Caring for our Common Home—and Each Other
Five stories of faculty, students and alumni who live the Jesuit ideals embodied by Pope Francis every day
A Xavier education involves everyone on campus—faculty, staff, administrators and students. As students graduate and go out into the world, they’re inspired by the Jesuit experience they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Xavier’s success is embedded in the lives these graduates lead and, in the words of Jesuit Superior General Peter Hans Kolvenbach, “who they become.” We talked to a number of different people about their personal participation in—and contribution to—the Jesuit educational experience at Xavier. Here are their stories.
DOWN ON THE FARM—AND IN THE CLASSROOM
Professor, African History; Sustainability; Land, Farming and Community
Kathleen Smythe enters the barn where the cow is waiting. It’s 6:00 p.m., which means it’s milking time. Being a Monday, this is her time slot. The Xavier professor pulls up a stool, pats the bovine on her side and reaches underneath. The milk streams into a pail, warm and frothy. She gets a gallon or two each time, enough for her family’s weekly needs. It doesn’t take long for the pail to fill, and she’s soon on her way home, the milk pail tucked safely in the back of her car.
Later that week, Smythe returns to the farm to help take care of the farm animals. It’s part of her membership in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. As the daylight fades, she mucks stalls, fills water buckets and feeds chickens, horses, sheep, cattle and pigs. In return, she gets eggs and meat. At home, Smythe and her family raise chickens, grow herbs and vegetables, and limit their energy use—biking and walking when possible, drying clothes on a clothesline, using a push mower.
The weekly routine may seem like a lot of time away from typical family obligations for someone who works full time. She could have just popped by the grocery on her way home. But for Smythe and a growing number of people with a yearning toward a more earth-centered, less manufactured lifestyle, the weekly visits to the farm are deeply rewarding—and they provide a great example about the value of farming to the students in her history and sustainability classes.
“I love it because the farm is a beautiful space,” she says. “It’s quiet and pastoral with rolling grasslands and sheep grazing and chickens running around. Those of us in the CSA are grateful to play a small role as co-operators, and we’re trusted to take care of things. I call milking my therapy session. To muck out a stall after a day of teaching, I couldn’t be happier.”
Hers is an intentional lifestyle shift that echoes Pope Francis’ call for a renewed focus on changing humans’ impact on the environment and which she increasingly shares with her students. This year, for example, she’s teaching Bicycling Our Bioregion, which combines her love of biking and the outdoors as a way to better understand human history, sustainability and “the idea of the greater good as valued by the Jesuit tradition.” Class time is spent on bikes experiencing the impact of human development on the Ohio River Valley. “We’re exploring and thinking differently how we teach and learn.”
Smythe helps make the connection for students between sustainability and Jesuit principles and says the pope has elevated the conversation.
“The pope refocuses us back on what it means to be fully human,” she says. “The world emphasizes economics and the market above all and has marginalized us as human beings.”
FRANCE GRIGGS SLOAT
A FORMULA FOR SCIENCE AND ETHICS
Associate Professor, Chemistry
He arrives in leather sandals, dark gray shorts and a light gray shirt. The tousled hair and boyish grin add to the casual atmosphere in Rick Mullins’ summer organic chemistry class. But Mullins is hardly casual about his science. The associate professor is committed not only to teaching students the fundamental science of chemistry, but the ethical applications as well.
On this summer morning in Logan Hall, Mullins and about 20 students review formulas for creating a chemical reaction using benzoate anhydride, methanol and sulphuric acid. The students at the blackboard work their problems together, their white chalk pieces clicking on the smooth black surface. At one point, a student points out that the formula produces a byproduct—benzoate—that seems to have no purpose.
Mullins sees a teaching moment. “If you are a synthetic chemist who doesn’t care about the environment, then it wouldn’t matter that we’re wasting atoms,” Mullins says. “But this brings up the idea of how much of a molecule is carried through to our final product and how much is wasted.”
The lesson, Mullins explains later, is that ethical or “green” chemists do care. “This is an example of how we used this molecule. Now what do we do with the other half? In green chemistry, that’s not good. We’re throwing half a kilogram away as waste.”
The answer: redo the formula so it produces no waste molecules. “Green chemistry is catching on because it saves money, generates less waste and is not using toxic compounds, so at the end of the day, greener chemistry will save money,” he says.
