Livezey Research Puts Urban Churches on the Map

Lowell Livezey of the University of Illinois, Chicago, is the Visiting Luce Lecturer on Urban Ministry at Harvard Divinity School this Spring. He is teaching two courses this semester, "Religious Agency in the Metropolis" and the Urban Ministry Seminar, co-taught with HDS Professor Nancy Richardson. On Wednesday, May 1, 2002, at 5:15 pm in the Sperry Room of Andover Hall, Livezey was featured in an Urban Ministry Forum entitled "The Shifting Focus of Cities: Sharpening the Church's Lens." Staff Writer Wendy McDowell sat down with Livezey recently to talk about his research.

Q: How would you describe your research?

A: Both in Chicago and in Boston, I am interested in understanding the relationship between religious congregations and their local environments. Part of that is to understand what "local" means to them. Some congregations are parishes and relate primarily to their immediate surround and others are made up mainly of people who commute long distances. Others may be somewhere in between.

Q: How long have you been doing this work in Chicago and how has it been structured?

A: I started work in Chicago in 1992, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That's the urban campus, the equivalent of UMass Boston. It has a strong urban studies program and a lot of interest in urban affairs, though it doesn't have much research or teaching in religion. Still, it was a good place for me to set up a research program. The Lilly Endowment was the funder and they provided a sufficiently large grant that I could have a team of researchers. That was important because I wanted to be able to look at the many dimensions of religion in the city, and that meant that I needed people at least who understood the various religions. I was able to hire people who were adherents to various religions, not only Protestant, Catholic and Jew but also Hindu and Muslim.

In the study, I decided to focus on congregations rather than on denominations, social service agencies or community-based organizations, because I think the congregation has always been the bedrock of the church and of all faith communities. It's even more so now than it was earlier in this century because there's more of what the sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls "the restructuring of American religion." This includes a devolution of authority and power to more local levels and more choice about where to go to church. People don't necessarily stay in the same denomination. The local church also has more autonomy from the denomination financially. Local churches send some of their money to the denomination, but some of it they send off to whatever good work they choose. They pick their own missionaries to support. So the congregation seemed to be the core of what I wanted to look at, and became the focus of my study in Chicago.

We selected congregations and did case studies. We ended up doing full, completed case studies of 50 congregations. Extensive interviews and data gathering go into the case studies. Going back to an earlier point, it's sometimes hard just to know what really counts as the local place or what is the setting, because you don't always know how far-flung your membership is. So we use computer-generated maps and plot where people are coming from. We also pay attention to how a church really takes account of its membership.

We did only field research for three years and then continued it for two more while we started writing books and articles out of the research. We published the one book, Public Religion, Urban Transformation, and we're at work on two more. One is a book for churches to use to be published by the Alban Institute and the other one is an academic book about the results of the work which will have a university press publisher. It will be primarily about the geography of religion in the changing city.

So my study was set up in Chicago on an interfaith basis. I didn't call it urban ministry, because ministry is a Christian term, mainly a Protestant term, even though that is in some respects what I have been doing all along. I am repeating the focus and methodology here in Boston, though on a smaller scale.

Q: What are some of the things you've discovered in your research so far?

A: Congregations are becoming more likely to be based on a commuter constituency and the old-fashioned local neighborhood parish type of church is increasingly rare. Now some churches are making a point of devoting themselves to being a local or neighborhood church, going against the trend.

This shift has implications. For instance, one piece that I'm working on right now for the new book is called "the urban geography of religion and race." I'm trying to sort out how the difference between a parish church and a commuter church affects what they can do and are likely to do about the issue of race. One thing I've found out is that, in our study at least, most of the multiracial churches are multiracial as parish churches. They are in multiracial neighborhoods. And in our study, we found that not very many people commute to be part of a multiracial church. They commute to be in essentially a homogeneous church. But there are a growing number of exceptions, where a church is a commuter church but is committing itself to being attractive to and incorporating people of different races. Of course, given the segregation of the city, there's more potential to be multiracial if commuter churches are multiracial, but it takes investment because people have to choose to be part of that church. It doesn't just come as a consequence of the space.

