​How does one bring about transformation in seminary students, helping them see that all persons are created in God's image? Perhaps transformation takes place outside the classroom, in authentic relationships. To that end, United Methodist-affiliated Duke Theological Seminary is exploring what it means for students to live in community with young adults who have intellectual disabilities.
The Friendship House model began at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI, and was brought to Duke by its founder Matt Floding. At Duke each of four apartment suites houses three seminary students and one young adult with a disability. The residents remain longer than the students, but the aim is to move into a more independent living situation by the time they are no longer young adults.
A diverse group of students and residents play guitar and other musical instruments during worship in a Friendship House apartment living room
            Worshiping at Friendship House at Duke
Everyone in the program commits to the principles of becoming community by celebrating, eating,and praying together. In practice this means that participants share a Sunday night meal, celebrate milestones, and make time for prayer and theological reflection. Discussing theology takes on a different dimension when seminarians need to explain themselves in ways that allow everyone to join in the conversation. The openness with which the residents share prayer concerns helps the seminary students to be more real and vulnerable in their own prayers.
Students find many benefits from participating. One student who lived in the program from its inception noted that having resident friends helped to keep him grounded in the community, and to see connections between his studies and issues in the surrounding city. He learned that being in community meant making time to just hang out, and to be available for the tough times (someone getting sick in the middle of the night) as well as the fun times. A resident wrote an individualized Haiku poem for the student's birthday - of the best presents he has ever received because it showed how much the roommate understood and cared about him.
The movement is growing. One recent graduate is taking the model to the medical school arena. Vanderbilt has started a Friendship House and is expanding to a second house in partnership with Belmont University. Others are considering adapting the program for undergraduate students. An umbrella association, Friendship House Partners USA, offers on-line information and a handbook to download. Ultimately each program needs to fit its own context and develop its own structure and procedures.
Several of the housing units are owned by non-profit agencies, one by the host seminary, and one by a housing corporation. The model works because it is self-sufficient, offering affordable rents and limiting the use of paid employees. To be accepted into the program, residents must be able to care for personal needs. This is often the first move after leaving their parents' home and they may lack important independent living skills. While the seminary students are not caregivers or supervisors, working things out in community may require teaching social skills and offering feedback when roommates make self-limiting choices. Transformation comes in the messy process of learning what it means to be uniquely gifted individuals working together to form a community.