YDS playing lead role in theologically rooted sustainability

By Emily L. Judd ‘18 M.A.R.

For Yale Divinity School, “salvation” has taken on an additional meaning: saving the planet. The School is on track to reach a set of very ambitious environmental goals outlined in its 2016 sustainability plan, in areas including housing, academics, and transportation.

Thanks to collaborative efforts between the administration, faculty, students, and several of its advisory councils, YDS has established itself as a leading seminary in the teaching and practice of environmental responsibility.

“Many [seminaries] are doing things somewhat similar to YDS’s initiatives,” says Paul Minus ’55 B.A., ’58 B.D., ’62 Ph.D., a retired professor at Methodist Theological School and member of the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council. “But none is as advanced, comprehensive, or bold as what is going on in New Haven.” 

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Read the YDS sustainability plan.

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The boldest of the Divinity School’s environmental goals is the “Living Village,” believed to be the most ambitious living-building residential project in the world. The proposed residential community for 150 students will derive all its energy from the sun and all its water from onsite rainfall. YDS is now working with expert consultants to create detailed plans for the estimated $100 million project, which YDS hopes to open in 2025.

Dean Greg Sterling says YDS is poised to make history with the Living Village, irrevocably changing how other universities think about residential buildings.

“We expect the Living Village to stand as a resounding expression of our theologically rooted commitment to conserving the Earth’s resources and creating a more sustainable future,” Sterling says.

Julia Johnson, M.Div. ‘18, echoes Sterling’s view. “YDS approaches sustainability in a faith-based manner. All actions are rooted in scripture, understanding that this planet is God’s,” Johnson says. As a co-leader of FERNS, the Divinity School’s environmental student organization, during the 2017-18 academic year, Johnson served as a student representative on the committee that drafted the sustainability plan.

Not focused solely on buildings and operations, the plan envisions academics as an important area for understanding and cultivating environmental stewardship. Last fall, a new M.A.R. (Master of Arts in Religion) concentration in Religion and Ecology was successfully launched, and this fall YDS will offer four classes directly related to the environment: Doctrine of Creation; Loving Creation; Ecological Ethics and Environmental Justice; and Radical Transparency and Leadership in a Time of Environmental Crisis. The classes cover such subjects as ecological and technological perspectives on human existence, the spiritual dimension of ecology, eco-feminism, and how businesses can address environmental crises.

Nora Gallagher, an author and environmental editor for the sustainable outdoor clothing company Patagonia, is co-instructor of the Radical Transparency class—a weekend-intensive course offered as part of the Divinity School’s transformational leadership program. Gallagher believes that now is the time for society to convert to “a new relationship with and reverence for the earth” and that a theological institution like YDS is the place to spark this change.

“Why would we not think sustainability and theology are connected?” Gallagher says. “The kingdom of heaven is right here, under our noses, in things, not separate from them, in the air, in the floors, in the waters, in the rocks, in the beans, and in the daily, heart-breaking reality of our lives.”

As a member of the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council, Gallagher persuaded the Council to adopt a new earth-friendly transportation measure: a surcharge on airfares to discourage unnecessary air travel. The School’s faculty has also adopted the measure, with the understanding that the charges will be channeled into sustainability projects at YDS. Gallagher says her proposal was motivated by the Living Village and how its student residents will be living in rhythm with their region, watershed, and planet.

“I thought it might be good for the Advisory Council to join them in solidarity. I believe that biodiversity loss and climate change are the most critical issues facing us today,” Gallagher explains.

Although it will still be a few years before students are residing in the Living Village, the spirit of sustainability already animates life on the Quad. Student groups are incorporating sustainability into their daily practices and the events they organize, printing fewer documents, for example, and making sure that compostable and/or recyclable utensils, cups, and plates are used at events they organize.

Two student-led enterprises, the Divinity Farm and the Graduate Conference in Religion and Ecology (GCRE), are fostering earth-consciousness on campus. The Divinity Farm gives students an opportunity to practice embodied sustainability by growing their own food. All 18 plots are farmed by students, including Emily Bruce ’19 M.Div., co-leader of the student sustainability group FERNS and a member of the Living Village planning task force.

“The sharing of the farm’s produce between students fosters an environment of sustainability,” Bruce explains. “The farm is also a spiritual location for the community,” she adds, noting that Marquand Chapel has held worship services on the site, as has YDS Summer Study. “It’s very exciting to me to see people are treating the farm as a literal sanctuary.”

This past year, Bruce and Johnson organized the annual Graduate Conference in Religion and Ecology in collaboration with YDS and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. The conference was launched by Bruce and Johnson in 2017 as a way for future scholars in the field of religion and ecology to showcase their work and develop academic relationships.

“Creation care is a core part of my personal theology,” reflects Bruce, who plans to become a Unitarian Universalist minister after YDS. “Loving the earth means loving God, and vice versa. As a being on this earth, I believe we have to take care of each other and this gift that God has given us—our planet.”

Emily Judd is an M.A.R. student at YDS and a freelance journalist. She plans to pursue a career in religion journalism upon graduation.

August 6, 2018