Bethune-Cookman lands $600,000 Lilly grant

Award to help high school students explore God's call

Bethune-Cookman University, a Methodist-affiliated school in Daytona Beach, is one of 82 schools nationwide that recently received a grant of nearly $600,000 from the Lilly Endowment to start a program to encourage high school students to study theology and explore their calling to God's service.

“Exploring Gifts and Graces: Summer Adventure in Theology and Leadership” will be a nine-day residential institute for Florida high school juniors and seniors. Dr. Alice Wood, associate professor of religion and philosophy, and Rev. David Allen, the school’s executive chaplain and dean of the chapel, are currently planning the program, which will take place July 16-24.

“As soon as I heard we received the grant, I asked Reverend Allen if we could do something together,” said Wood, who wrote the grant application. “I knew we could do something spectacular if academics and the chaplain combined forces.” 

A worship leader leads prayer for young people on stage and in the audience in the Bethune-Cookman chapel
Young adults gather for prayer in the chapel at Bethune-Cookman University. A grant from the Lilly Endowment will encourage high school students to study theology at the school. Photo from the Bethune-Cookman Facebook page.

The $599,900 grant will cover four years of programming for summer institutes, but Wood and Allen hope to find a way to continue hosting such events indefinitely. For now, they are focused on making next summer’s event a model for future years.

The Lilly Endowment Inc., based in Indianapolis, recognized that many high school students want opportunities to ask difficult and probing questions about their faith and the moral dimensions of contemporary challenges.  To support efforts to develop high school youth theology institutes, the organization awarded a total of $44.5 million in grants to 82 private four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The grants are part of Lilly’s commitment to identify and cultivate a cadre of theologically minded youth who will become leaders in church and society.

“Young people today want to make a difference,” Dr. Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at the Endowment, said in a news release.

“These programs will connect them to faculty and religious leaders who will help them explore that longing by drawing more deeply on scripture and theology as they make decisions about their futures.” 

Wood and Allen described the grant and the institute as a “win-win” for the college and students, who will be able to attend the first year’s program free because of the grant. 

Wood said the planned program will be fun and creative, with elements of worship and arts along with theology. Activities will be held both on and off campus, with community service and team-building exercises included in the program. 

“We have lots of things planned in addition to classes,” Wood said. “We want the students to be tired when bedtime comes.”

Current Bethune-Cookman students also will be involved as camp counselors, she said. The university offers a religion and philosophy major that includes theology courses. A new School of Religion at the university is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

“University students will be able to work on theology and small group skills as part of the summer institute experience,” Wood said. 

Allen hopes the Exploring Gifts and Graces program will encourage attendees to consider majoring in religion and philosophy. 

“With this summer program, students who are inclined to this type of major would realize it’s a real option for them,” he said. 

Allen fondly remembers his days as a student at Ely High School in Pompano Beach and how an interaction with Bethune-Cookman influenced his future. 

 “The Bethune-Cookman Concert Chorale came to our high school, and that inspired me,” Allen said. “That is how I became a student on full scholarship and chose this career path.” 

Because of that high school experience, incorporating a worship-arts segment in the summer camp is particularly meaningful and important to Allen.

“Having a worship-arts component is a great way to attract younger people in the church, especially those who don’t see how it can apply to a future career,” Allen said. 

Exploring Gifts and Graces will be open to all Florida high school juniors and seniors, although enrollment will be limited to about 50 students. Details are being finalized, but the application process is expected to begin in February, according to Wood. 

– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.

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