I'm very interested in these, to use social science jargon, "spatial characteristics" of a congregation, which play out in practical but also political ways. For instance, if most of your people are commuting great distances, then it becomes very hard to have very many of the events that affect the whole church during the business days. I belong to such a church in Chicago. Although I live close to it, you can't really have major events on any day but Sunday. So Sunday gets packed. Whereas a parish-type church can be a 24-7 type church. Accommodating to the spatial distribution of the membership takes a lot of strategy. But also, churches have to decide if they are going to try to be a recognized presence for the whole area where all your people are or just where the church is. Are they going to address citywide issues with just as much attention as neighborhood issues? Those are choices that all churches have to make because most churches can't do everything.

Another thing I've observed is how many churches send not only money but people abroad. That's another spatial connection I find, that often there's a real connection with another place, either with the homeland or with a place connected with the racial, national or ethnic group that is prominent in a congregation. So a black church on the South Side of Chicago may have regular ties with churches in Nigeria, or the Lion of Judah church here in the South End of Boston, a Latino church, has an annual weeklong work camp in the Dominican Republic. There are a lot of people from the DR in that church, so there's tie with the DR that is of special importance to them. In these cases, the connection becomes part of the self-image of the church. So the geographic reach of a church can reach all the way around the globe, but it's not global without differentiation; it's global in a way that reinforces certain aspects of the church's identity. I and my researchers have learned how to see that quickly, understand it and know how to interpret it. There's just no end to interesting things to look at in this research.

Q: What got you interested in this work originally?

A: I have to admit that I didn't know how important it would be when I started. I started on this project about 10 years ago in Chicago because I realized that a lot was changing in the way that cities were structured and the dynamics of urban life. I knew that part of that was spatial, primarily because the city was changing from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy. As the nature of work was changing, so was the location of the work. Basically, industry no longer needed to be close to ports and railroad tracks because you weren't making things and moving things, you were shifting information around. So that made it perfectly acceptable to have the workplace in a suburb or in a place outside of the city core. The fact that people could live outside of the center city was not new—suburbanization had been going on for 60 to 80 years in most cities—but the work being located in the suburban areas was a new and different thing. By now, you're beginning to see not only suburban jobs, but cities are being built outside of the central city, often called satellite cities.

So more people were commuting for more things, every which way. Also, the civil rights movement had had some effect, so there were increased opportunities for racial minorities to live where they chose—not complete opportunity, but increased. And there were also many more choices about where to send children to school and where to shop, and seemingly fewer opportunities in the local urban neighborhood. All this was having a disruptive effect on neighborhoods, and I set about to see what kind of impact is that having on church life and what kind of impact, if any, are churches having on that. That's the driving force behind my initially getting into this.

I was also very interested in the fact that all the religions in the world were present in big American cities. When I started my research in the 1990s, that was just as impressive as the fact that you had Catholics and Jews living in American cities in the 1890s, or in the case of Boston, the early nineteenth century. So this new interfaith dimension was something I was trying to take account of.

Q: How is doing congregational research in Boston different from doing it in Chicago?

A: Boston is an older city than Chicago. Therefore you have more of the legacy of the past present now, at least in the physical infrastructure. Look on this map (pointing to a detailed map of the city of Boston). Those streets go every which way. Look at a map of Chicago and it's one big grid. All the north-south streets run about 120 blocks, maybe more, and they're straight. The entire length, 15 miles or 16 miles, every mile you come to one cross street that is exactly a right angle to the street you're on. It's one big grid. Walk through Dorchester and you're going to be making lots of turns; they aren't announced, you don't know whether the street going off is the same one you were on, because it will change its name without telling you. It's fair to say it's totally irrational. It wasn't irrational at the time it was made, you ran into a big rock or something and had to turn. But it makes for a different kind of community and different kinds of networks, because you have different natural boundaries from one place to another.

