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Three Times a Winner

Coinciding with its 20th anniversary, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture has received three fabulous “birthday presents” — major grants totaling more than $5 million.

A man praying in Los Angeles, home to one of the world's most religiously diverse populations. The USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, housed in USC Dornsife, received three grants that will enable the center to expand its work in the city and internationally. Photo by Jerry Berndt.
A man praying in Los Angeles, home to one of the world's most religiously diverse populations. The USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, housed in USC Dornsife, received three grants that will enable the center to expand its work in the city and internationally. Photo by Jerry Berndt.

Housed in USC Dornsife, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) has received three major grants totaling more than $5 million — a testament to its sustained success.

CRCC Executive Director Donald Miller, Leonard K. Firestone professor of religion and professor of religion and sociology, welcomed the recent grants, which he said aligned with the center’s strategic goals.

“First we are working to build the capacity of faith-based institutions in Southern California; second, to document religion in L.A., one of the most diverse and dynamic religious communities in the world,” Miller said. “And third, we are working to research ways in which religion is changing internationally, especially in the global South.”

Funding from the California Endowment, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation will enable the center to deepen two decades of work over the next few years, said Brie Loskota, managing director of the CRCC.

“The grants will enable us to continue to explore our key areas and make a greater impact in our work,” she said.

A $500,000 grant from the California Endowment will support the Faith Leadership Institute, a program within the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, housed at the CRCC.

This grant will allow the program to train leaders from 80 faith institutions over two years to represent a new generation of clergy and lay leaders in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The goal is to expand participants’ influence beyond single-person leadership within their congregations to collective civic leadership within their community.

The Rev. Mark Whitlock, executive director of the USC Cecil Murray Center, welcomed the grant which will go toward training leaders of religious institutions on health initiatives related to civic engagement and community development.

“This will improve the lives of people struggling in low-income communities of Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Long Beach and Santa Ana,” he said. “We celebrate building healthy communities with the California Endowment.”

The second award, from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, earmarked $2.5 million over four years to support a CRCC project to evaluate its grant-making to organizations in support of Catholic sisters facing diverse issues domestically and internationally. The beginning focus will be on the U.S. and in nine countries in Africa. The results will allow the Hilton Foundation to gauge the success of its current grants and discover opportunities to make a greater impact.

“In many poorer areas of the world, Catholic sisters form the backbone of social services, including education and hospitals,” Loskota said. “They are the forgotten front-line in much of the work done to serve those most in need. Conrad Hilton, who was educated by Catholic sisters, was particularly moved by the sisters’ mission, so it became part of the mandate of the Hilton Foundation to strengthen and support them.”

The issues facing Catholic sisters in the U.S. and Africa differ. The average age of a Catholic sister in the U.S. is more than 70, whereas in Africa and other parts of the developing world the age is considerably younger.

“There is tremendous growth amongst Catholic sisters in Africa,” Loskota said. “They are being provided with great educational and leadership opportunities and they need the kind of leadership development and support we’ve been doing with the Faith Leaders Institute and other programs like the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute.”

The situation is not the same in the U.S.

“Aging Catholic sisters here are facing a crisis of new membership as well as a fiscal crisis, with unfunded pension liabilities that are through the roof,” Loskota said. “In both the U.S. and Africa, Catholic sisters need strong financial management systems to thrive.”

“Having spent the last decade studying global Pentecostalism, one of the world’s fastest growing Protestant religions,” Miller said, “I’m very excited to study Catholicism in two international contexts — the U.S. and Africa where I have done extensive travel and research.”

A third grant, $2.6 million from the John Templeton Foundation, will fund a new three-year CRCC research initiative. Researchers will seek to discover various types and expressions of religious competition and cooperation, and understand how they may lead to innovative forms of religious belief, practice and organization.

Titled “Religious Competition and Creative Innovation: Los Angeles and Seoul” (RCCI), the project will focus primarily on L.A., home to one of the most religiously diverse populations in the world, while developing a comparison with Seoul, South Korea, which shares L.A.’s wide religious diversity.

Working with USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, CRCC is creating a Web-based app for USC students to collect geocoding data on more than 200 L.A. congregations.

“Knowing L.A., there are pockets of things going on that we would never come across, so we have put the word out on social media, inviting the public to participate in our research process by recommending creative or innovative congregations and religious groups,” said Loskota, who is a co-investigator on the project.

“CRCC conducted a mapping study of MacArthur Park about a decade ago and found 67 congregations within a square mile. Los Angeles is a very dense environment for religiosity and we’re hoping it’s equally dense for creativity and innovation.”

“Eventually we hope to create a typology of innovation and understand how groups innovate and what’s the role of competition within innovation,” she said.

After piloting its methodology in L.A., the center will export it to research partners in South Korea to compare with results in Seoul.

“Our RCCI project will allow us to go beyond discussions of religious competition that focus on gain or loss in membership,” said Richard Flory, the project’s primary investigator. “We’ll look beyond how ‘religious consumers’ make decisions about joining or leaving religious groups by focusing on what happens within and between congregations.

“We will pay particular attention to the idea of ‘place’ within religious life, as we explore the different ways in which congregations engage — or not — with the communities in which they are situated,” he said. “This approach will allow us to create typologies of religious innovation and change across a diverse set of faith contexts and geographies.”