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Chicago Table Talks

by Delaney Schlake (M. Div. Middler, Trinity Lutheran Seminary)
This January, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) to take a January term class called “Community Organizing: Leadership for Public Life.” During the few weeks I spent learning alongside seminarians from Chicago and Southern Seminaries, I was able to sit down with two giants in the sustainability conversation at LSTC: Dr. Ben Stewart (Learn about Dr. Stewart here!) and Sustainability Coordinator Jim Schaal. In both conversations, I was greeted with passion, excitement, and hope for the present as well as the future of creation care at LSTC.

After spending time as a pastor at Holden Village in Washington (http://www.holdenvillage.org/), Dr. Ben Stewart said he felt a distinct call to graduate school. Dr. Stewart explained that, as he noticed the richness of the world around him at Holden and the ways the earth related to the liturgical seasons of the church, he yearned to fuel his passion and learn more. During December, Holden gets about 25 minutes of direct sunlight per day, so as Stewart led Advent liturgies in the community, he noticed distinct connections between the darkness in the world and the themes of darkness in the Biblical text. Upon realizing that this correlation was no accident, Dr. Stewart decided to go to graduate school and study what he called “the intersection of ritual life with ecological worldview.” After completing his doctoral work, Ben joined the faculty at LSTC, where he teaches classes on worship as well as creation.

Dr. Stewart talked to me about the ways that love for the earth has long been a part of the DNA and the academic heartbeat of the LSTC community: in the classroom, through the work of professor emeritus Dr. David Rhoads and, Dr. Barbara Rossing, and on the campus,  through the continuing efforts of the Green Zone (learn more about Green Zonehere!). Dr. Stewart’s main focus lies in the classroom, where students are invited and encouraged to consider the goodness of creation in all their coursework. Stewart describes LSTC’s approach to ecology as institutional and contextual, stressing that what is happening at LSTC “is not a vision of gauzy, ‘Thoreauvian’ nice nature.” 

LSTC addresses its context by considering the implications of environmental racism as part of an urban setting, as well as thinking intentionally about efficient, sustainable ways to use its considerable real estate, while maintaining a connection to its natural setting. From the classroom to the compost bin, Dr. Stewart makes it clear that care of creation at LSTC is “not a volunteer effort; this is who we are.” With the reality of a transient seminary community, LSTC seems to have made a concerted effort to institutionalize the care of creation, thanks in large part to the pioneering voice of Dr. David Rhoads (See Dr. Rhoads’ bio here!). Last year, the LSTC community made another move to continue the institutional legacy of environmental commitment, when they hired Jim Schaal as sustainability coordinator.

Five years ago, Jim Schaal joined the team as Executive Coordinator of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science on the LSTC campus (http://zygoncenter.org/). Schaal soon became the manager of recycling and composting at LSTC, as well as the staff advisor for the Green Zone. Last year, after he finished his time with Zygon, Jim became the sustainability coordinator for the seminary, focusing fully on care of creation within the LSTC context. A former community organizer, nonprofit manager, and program director at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences  in Berkeley, California, Jim has been deeply invested in the ecological justice conversation for most of his life. Now, as an advisor for the Green Zone, he has worked with student interns to “raise environmental awareness, promote sustainable practices, and foster theological and spiritual reflection.” 

The Green Zone works to keep the conversation going through “First Friday Films,” at which movies on ecological justice are screened with the community, followed by group discussion around the topics presented. With Schaal's leadership, the Green Zone has also worked to create raised bed vegetable gardens in seminary housing courtyards, plant native perennial landscape gardens, and establish an efficient composting system for the seminary housing and dining services (LSTC was featured in a compost article here!). 

Working with Vice President for Operations Bob Berridge, Schaal and the Green Zone students have led the effort to conduct a campus-wide energy audit and secure more than $185,000 in grants for energy efficiency retrofits. Another important move toward a more sustainable future was hiring Chef Ben Randall, LSTC's Food Service Director, who strives to source ingredients from local farmers and provide reusable or compostable tablewares. These recent hirings are among many examples of the ways care of creation is an institutional marker of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

It is clear, through both of these conversations, that ecological justice is a tenet of the LSTC community; this seminary’s heart beats for ALL which God has made, moving past the cultural anthropocentric milieu, into a broader understanding of the call of the church in all the earth. When I asked both Jim and Ben what is on the horizon for LSTC, they talked about an ongoing effort to retrofit the main building with a more efficient HVAC system as well as LED lighting. 

Aside from this practical, tangible step, Schaal and Stewart touched on the emphasis that LSTC hopes to put on the intersections of church leadership (in its myriad forms) and care of creation. This seminary hopes to have a fostering and transformative impact on the hearts and minds of students as they consider what it means to be part of all that God has made and to care for the earth as leaders of the church and members of the Body of Christ.

Members of the LSTC Green Zone

Dr. Benjamin Stewart (L) and Dr. David Rhoads (R)

Jim Schaal, LSTC Sustainability Coordinator