Another difference is the way parishes were set up here in Boston. The city that we have now was mostly built in the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth when it all started, and it's a city of Irish Catholic parishes. Chicago has sections that are parish cities, but it's not pervasive like it is in Boston.

The other thing that is very different is that even though there is racial segregation in Boston, it's not in huge areas. In the South side of Chicago, you can drive or walk 10 miles and never see a white person. In Boston, you might walk or drive two miles and never see a white person, but even there, you probably will. There are places where you would not see a black person if you go into South Boston or the East End or some other places. But the population is much more co-mingled in Boston than in Chicago. Therefore, what happens when you have parishes is got to be different here than there.

I haven't fully sorted it all out, but I am very interested in making these comparisons between Chicago and Boston. Especially since one of the problems with any kind of field-based research is knowing how general you can be with your conclusions. Can you say "I'm describing how the church is in urban America?" Or ought you only say "this is what we saw in Chicago" and you decide whether it's a universal or not. That's why I welcome being able to compare Chicago with an older city and a smaller city, a city that was shaped by different constituencies in its earliest days, but a city that, like Chicago, is learning how to live in a post-industrial, information-age economy. The big technological developments and the global economic forces that are impacting Chicago are also impacting Boston. So it makes for an interesting comparison. It gives me a perspective on the book that I'm writing, which still will be mainly out of the Chicago data, since I haven't done enough here to make it equally developed, but I do have a different set of eyes to look at it through as a result of being here.

Q: How has it been teaching in a divinity school rather than a state university?

A: First, in Chicago, it was an entirely research program and I wasn't teaching, so the chance to try this out in teaching was also an important opportunity for me. In that sense, I saw it and still see it as a kind of experimentation in theological education that I didn't have the opportunity to do in Chicago because I wasn't in a theological school. Because I do think it is important for students preparing for ministry to learn how to learn.

It also contributes to the research process to have ministry students do it. In Chicago, I hired graduate students and they went out and did what I told them, more or less. The hope was that I train them up to be researchers. Here, the students are theological students preparing for ministry, and I still guide them as to what to do, but I now need to think about what they do in preparation for ministry. That means that the research process is shaped by the needs of the church or potentially other faiths, because the students are asking questions such as "What would I need to be a minister there?" and "What would the church need to conduct its ministry?" The internal life of the church becomes more central to the research process. I think that's very interesting, not only for the students, but also for the research, because it changes the research to be looking at your subject matter with a churchly vocation.

I don't really know what the difference in insight is going to be, but I do know that whenever you're doing on-site field research, the person who's doing it and his or her attitude shapes what is being done. There's no such thing as purely objective, factual, value-free research. So it's been a very positive opportunity for me to learn to do research as part of a team with people whose vocation is in the ministry.

I must say that the students who have been involved with me here at HDS have been extremely energetic and enthusiastic. The time they've spent on it is far beyond what you could reasonably expect for a course. All I've seen from them so far is the field notes they write up, but those are done very well. I'm anxiously waiting to see the papers they write at the end.

Q: How does this complement other field education at HDS?

A: The field education program, which is very strong here at Harvard, gets students into real churches and practicing dimensions of ministry. Most field ed, though, is inside the church walls. Students are learning how to run Sunday School, how to teach, and how to participate in various parts of church life. It would be very unusual for field education to be involved in research.

In the fall, Dudley Rose made this project be a component of field education, but most field education is not research-oriented. There are also some courses, for instance Dudley teaches a course on leadership, in which he has students analyze the leadership process in a congregation. That's similar to this. I know Harvey Cox also teaches a class in which he takes his students to look at worship or other aspects of congregations, seeing what they actually do.

