“What I am is God’s gift to me. What I become is my gift to God,” says Father Benjamin Urmston, S.J., adding: “This implies that I also participate in creation as a ‘co-creator’, helping this world become a better one now, preparing the heavenly one to come.”
This dynamic and engaged view of his faith led Urmston to actively work for peace and justice from the beginning, wherever he was and whatever he did. It was his main focus while teaching, coaching baseball, working in campus ministry, instituting peace and justice programs and studies, hosting a community radio show, traveling around the world…
“My faith is directly linked to justice as I cannot love God and ignore my sisters and brothers or the one earth on which I live,” he states. “Peace to me is the presence of justice, based on a proper relationship between ourselves, God, animals, the earth.”
Born in North College Hill, Ohio, Urmston grew up on a farm in close contact with animals. His father, a kind, compassionate and hard working farmer, developed in him, early on, love and concern for the earth and all its inhabitants, also a strong interest in food and its production advocating for widespread ownership of farms and for a democratic economy. His mother, a devout Catholic, and the Precious Blood sisters at St. Margaret Mary Grade School where he attended, determined his faith and religion. After graduating from high school he joined the army, participating in World War II, serving on General Patton’s Third Army in Europe, then in the Philippines. In 1946 and at the age of 21, he entered the seminary to become a Jesuit priest; he has been a member of the Society of Jesus ever since.
His experience in the army provided Urmston a strong sense of community and allowed him at the same time to see the world, opening his eyes to many human issues such as violence, death and poverty. He describes it as a rich spiritual retreat, one with time for reflection and prayer. It led him, however, to rethink the use of destructive wars to solve world problems; it also indirectly cemented his fate as a religious servant.
“I thought becoming a priest was the best way to make this a better world,” he says. “I instinctively wanted to rid our planet of wars and poverty…”
His priesthood studies earned Urmston several degrees, each bringing a different dimension to the understanding of his religious involvement towards peace and justice. Studying philosophy exposed him to the concept of natural human rights as promulgated by God’s act of creation. It stressed the importance of human rights for a positive peace, every human enabled to become an independent and equal actor closer to God, to others, to the physical world. Theology equated peace with an improved relationship with God, to Urmston the most important goal of his life. Religious education, emphasizing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, made him realize the need to be a co-creator with God; also that peace studies and social analysis, integrating the wisdom of various disciplines, were an important way towards that objective and towards fighting an unjust and war-driven world.
His academic education also led him to teach English and theology, initially at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, then at St. Xavier High School and later Xavier University, both in Cincinnati. In all three places Urmston coupled his teaching with the institution of a Christian Life Community involving students and faculty, combining faith and justice.
At Xavier University, part of Urmston’s responsibility was campus ministry. While he felt it important to promote a student’s religious life, he soon realized there was an added need for more involvement in peace and justice issues. He became active in neighborhood community councils, particularly in Evanston and North Avondale, served on the social action committees of the archdiocese, participated in the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Wanting the students to be also directly involved, he proposed to the administration a new department, Programs in Peace and Justice, part of Student Life and Leadership. It was approved and Urmston became its director. The Program offers co-curricular activities and sponsors off-campus service learning and field experiences that facilitate exposure to the poor, to those who serve the hungry and the homeless. He also initiated “rural plunges” that take students to family farms to learn directly about their daily life and the problems they face.
“These field experiences provide orientation and trigger reflection,” says Urmston. “A first-hand witnessing of material poverty or injustice can shake someone’s state of apathy.”
Also at Xavier, Urmston initiated a committee that started a Peace Studies Minor, an academic curriculum focusing on peace using an interdisciplinary approach and a social analysis methodology. He himself taught a course Faith and Justice.
“My purpose was to introduce students to human rights, international law, active non-violence, economic democracy, the social teachings of the church.”
For twenty-eight years Urmston hosted a weekly radio show, Faith and Justice Forum, on WVXU. It served as an outreach service to the community, and featured local and national figures whose work had been instrumental for peace and justice. They included Cesar Chavez, Baldemar Velasquez , Monsignor George Higgins, Gar Alperovitz. For few years he also wrote a column on Faith and Justice, The Catholic Moment, for the Cincinnati Archdiocesan paper The Catholic Telegraph.
Now retired from his administrative and teaching role at Xavier University, Urmston, ninety two years old, remains as active as ever. He is Coordinator of the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of Citizens for Global Solutions, a national group that proposes non violent and democratic means to solve the world’s problems. It joins his long time interest and membership in the movement for a better world that promotes more equitable dealing with international issues such as the environment, world trade, terrorism, civil and ethnic strife, the war system. Urmston for instance has actively lobbied in favor of treaties to reduce nuclear weapons; and is very involved in raising awareness to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli problem and the injustices caused by the occupation. “We need to listen to each others,” he says, “and let go of fear and distrust. We need to respect the equality and dignity of all human beings. Might does not make right.”
Urmston summarized his entire philosophy, his Vision of Hope, in a 15 minute DVD that he placed on his website (www.xavier.edu/frben). It discusses what he perceives as the 5 pillars of a new world building: human rights, a global ethic, non violence, democratic world order, and economic democracy.
“I have a strong and deep passion for peace and justice,” he says. “My relationship with God has moved me outward toward my neighbor and the earth. I have a responsibility to contribute as a co-creator to improve this world. There is continuity between this life and the world to come and the better this life is the better the world to come will be.”
A Catholic text Urmston likes to quote “The expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age. … After we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured.” from Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), No. 39, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965), Second Vatican Council.