Westmont Magazine Trailhead Leads Teens to Seek God’s Call
In the midst of the global pandemic last summer, Westmont’s Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts worked tirelessly to welcome 22 high school students to Trailhead: Seeking God’s Call. Due to COVID-19 safety measures, organizers had to thoroughly rethink the program, limiting the size of the groups, eliminating travel to sites in the community, holding all gatherings outside, and requiring everyone to wear face coverings when together.
“We had complex screening protocols and symptom checks, special setups for speakers, distanced meals and so forth.” says Aaron Sizer, associate director of the Gaede Institute. “We had a lot of good help from Jason Tavarez and the Office of Institutional Resilience, and hope we were a help to them in preparing to roll out these protocols for the whole campus in the fall.”
Pleasant surprises emerged from the challenges. “We quite liked having smaller groups, which provided more opportunity for individual conversation and especially interaction between undergraduate mentors and high school participants,” Sizer says. “Best of all, we had to hold all our meetings outside, which pushed us to discover new and beautiful spaces on campus. We’ll certainly look for every opportunity to be under the oaks, rather than in a classroom, in future years.”
“We were really encouraged by students’ ability to push through the awkwardness and inconvenience of safety measures to form new friendships, learn a lot, and think in big ways about how they’re called to join in God’s work of redemption,” says Director Christian Hoeckley.
Launched in 2015 through funding from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, Trailhead seeks to encourage young people to explore theological traditions, ask questions about the moral dimensions of contemporary issues and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service.
Mary Docter, professor of Spanish, and Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, professor of English, discussed immigration and Christian responsibility. They joined with Immigrant Hope, a ministry of Shoreline Community Church, to bring several local immigrants to share their stories and speak with the students.
Chris Milner, professor emerita of kinesiology, and Helen Rhee, professor of religious studies, explored disability, challenging students to see the image of God in all people. Guests from PathPoint, a local organization that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities, joined the discussion.
Eric Nelson, director of counseling and psychological services, led a workshop on anxiety and decision-making, exploring with students how our natural physiological responses to stress can interfere with our ability to rightly see who we are and where we’re going.
Enrico Manlapig, associate professor of economics and business, also led a decision-making session based on his work in decision analysis, emphasizing that we can objectively evaluate the quality of a decision, which should be considered independently from the outcomes of the decision.
President Gayle D. Beebe led a third decision workshop inspired by traditions of discernment in the Quaker tradition and his own work on leadership and decision-making.
Paul Willis, professor of English, also joined the students and led them in a poetry-writing exercise and trail walk throughout campus.
Dan Taylor, assistant director of residence life, led Trailhead’s residence life team and guided a group of four Westmont students who served as mentors: Emily Mosher, Noah Argao (both returned as co-lead mentors), Sarah Garland and Tobi Oyebade.
“If there’s one word that tied everything together at Trailhead last summer, it was discerning,” Hoeckley says. “We focused our efforts to strengthen our discerning skills in two directions: discerning the image of God in others —especially those who might be unlike ourselves — and discerning God’s promptings in our own lives for ways that we might contribute to God’s healing and reconciling work in the world.”
With this goal, Trailhead deliberately works with people whose lives look very different from those of the students but who are nevertheless called to participate in God’s work in the world. “This includes immigrants in our community, who often haven’t had opportunities to attend college, choose a major, do an internship, or handpick a career, yet their vocation from God is as clear as ours,” Hoeckley says. “People with developmental disabilities often can’t contribute in the ways we’re used to recognizing and valuing, yet they reflect and reveal God’s image.”
“One of the real satisfactions of leading the Trailhead program is seeing students have these encounters, which pull them out of themselves and give them a much larger picture of what life with God can be about,” Sizer says. “In our culture it’s easy for vocation to be another way of saying entitlement, that is, we’re encouraged to pursue an individual vocation with a sense that the world owes us the opportunity to be perfectly happy, successful and self-actualized. Those goals are great, but surely they’re not what we mean when we talk about God’s call, which isn’t just for those lucky enough to have clear pathways to economic and cultural success.”