RELS 205: Urban America and Catholic Social Teaching

The next installment in our Course Catalog series, Urban America and Catholic Social Teaching sends students into the Bronx to put their Lasallian values to action through service-learning.

"We can put a Band-Aid on the problem, but can we do the major surgery?" – Lois Harr


No, RELS 205 isn’t a pre-med class. But it also isn’t a class for the faint of heart.

For 13 years now, Lois Harr, director of Campus Ministry and Social Action, has been teaching Urban America and Catholic Social Teaching, a class that seeks to fix real world issues in the Bronx starting with the root of the problem and using doctrine as a guide.

The course, which meets for two hours a week and requires 25 hours of service outside of the classroom, begins with an examination of poverty statistics in the Bronx — currently the poorest urban county in the United States.

“For many of them, it’s the first time,” Harr says, of her students’ interaction with poverty. “We send them on L.O.V.E. (Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience) to Kenya and Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, but three minutes from here, it’s a world of difference.”

Before the volunteering begins, Harr, a former community organizer and lifelong resident of the Bronx’s Bedford Park, educates her students on what she calls “a perfect storm of issues” in the Bronx – from neighborhood arson in the 1960s and 70s to white flight and redlining.

When the students understand why so many residents are impoverished beyond their own means, then they’re ready to start helping, Harr explains.

Students choose their organization from a number of community-based partnerships including the Ethical Culture Society, which runs a Monday night dinner and shelter for homeless men, the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, which provides a mentoring program for local high school students, and the POTS (Part of the Solution) Soup Kitchen.

Photo credits: Casey O'Connor

Patrick McGarry ’11, an English major from Rutherford, N.J., took Harr’s class as a senior, setting up cots and air mattresses for the homeless at the Ethical Culture Society each week. After serving dinner, McGarry and his classmates offered the men something less tangible, but just as fulfilling — conversation.

“It was a small family of us, maybe eight people every week — a very eye-opening experience,” McGarry says. “The course itself was more than just a lecture. You had the opportunity to interact with your lessons outside of a traditional class setting and see the real world application.”

Using Harr’s connections to the community, McGarry landed a job after graduation as a property manager for Fordham Bedford Community Services, an organization that offers social services to low-income families in the Bronx.

“My hope is that [my students] can find different ways of living — some that are mission-driven and not always money-driven,” Harr says. “That they can be reminded of their purpose in life and be concerned with the community.”

Though the course examines urban issues through the lens of Catholic social teaching, Harr says she’s taught students of all faiths who have gained a deeper understanding of social justice and the Lasallian tradition.

“People of good will can agree,” Harr says. “It’s an important responsibility to be part of the solution.”

And so each semester, Harr and her students work toward that solution by forgoing the Band-Aids and the easy fixes, and by delving into surgery headfirst.