Understanding Our Ecologies of Faith: The Ecologies of Learning Project

Article excerpt

Our urban challenges are fundamentally theological concerns. The new global world we live in requires that we continue to interpret our traditions, to look for revelation in our neighborhoods, and to offer new witness. The shifting terrain of religion in urban America can best be understood through an ecological perspective. This approach examines the way religious institutions adapt to their environments through patterns of interdependence with other religious groups, as well as neighborhood and city organizations and structures. Lowell W. Livezey explained it best when he discussed religious communities as "deeply impacted by their neighborhoods and hold the power to impact neighborhoods."

When congregations learn about their local context and the ways they interact with that place, they are empowered for more effective, creative, and locally relevant urban ministry. Today, this ecological perspective is well documented in the work the Ecologies of Learning Project (EOL). EOLs continued mission is important in understanding the work, life and legacy of Lowell W. Livezey, researcher-teacher-activist ...

Who we are and what we do

The EOL is a research and action center based at New York Theological Seminary, supported by major funding from the Lilly Endowment. Our work rests on two convictions backed by founder Dr. Lowell W. Livezey's twenty years of research in large American cities. First, religious congregations constitute an important force in American urban life that is not adequately appreciated or understood by social scientists and government. Second, religious communities are deeply impacted by their neighborhoods and hold the power to impact these neighborhoods as well. When congregations learn about their local context and the ways they interact with that place, they are empowered for more effective, creative, and locally relevant urban ministry. Therefore, seminarians benefit from training in urban sociology as well as the disciplines of biblical and theological analysis.

Dr. Livezey analyzed a congregation within its community. He was interested in the myriad ways that congregations impact and are influenced by their embeddedness within the city. He developed an ethnographic method to aid communities of faith. Under his leadership, EOL focused on several important and diverse topics regarding urban religion, ranging from how congregations respond to increasing ethnic, racial and religious diversity within their neighborhoods, to their advocacy for economic equity and affordable housing, along with a host of other social justice issues. He insisted that congregations shape the city as political, economic, and cultural forces. He brought deep concern over urban inequities to his research, and constantly challenged researchers to look for ways congregations defied--or supported existing social structures.

Thus, EOL works to understand how congregations influence life in metro-area communities for the better and aids congregations to increase and improve their urban ministry. As we conduct research and run related programming, we are developing an ecology in which students and scholars, religious and civic leaders, community residents and clergy, public officials and urban activists connect, learn, and act. EOL pursues its goals with a three pronged approach: education, research, and community outreach and networking events.

Education

First, EOL teaches people how to research urban contexts and congregations. EOL offers courses that teach field-based research to seminarians, graduate students, and auditors from congregations and the community. In doing so, it builds on New York Theological Seminary's historic mission of training leaders for ministry in urban settings, and its historic approach of contextual and dialogical learning. Students at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) engage in a process of seeking to bring questions and concerns that arise out of real life experience (both individual and collective) into dialogue with the disciplines of theological study. …