By Merry Gordon and Emily Jex Boyle
With a goal to provide college-age students an opportunity to study spiritual values in concordance with their secular learning by establishing a “reconciliation of faith and reason,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints implemented Institutes of Religion in the 1920s.
Nearly 100 years later, much has changed in higher education. However, for East Valley college students, the Mesa and Tempe CES Institutes of Religion continue to provide a solid foundation for those wishing to remain close to their spiritual heritage as they gain an earthly education.
The Institute program focuses on, but is not limited to, students aged 18 to 30 who have not graduated from an Institute or LDS Church college or university. About a dozen sites in the Valley serve members wishing to attend Institute courses, with the Mesa and Tempe locations among the busiest.
“I would say that Institute really offers an opportunity to deepen the faith of every student no matter at what level they enter a class,” says Tempe Institute Director Terry F. Calton, who has served the Tempe Institute for nearly fifteen years.
Designed to build upon the four-year Seminary curriculum, Institutes offer four cornerstone classes: Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Teaching and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, Foundations of the Restoration, and The Eternal Family. Additional secondary elective courses include studies of such topics as Isaiah, the parables of Jesus, and the restored gospel as it fits into Christian history.
Brother Calton explains that each semester the Tempe program typically hosts about 350 married LDS adults, 600 young single LDS adults, and 150 adults who are not of the LDS faith, all of which are students at ASU. Along with the Institute course study, students may also participate in their Institute’s student council, where they learn valuable leadership skills while preparing edifying lessons for fellow students. “With many new converts and both returning and preparing missionaries, we have to have the courses here be diverse enough to meet all of their needs,” he says.
Additionally, Institute offers monthly service projects, interfaith activities, and Friday noontime devotionals. As a program of over 1,000 attending students, the Tempe Institute receives visits each semester from Apostles and General Authority leaders. President Dallin H. Oaks, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, and Elder Neil L. Andersen have all visited in the past year.
This is “a great blessing to many,” Calton says, “because this [leadership visitation] is what is available on the BYU campuses on a regular basis and they are now coming to us here. What makes us different than a BYU campus is our great possibility to associate with wonderful people of many faiths in both service and interfaith forums.”
Recognizing that technology and the advent of Young Single Adult stakes and organizations now meet much of young members’ social needs, Calton concedes that “we can’t, and don’t compete. We try to… focus on feeding their spirit.”
And students respond to this focus. Reviews for local Institutes describe it as a “second home,” and a “safe haven from the world.” One student exclaims, “It’s like Seminary, but better!”
Located across the street from Mesa Community College (MCC), the Mesa Institute of Religion serves an average of 650 students each semester. To accommodate such a population, Mesa Institute Director Ken Bawden explains, “In Mesa, we have two full-time teachers who teach classes during the day, Monday through Thursday, every hour on the hour. We also have five volunteer teachers who teach at night from 7 to 8:30 PM on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”
In addition to sanctioned course study, the Mesa Institute offers other opportunities to enrich students, whether they currently participate in Institute or not. For example, Bawden says, “We offer a free lunch once a week, as well as Friday Forum when we have opportunities like bringing in BYU groups,” such as Vocal Point or BYU’s folk dance team.
When asked about enrollment, Bawden is adamant that even with all local Institutes have to offer, there is work to be done to attract students to the program. He admits, “There is so much that can pull [students] away.”
There is also much to draw them toward it. The MCC-based Latter-day Saint student club LDS Student Association (LDSSA) is connected to the Institute, and aims at providing uplifting and enriching opportunities. Twelve students sit on the club’s council and plan activities such as service projects and interfaith opportunities. MCC Director of Service Learning Duane Oakes serves as the club’s advisor. LDSSA members have pulled weeds in the campus’s well-known rose garden, volunteered with Special Olympics, and organized job fairs and dances.
Some graduating high school students may mistakenly see Institute programs as a mere outgrowth of Seminary, or a “marriage market.” Calton says they would be wrong. “This [view] is a relic of the past and perpetuated by those who knew the Institute for its many social benefits.” On the other hand, Calton points out, “marriages happen because people meet and fall in love, and what better way to meet people than in a place dedicated to learning the things of the Spirit? One can get a glimpse of someone’s spiritual nature across the classroom better than having to try to gauge it across the dance floor.”
In examining the real purpose of Institutes, he cites the “daily miracles” that occur there as participants “make connections in the scriptures and with the Spirit.” Adds Bawden, “The beginnings of Institute center around the secularization of our youth in a world so anti-religion. Institute is there to strengthen them.”
Calton’s joy comes from seeing students progress in this spiritual development—and return for more. “If they feel edified by their experience, they are very willing to come, participate, and do what is necessary to feel the Spirit again and again!”
For more information, go to https://www.lds.org/si/institute or visit the Mesa CES Institute of Religion at 1310 S Dobson Road, or the Tempe CES Institute of Religion at 1000 S McAllister Avenue.