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A Mission of Understanding
At U-Md., Evangelical Christian Teen Breaks Into the Mainstream, Out of His Comfort Zone

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007 12:00 AM

This is an extended version of a story printed Jan. 15 in The Washington Post.

Danny Leydorf's world was about to be turned upside down, and he couldn't wait.

The extroverted teenager had shined at the mostly evangelical Annapolis Area Christian School since kindergarten, but now he wanted to test his faith in a more diverse world. With hopes of becoming a lawyer or politician, he badly wanted to understand people who didn't think like him.

"I feel like I exist to be interacting," the lanky, towheaded 19-year-old said eagerly one day last summer, shortly after his graduation, "and part of that is just getting out there."

So he'd deliberately picked a large, secular college: the University of Maryland. But the week before he was to leave, the wider world dealt him a blow.

"I hate evangelical Christians," read the Facebook.com profile of his roommate-to-be, who had seemed so perfect on the phone. He loved politics and "The Simpsons," like Leydorf, and they even had the same views about how to set up the room. Could it still work?

That was to be just the first of many challenges and unexpected twists Leydorf has faced this school year as he plunged into the mainstream. He's gone from student body president back home to outsider. He struggles with when to talk about God and when to keep his mouth shut. He wrestles with how Jesus would define tolerance.

As atypical as he sometimes feels, Leydorf is traveling an increasingly common path for graduates of private evangelical schools, institutions that sprung up in the 1970s specifically to shelter students from the broader culture. In decades past, graduates of the fast-growing movement often went on to religious schools or overseas mission work.

But today's young evangelicals live in a less tidy world, where Capitol Hill and Wall Street are considered mission fields and evangelical leaders are taking more diverse positions on issues including global warming and homosexuality.

Since last spring, The Washington Post has visited with Leydorf as he has sought a toehold in the new, more diverse landscape.

So there he was at 2 a.m. one November night, hashing out the blurred lines about abortion and gay marriage with his two roommates, in the dark, in their bunk beds.

"You're basically saying, 'I may think it's wrong, but someone else might think it's right,' " he later recalled saying. "I can't wrap my arms around that." Such topics, he said, are like concrete slabs between him and others.

"We're describing the slab differently because we see different sides of it," he said. "I don't think people here have a good sense of people like me. And I don't have a good sense of these people."

* * *

Leydorf had long been certain he wanted to go to a secular college -- a top secular college. He had founded the debate team, had played junior varsity soccer and was on the student disciplinary board. But what he really craved was the chance to deconstruct the religious and political beliefs with which he was raised. He'd even set aside his own "right-of-center" political leanings during his senior year and pursued an internship with Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), "a notorious liberal," Leydorf said.

"I want to sincerely seek the truth," he said in May, "not just what you want to believe."

With his secular ambitions and accommodating views, Leydorf is a curious product of the 30-year-old evangelical private school movement. Educational historians say the movement was one of the fastest-growing segments of the private-school world from the 1970s, when the schools began, until recently, when growth flattened.

The Association of Christian Schools International, the largest group of such schools, represents 5,000 U.S. schools, compared with 1,000 when it was founded in 1978. But today such academies are at a crossroads as they become more focused on academic success. Parents increasingly want top-of-the-line teachers and SAT prep courses. To pay for such programs, tuitions have gone up from the days when every parent volunteered and teachers were willing to accept lower pay to be part of a idealistic venture.

"In the beginning, we kept costs down because we starved. It was: 'You're doing this for Jesus.' Now we're getting more and more into the laity mentality, like, 'What does it cost to live in Washington?' " said John Holmes, director of government affairs for ACSI.

But the changes in Christian private schools mirror the debates U.S. evangelicals have had through this century about how to best bear witness to a seemingly godless culture: by changing it? Rejecting it? Incorporating it?

Mary Sue Burgess, who was Leydorf's guidance counselor, knows these questions well. Ninety-eight percent of Annapolis Area Christian School's graduates go to college, compared with 57 percent in 1986. And just 20 percent of the college-bound go to Christian schools, nearly half of the number who did 20 years ago.