But I do think my course provides the most systematic involvement students can have with a church. The most important text for the students to read in this course is the church itself. The books are supplemental. Learning to read the church as a text is the big item in this course. And I really do believe it will be of lifelong value and, indeed, every minister would do well to have this capability, learning how to understand the congregation itself, but more importantly, how to understand its interaction with the neighborhood and the setting.

Q: Is this kind of research new?

A: In some ways it's unique with me, though there are dimensions of it that are becoming more widely practiced. I came into this work after the field that is now known as "congregational studies" was clearly up and running. But I think the late 70s is as early as you have that work. My work is often considered a subset of sociology of religion, though there are some people like myself and, at Hartford Seminary, Carl Dudley, who were not trained as sociologists.

Q: How were you trained?

A: I'm in Christian ethics. I never expected to be a scholar or an academic, I just got into it along the way. I did the doctor of ministry degree at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, but didn't do anything in academe until the late 80s. I was in the peace movement for 11 years as a full-time professional. After the peace movement years, I was a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, where I read and wrote about the international human rights movement, a toe in the water of scholarship. I ended up writing a little book called The Ideas of Human Rights in the Non-Governmental Organization. But then I got into administration at the Woodrow Wilson School and later Chicago State University, when my wife and I moved back to Chicago. It was not until the Lilly Endowment came up with a project they wanted to have done and were willing to pay for it that it lured me into a more scholarly type role, and one thing led to another.

Initially, my work was more a fact-finding project, but along the way, I developed it as a scholarly endeavor with more of a theoretical framing of the issues. It's the sort of thing where vocation keeps calling you in different ways. I got hooked on it. I began to think about how the research could be of value to the churches, to religion generally, and to the religious part of the non-profit sector in society. I saw how it contributes to the civil society and is a public asset in terms of a public life. Those became guiding questions to me along the way, and in order to pursue them, I needed better analytic frameworks to do it. And then this teaching role has recently been added onto it.

Q: It seems that you are filling a real gap with your research.

A: There's a big gap. There's so much to learn and to share, both with the church, and with the secular side of the nonprofit sector, and with the urban studies people. Another thing that motivates me is my discovery that the urban planning world and the study of cities is mostly undertaken with total ignorance of the religion factor.

A good example would be the book Boston Renaissance. This is a great book telling the story of how Boston is being restructured. It has great images, like from Hub to Metropolis, ethnocentric to multicultural, graphs and charts and everything. As far as I can see, it is quite accurate in its description. But that book's authors think, and the readers are told to think, that all this happened solely because of economic and technological forces. Local actors like churches and like other nonprofits, so-called value-driven actors, had nothing to do with it. I don't think that's true. It's one of my missions in life to prove that it's not true, and to have students aware that we who believe our religious, faith-based lives and organizations matter for something, have got to make ourselves heard in this world of urban planning, architecture, and design. We do this by making our work intelligible to the urban studies types and by drawing on their work.

I see my work as a bridge project. I don't have a direct tie with the Kennedy School, but before I started, I dialogued with faculty in the Kennedy School and in sociology, and I do so at UIC. I go to the sociology meetings just as often as I go to the religion meetings. The broader culture with all of its secularization has said that science is the way of knowing that you can really rely on. So if the federal government wants to know where to make a grant, they're going to call the Kennedy School and not the Divinity School, and regularly do. That gives the Kennedy School a basis for more money and more power and so on. They can afford to ignore the Divinity School, but only if they really don't care how thoroughly they understand the world.

I also think people trying to understand the church or other religions need to understand its context, and the sociological studies are the primary way by which those are to be understood. In particular, you've got to understand the spatial dimensions. You need to be able to read maps and read statistics. So that's where my mission to the theological field is parallel to my mission to the social science field. Each needs to be able to understand the other, at least sufficiently, to communicate with each other, and so that in each field, the other can be recognized as part of the context in which we work. You don't have to be an accomplished social scientist in order to use some social science. Ministers should learn to do that, as should professors at theological schools.