Village Voices: Gabe LePage and Caity Stuart

At the time of this interview, Gabe LePage was a joint-degree student in Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of the Environment. Caity Stuart was earning a Master of Divinity at YDS. Prior to their enrollments, he worked in asset-based community development and small-scale agricultural training, and she worked as an environmental educator in positions ranging from National Park Service interpretation to digital content creation. Both were poised to graduate imminently; neither would experience the Living Village as a resident. Yet both next-generation leaders had dedicated considerable time and thought to the residential community’s development. In late January 2023, LePage and Stuart shared their thoughts with “Voices from the Village” about why they had interacted with the Living Village project on behalf of YDS students and what that experience had given them, in turn.

Caity, you’ve observed and participated in the Living Village design process as a community stakeholder, in part because you have firsthand knowledge of the existing residence halls. But you’ve also felt drawn to the process for philosophical reasons.

Caity Stuart: Before coming to YDS, I earned a degree in environmental education. And I’m here to study how people spiritually navigate the climate crisis. It is influencing how we see the world, how we move in the world, and who has access in this world. So, I think of the Living Village as a phenomenal opportunity in a theological education to consider the roles that humans, especially people who identify with religion or spirituality, play in this new time: How do we come together as community? How are we intentional about every element of our livelihood that is connected to the Earth? The Living Village is a chance to practice living in union with every thing and every person.

Gabe, what compelled you to participate in the Living Village’s realization?

Gabe LePage: Coming from a background of working with small-scale farmers and, before that, community listening, I arrived at YDS wanting to equip faith communities for environmental justice issues. Dealing with environmental problems is something you can’t do alone. With certain things, a community wins together and loses together. My involvement with the Living Village, meanwhile, has been somewhat practical, as I’ve been one of the student coordinators of the Divinity Farm.

Would you say more about the connection between the Div Farm and the Living Village?

GL: I got engaged in the Living Village process because I hadn’t seen the Div Farm represented in renderings. So, I started going to the meetings and I was really impressed with how well I was received. Everything I advocated for was taken into account, in terms of increasing engagement with agroforestry. And I was really impressed with Dean Sterling’s awareness of the neighborhood—of the Grandparents’ Garden, for example. I think his hope is to use the Living Village as a learning lab for students and as an extension into local faith communities, making the project bigger than the space itself.

Caity, would you speak more about Gabe’s “bigger than” comment? As an advocate for more curriculum about the issues with which the Living Village is grappling, you’ve given considerable thought to expanding the Living Village’s reach.

CS: One of the beautiful things about YDS is that there are so many students drawn to the school for its willingness to question this new time of climate change. Part of the theology of joy and of life is to paint a picture of what’s possible, and I think the Living Village can do that. And while there are seminaries out there starting to pick up this conversation of ecotheology, a physical representation of it will really set Yale and YDS apart.

There are so many ways to make meaning, for the people who engage with the building every day and for those who come to witness the building. —Caity Stuart

I’m so glad that the Living Village team embraced Gabe and the Div Farm as they have, because both efforts encourage new relationships with the land we live on. As for more curriculum, consider the difference between building a church and hiring a staff to actualize what that church wants to be. The Living Village will be a necessary building, an incredible building, and I look forward to the point in this story’s arc when we can focus even more intently on the building as an educational tool. There are so many ways to make meaning, for the people who engage with the building every day and for those who come to witness the building.

Yet with all due respect, could you argue that that meaning is being made right now? Even though groundbreaking hasn’t even happened yet, the building has brought us together to reflect on living a more conscionable life.

GL: Caity and I have shown up at YDS in an in-between time. And yes, we have been able to benefit from the Living Village. Knowledge is being transferred in all directions. I’m reminded of agricultural extension research, in which farmers don’t take up a new practice until they see other farmers doing it.

You both were involved in last year’s launch of the Common Ground student group. Would you say that your praise of, and hopes for, the Living Village are shared by your peers?

GL: Caity really helped organize that with Clara Sims. We were just coming out of the pandemic, and we had all gotten to know each other at the Div Farm, which was one of the few things that had stayed open.

CS: A lot of student groups stopped meeting during Covid, so we picked the torch back up and used Common Ground as an opportunity to reimagine a student environmental group. At YDS, there are M.A.R. candidates studying religion and ecology and M.Div. students focusing on climate change, and then there are students who are getting a dual degree with the School of the Environment—there were various conversations about religion and ecology taking place, but no central node pulling them together. I should clarify, too, that I have found environmentalist students who are dedicated to ecological and biological systems, whereas those dedicated to climate change are thinking about the social systems impacted by that destruction. There’s overlap, but there’s also difference.

GL: I come at the terminology from a different angle, being interested in connecting the health of a landscape to the health of a people. Of course, one of the benefits of a place like YDS is its diversity of thought—honoring each other’s gifts is symbolic of ecosystems, of Christian life, and of a community of love. I think people are coming to Common Ground for a number of reasons, to sate a spiritual hunger or a hunger for activism.

CS: For a more direct look at students’ mindset, there was a Zoom meeting [in spring 2022] where students were invited to reflect on the current renderings. Gabe and I thought that student input wouldn’t go very far, because the project had been underway for seven years at that point. Even so, students set aside their Zoom fatigue and showed up on that screen, and there were great comments about the mix of room sizes, about the actual uses of communal space, and about student demographics. Two months later, in the subsequent presentation, we were told that we helped the design team’s understanding and that our fixes were easy. Never was there judgment or frustration about making changes. I’m grateful you’ve asked how students have perceived or talked about environmentalism and the Living Village more specifically, because someone might automatically think that the powers that be would be nervous for students to share their perspective.

This is a good moment to circle back to our earlier discussion: how has the Living Village influenced your path in life and career, even at this point when it’s still a set of drawings?

GL: From these meetings, I’ve definitely learned about energy systems and water systems—that hot water is one of the main draws on energy, which has made me more thoughtful in my own habits, for example.

Agriculture has always been part of my path. But championing the Div Farm and agroforestry at the Living Village has created a shift. In agroforestry, an agricultural space mimics the ecology of the forest—say, an orchard is planted with an edible understory—which is more biodiverse and more resilient. YDS is willing to install that at the Living Village as a laboratory and source of food, and it would be very cool to develop systems like that with other faith communities [after graduation].

CS: For me, it’s been helpful to observe the work and negotiation it takes to build something like the Living Village. How do we actualize the change we want to see? I’m called to be an educator, so I may not be involved in construction or land-planning decisions in the next chapter of my career. But to be privy to the complexities and considerations of a project like the Living Village—I have a clearer understanding of the engagement process. Especially for something whose revolutionary or cutting-edge qualities might be difficult for some potential supporters to embrace.

Now, if you could look into the future, do you picture YDS students feeling equally changed by the Living Village when it is realized? 

CS: In the renderings, I see a place that is gorgeous and lovely, a place where I’d want to live. It also signals its difference in its materials and in its relationship to the Sterling Quadrangle—there’s just the slightest misfit, on purpose. There’s aesthetic continuity as well as difference, and thank goodness for that, because our time is different. As a future student, I’d be curious to learn more about the Living Village. There’s also something particularly beautiful about a quadrangle that has only three sides, as if the viewer represents the fourth side. In this moment when church membership in North America is declining, I certainly don’t think of the Living Village as an attempt to resurrect the church as it has been. It is starting to reimagine what the church and what service to others can be.