Burgess ranks schools on the basis of "opportunity to be a Christian witness." They range from "solid ground" schools, where professors are all professing Christians, to "battlefield schools," she says. "To go to that kind of school, you're asking for it."

Despite significant growth in Christian colleges in recent years, most religious schools are still viewed as less competitive, students and administrators say.

"I encourage them to at least look at some Christian schools, not to ignore them," Burgess said.

In the past, she says, the goal of schools such as hers would be to send graduates on to religious schools or mission work. But things have changed.

"A generation ago, it was assumed that if these kids didn't go to a Christian college, their immortal soul was in danger. Now everyone is more relaxed about it," said Charles Glenn, interim dean of the Boston University School of Education and an expert on private Christian schools. "The group in U.S. society moving up the educational scale most rapidly are evangelicals."

The result of that is a much broader definition of "mission" among evangelicals, even those who come out of private schools whose first sets of parents asked administrators how many of their graduates "are in the service of God," said David Culpepper, headmaster at the Emmanuel Christian School in Manassas. Mission work today can mean being a lawyer or professor, as well as building houses in Guatemala.

"I think we have gotten more assertive and more fearless as far as looking at the whole world," Burgess said. "We want to train our kids to be contributing citizens and not be afraid, not to be stuck in a bomb shelter."

* * *

Leydorf was debating precisely this issue one day in June from a bench on the Annapolis waterfront.

It's essential for Christians to get into more diverse environments, he argued to three fellow alumni of his high school with whom he'd just had lunch.

"You're not going to run into a Buddhist at a Christian school," he said. "I'd like to get out and learn about people."

His friends were unconvinced.

"If I went to a secular school, I'd have to insulate myself and be more careful and mindful," said Shannon Smith, a classical singer and hockey player who was headed to Wheaton College in Illinois, a prominent evangelical school, in the fall. Because of her music, she'd also applied to New York University, but she was relieved when she was rejected.

That said, Smith's senior project was about Christian artists and how they can't segregate themselves from mainstream culture.

"A lot of [Christians] think of the artistic world as an underworld, as fallen, that it's too sinful," she said. "But I say, you need to suck it up. You have to go shine your light on them."

Laurel Schmuck wanted to go to a Christian college but couldn't find one that had her desired major, Russian. She was going to U-Md.

"People get combative, and I didn't want to face that my first year out," Schmuck said.

"There are lots of people who go to Wheaton, all kinds of people," Smith added.

"I don't agree with Danny. You can find just as much diversity at Christian schools," Schmuck said.

Leydorf paused. "I want to look at what people believe and say: Why do they believe this?"

Smith smiled, somewhat dreamily. "I'm not ready to leave the Christian environment. I love it so much."

* * *

The evangelical private school boom probably would come as a surprise to the early members of the U.S. evangelical movement, which began in the 1940s to oppose Protestant fundamentalists who advocated removing themselves from the wider culture.

"It was that old evangelical impulse to stay in the public schools as a witness, as a presence," said University of North Carolina sociologist David Sikkink. Evangelicals would talk about the importance of having their children "battle-tested" by the public schools, he said.

But in the 1970s, things started to change, after Supreme Court rulings against school prayer and in favor of teaching evolution.

"More social issues began to be taught from a particular view, and that's one of the things that concerned families that didn't share that same viewpoint," said Burt Carney, ACSI's director for legislative issues. The group saw double-digit growth in membership every year from its founding until the late 1990s, when numbers plateaued a bit.

"Perhaps the evangelical strategy of witness through presence in the public schools is wearing down," Sikkink said.

* * *

His first week of school, Leydorf estimated he was different from 90 percent of the people on U-Md.'s campus. One kid in the dorm bragged that he hosted a sex talk show. Another invited Leydorf to a strip club. "I'm definitely out of my comfort zone," Leydorf said nervously then.

With his flip-flops and collection of "The Simpsons" DVDs, Leydorf could be any other guy in his hall. Except he's not the one with the video boxing game or the posters of Tupac Shakur or Bob Marley. He's the one with the index card taped to his desk: "Romans 1:16: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."

