for letting me go to camp DISCOVER this year! I had so much fun! My favorite part was everything! My favorite meal was all of them!” one wrote in her program evaluation.

Another student shared: “I really enjoyed my week at camp. I learned a lot from the guest speakers and the travel experience. Working with different student campers and counselors has broadened my life in so many ways. I am using the things learned at camp in my everyday life to grow in my relationship with Christ and love for others. Thank you and I hope to see you soon!”

The Rev. Dr. Ken Clapp, Catawba chaplain and director of Catawba’s Lilly Center, was optimistic about the spiritual foundations that the DISCOVER programs have created and will continue to create for participants. “In an era when youth often are disconnected from the church, this has major implications for the future of the institutional church as these youth feel a connection and want to be a part of programs and efforts that will help people live out their faith,” he said.

“This program has allowed its participants to recognize the need and the ways they can help meet that need in the church. It has also helped the college students who have served as interns for the program grow in their faith.  All of them now view their roles in leadership in the faith community as more important. For a couple of these college students, this experience has solidified their thoughts that ministry is indeed what God is calling them to do,” Clapp concluded.

DISCOVER participants in both the junior and high school programs will reunite with each other during a December gathering to be scheduled on Catawba’s campus.   And DISCOVER director Chris Gratton ’15 says plans are already underway for offering several sessions of the DISCOVER program again during summer 2017.

Gratton is responsible for putting together the faculty for the program, hiring, training and supervising interns from the participating colleges that staff it and recruiting and screening participants.

The weeklong programs provided opportunities for junior and senior high school participants to meet new people, to explore who they are and discover things about themselves that have brought them a new sense of joy and satisfaction or happiness. DISCOVER included field trips to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, Mount Shepherd Retreat Center and activities on the campus of Catawba College. Participants engaged in two different service projects: the senior high youth working on a local hospice house and the junior high youth building dog houses for local Habitat for Humanity residents. They also attended worship services and learning sessions from spiritual leaders to help each student grow not only in their faith but also in life.

The DISCOVER experience is free and applications for summer 2017 programs will be accepted from youth of all religious denominations and affiliations as well as from youth who are not part of a congregation. For more information, please visit www.catawba.edu/discover or contact DISCOVER director Chris Gratton at cgratton@catawba.edu or 704-637-4725.