Life together is an education

Stories
04/09/2014

Life together is an education
Abundant Life Together is proving to be an effective model for reaching young adults interested in experiential and relational learning.

By Michael Brenner

“I love it,” participant Alisha Nelson says. “I love it here. I’m so happy with my life right now.”

Alisha, a 21-year-old from Rochester, Minn., is thrilled with her experience of taking an “ALT Year” (Abundant Life Together) between community college and the rest of her education.

Abundant Life Together, an ELCA program for young adults with a pilot site in Toledo, Ohio, has received a lot of attention lately. Both the ELCA and the surrounding community are watching to see how the program impacts the lives and futures of the participating young adults. And there is growing interest in replicating the program in other cities. Calls have been received from around the country, including Chicago, Washington, Oregon and New England.

But before the program takes steps to expand, it still needs to get through its first year with a group of young adults living abundant life together. So far, things seem to be working out very well, as Alisha can attest to.

Everyone’s needs are different

Abundant Life Together’s first year has eight young adults — five men, three women — living together in Toledo and filling what would normally be a school year with community, discipleship and education. The program is both standardized and personalized, featuring immersion experiences and monthly themes for reflection and education mixed with “leap weeks” that often involve trips to other cities.

“It’s for people who are interested in self-initiated learning and relational learning,” Josh Graber, program developer, says. “Those just wanting to grow as a person.”

While Alisha follows the same set curriculum as everyone else, she is also taking advantage of the program’s flexibility to take courses through Southern Seminary.

“This program really adapts to who you are and what you need,” Alisha says. “They give you people to work with and people to talk to, and you can kind of run with that.”

While the program does not end until May, Alisha has already seen dividends through the clarity of contemplation — having the time to slow down, read her Bible and find where her passions really lie. As a result, she plans to study social work.

Erik Ruehl, from Kennewick, Wash., has used the program as a “gap year” to get ready for a major transition to studying abroad. He will start at Flinders University in Australia in the fall and chose to use Abundant Life Together as preparation for living away from home.

“I feel like you can get a lot out of this experience,” says Erik. “Going straight into college is good for some people, but I think this was good for me.”

Erik is the unofficial “media minister” of Abundant Life Together, producing much of the group’s video and photography. He plans to major in film and screen media but is also interested in community service and mission work. The program has given him life experiences with many  cultures and situations, particularly the African American community and people devastated by the recession.

“The amount of personal growth and maturing and reflection is much greater than I expected. I think it’s challenging, but it’s a good and worthwhile experience.”

Life together is challenging

The young adults have also had to adjust to the community aspect, maneuvering some of the more mundane realities of everyday life. Erik has had to adjust to everyone’s different habits, particularly when it comes to cleanliness and sleeping patterns. Alisha also found it to be an enjoyable challenge.

“You’re eating, breathing with these people,” Alisha says. “You’re all up in their business.”

Participants get plenty of help along the way with scheduled immersion experiences, meetings with local leaders and frequent theological discussions. Each month has a theme as well. February was focused on self-reflection, the focus for March is witness, April’s theme is “Reformation Resurrection,” and the program will end with discipleship in May.

Part of the year-long experience is living simply, stretching their $100 per month stipend as far as possible, but Josh says it has helped them grow in their faith and has taught them how to step away from consumer society. Some choose to live on the stipend only while others also rely on their personal savings or help from family.

“It’s become real personal for them,” Josh says, “There’s a learning curve, and I feel like they’re understanding themselves more.”

A new model for the church

Josh sees Abundant Life Together as an excellent model for reaching out to younger generations, something that mainline Protestant denominations have been struggling with for decades. Seeing males participate, another difficult demographic for churches, has also been encouraging. The program offers a holistic and diverse experience, and Josh sees plenty of hope for growth in the future.

“I hope there’s multiple sites across the country that are working together,” Josh says. “We want to see if more young adults want to do this.”

If this year is any indicator, Abundant Life Together will provide a welcome alternative year of learning about life and faith for many young adults to follow.


Michael Brenner is a graduate of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, a legal researcher and a former journalist.

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