But the biggest change for Leydorf was the feeling that he was squelching his personality. At home, his friends nicknamed him "The Politician" for his tendency to confidently schmooze. He didn't like this newfound reticence.

He'd also decided not to say anything to his roommate about the Facebook remark. He concluded that the roommate was using the term "evangelical" as shorthand for religious-right leaders such as Jerry Falwell whom Leydorf considers intolerant.

One late August day, he compared his sentiments about Maryland to biting into an apple that's mealy. The apple is still good for you but doesn't taste so good, he said as he walked across campus.

By October, some of the Politician was back. Leydorf had applied for a seat in student government, joined the student group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and was attending any event he could fit into his schedule; one day it was a Muslim student discussion group; the next it was a dialogue between an evangelical student group and a gay student group.

And he was diving into his new challenge: understanding the secular psyche. For example, what exactly was driving the activism he was seeing among irreligious people?

"For me, if I didn't believe in God, it seems that the natural conclusion is to live life as selfishly as possible," he said. "If I wasn't religious, I can certainly see living my life quite differently."

He also felt himself opening up a bit on the subject of homosexuality. He'd gone to the dialogue and also had been assigned a book condemning anti-gay discrimination for a class on civics. Even before coming to Maryland, he'd wrestled with the idea that God sends people to Hell, but now he felt even less comfortable judging who.

"You put more faces to [a subject], and it makes a little bit of difference, and you understand it from their point of view more," he said. "If Jesus was here today, he would hang around with the gay community; these guys are shunned."

Then he paused.

"To me, that's the definition of tolerance -- for us to be able to say to one another's face 'You're wrong,' and be okay with it."

* * *

In more than 20 years of campus ministry, Neil Livingstone has listened to many students like Leydorf struggle with the basic question: How can I express not only that the Gospel is meaningful to me, but is actually true? Today Livingstone is the regional director for InterVarsity, which has nearly 31,000 undergraduates in its campus programs nationwide.

Although it's become trendy among young people to be spiritual, he said, "the thing that will get you into trouble is talking about Jesus or self-identifying as evangelical."

Bekah Bolton heard that the majority of Christians lose their faith during college because of that pressure; that worried her as she segued this summer from 12 years at a private, mostly evangelical school in Massachusetts to Georgetown University. She wanted her beliefs challenged, but would she be ostracized for talking about salvation, she wondered? Would she be lonely?

Her biggest struggle, it turned out, came in dealing with the science-oriented approach everyone took toward God, including her professor in a required religion-survey course.

"People don't understand their need for a personal savior; they want to know why it fits into nature," said Bolton, 18, who joined a Bible study group and a club soccer team.

One semester in, Bolton has found a strategy for thinking about non-Christians: "In one sense, I see them as people who need the savior that I have. But I can't judge them; I don't know their heart. They may believe in God."

About 30 percent of college-bound graduates from Bolton's alma mater, Lexington Christian Academy, go to Christian schools.

"Today we encourage them to think more broadly," said associate head of school Kim Winsor. In the past decade, she said, Lexington made a concerted effort to sharpen its focus on being a competitive prep school.

"Some Christian schools are saying, 'Well, you should go to the mission field for five years versus going to college," she said. "We applaud that, but it's not our main focus."

* * *

Shortly after Christmas, Leydorf and a few other recent Annapolis Area Christian School grads were asked back to talk about college. They were asked: "What was your biggest temptation, and how did you deal with it?" For Leydorf, it turned out not to be such things as drinking and sex but rather a type of religious hubris.

"It's tempting to feel like you're better than other people because you're keeping to the standard better than they are, that you're doing things the right way," he recalled telling the younger students.

But Leydorf found there might be only one thing that truly is absolute: his faith.

"Now I feel that I'm very entrenched in my faith, my view of God. But when it comes to other things, like gay marriage or any number of things, I'm not deeply entrenched in them," he said.

"I feel like I'm different, but I don't feel alienated. And that's not a bad place to be."

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