Every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening, nine housemates create space in their schedules to gather for a time of fellowship and breaking bread, a time to be intentional about their relationships with one another and their lives within the larger community of the city of Austin, Texas. These nine individuals are participants of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s AYAVA House (the name standing for Austin Young Adult Volunteers/AmeriCorps), a program inspired by and blending the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Program and the Houses of Hospitality model, in which churches provide affordable housing to young adults in year-long service learning programs (AmeriCorps, Teach for America, City Year, etc.).
Three years ago, while I was serving as the site coordinator of the YAV program in New Orleans, I met Jack Barden, the vice president for admissions of Austin Seminary. The conversation we shared was not solely to recruit new applicants for the seminary, but also to exchange ideas as to how an intentional community for young adults focused on the parallels and intersections of faith, community, service, discernment, simple living and vocation (similar to the YAV program), could be replicated on the seminary’s campus, maximizing the seminary’s resources and connections.
Recalling the impetus for developing a residential community of young adults in service for the seminary, Barden says, “We saw a lot of people coming to seminary from service learning programs or having done service learning in college. Why would we not want to have contact with those who are currently in service placements — to discern with them if seminary is for them and to be engaged with them in conversations about service, discernment, and purpose?”
As stated in the AYAVA House program description, “Austin Seminary recognizes the value of preparing these individuals by providing them with tools of discernment and theological reflection, as well as helping them to establish networks of colleagues in ministry and service that will nurture them for a lifetime.”
Church ministry and public service are not mutually exclusive, but together are capable of building up the kingdom of God that restores and heals in ways unimaginable. The AYAVA program has helped strengthen the ties of the seminary with the Austin community through participants who are liaisons between their nonprofit or social service organizations and the students, faculty and staff of Austin Seminary. AYAVA House members are direct links to engagement and advocacy opportunities in current issues many seminarians are already passionate about — immigration, literacy and education, fair wages and employment, LGBTQ equality, homelessness, etc.
Whit Bodman, associate professor of comparative religion, believes the AYAVA House’s presence on campus “reinforces the idea that what [the volunteers] are doing is not just service but ministry in a helpful and important way.” Students and volunteers together are challenged by a sense of call to be good neighbors, to share love and grace because we ourselves experience love and grace each day in this special place in the middle of Texas’ capitol. “Living in intentional community and serving as a full-time volunteer are not easy tasks. Both take dedication and commitment, however both are extremely rewarding. My year as an AYAVA was one of trials, triumphs, and God’s guidance,” explains Sarah Wildt, who has been accepted to attend Austin Seminary this fall.
There is a saying that I often shared with YAVs who came to New Orleans full of determination and willingness to give what skills and abilities they possess to a city full of need and brokenness: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. In the same way, church and civic leaders must be intentional about being collaborative and reflective in their work in order to avoid the burn-out often experienced in these vocations.
Once volunteers and seminarians are able to make deep personal connections with others and are able to freely explore and understand why issues or events they have witnessed keep them up at night, their work will have the kind of substance that statistics and research cannot fully capture. This is the work of the Holy Spirit that can be found in the ways hope and faith persists in the midst of the violence and atrocities that seem to be relentless in our world. This is what brings each one of us back together around table for fellowship and breaking bread, because this type of community nourishes all those in need, including ourselves.
KATHY LEE is a rising milder at Austin Seminary. Prior to enrolling, she served as the site coordinator of the Young Adult Volunteer Program in New Orleans, La.