This is a typical approach for Mullins—intentionally folding ethical issues into his teaching. In his first year at Xavier in 2004, he jumped right into the Ignatian Mentoring program, learning how to teach other faculty members how to incorporate Jesuit and Ignatian values into their teaching. He’s since become a leading member and advocate of the program.
“Ignatian pedagogy is showing how your subject impacts the world,” he says. “I learned what it means to be Jesuit.”
He notes with pride that Pope Francis is also a chemist, carrying on the tradition of Jesuits as moral scientists of the world. “The pope has a (background) in chemistry, and when he was elected pope, the chemistry department here was very excited.”
It was public reinforcement of what he practices daily. As a green chemist, Mullins addresses ethical issues in all his classes. His Medicinal Chemistry students research a topic involving the pharmaceutical industry, such as: Do drug companies make too much money? “My philosophy is if I’m teaching Ignatian, then whenever I can talk about an issue, I should.” FRANCE GRIGGS SLOAT
Sometimes, a really good book isn’t just entertaining or educational. It’s transformative. That was the case for Xavier senior Jacob Khoury when he read The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman. It inspired Khoury to pursue an academic research project that led him into the jungles, mountains and cities of Peru.
In his book, Lieberman explains how human health is shaped not just by the biology of disease, but by history, culture and environment. Human health changed drastically during our cultural evolution. Hunters and gatherers, for example, were physically robust but prone to infectious diseases.
Agricultural societies bred shorter, sicklier individuals, thanks to a less diverse diet. Modern-day humans, meanwhile, are well-fed but suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
Khoury, who is applying to medical school, was intrigued. He’d won a Brueggeman Fellowship, which allows students to combine a year-long independent study with an international travel experience, and true to the Jesuit tradition of exploring the world, he used the opportunity to explore evolutionary medicine in Peru.
Why Peru? “A terrible reason,” he admits. “I wanted to see Machu Picchu.” Whatever the reason, Khoury landed in Lima this summer to spend seven weeks studying health trends in Peru’s three main regions. He visited hunter-gatherer societies in the Amazon, spent time in farming communities in the Andes, and worked at a hospital in busy Lima, interviewing nurses, doctors and dentists.
The results were surprisingly supportive of Lieberman’s model. When Khoury traveled to remote villages in the Amazon, he met tall Peruvians with straight, strong teeth, whose most frequent afflictions were infectious diseases. In the Andes, Khoury found farmers who were shorter and whose teeth were rotten from their starchy diet. In Lima, better health care limited infectious diseases, but people suffered from diabetes, obesity and heart conditions.
“It kind of lined up better than I thought,” Khoury says. “But I don’t want to make it sound like a perfect alignment. All across the country, AIDS is a problem.”
Khoury found that globalization also homogenizes disease. In the Amazon, Khoury was three days from the nearest city in a village that doesn’t appear on Google Maps, when he saw a boatload of Coca Cola arrive. He also saw how the environment affects health. In Lima, a city of 10 million, air pollution has led to a rise in lung diseases such as drug-resistant TB, pneumonia and bronchitis.
Khoury’s summer of learning reinforced his interest in medicine while also illustrating the best of a Jesuit education, which is intended to extend beyond the classroom. In Peru, Khoury ate guinea pig, rode in tippy boats called chalupas, and solved problems he never would have faced elsewhere. He even got to see Machu Picchu. JACOB BAYNHAM
SERVING THE UNDERSERVED
Class of 2005, Psychology; Legal Advocate, Tacoma, Wash.
Sometimes a life of service begins almost by accident. That’s what happened to Bill Schwarz in 2002 at a presentation by fellow Xavier students who had returned from Nicaragua. His freshman Spanish class required him to attend extracurricular cultural events, and this fit the bill.
“It would be a fun way to hear what they’d done and get some credit,” he says.
But Schwarz didn’t know how deeply the students’ photos of disabled children in an orphanage outside Managua would move him. In fact, they overwhelmed him. He’d never seen such suffering. There weren’t enough wheelchairs at the orphanage, so children with cerebral palsy and atrophied limbs lay on beanbags. Some had been abandoned by their parents. The photos kindled something in Schwarz.
“They kind of broke my heart,” he says. “I left the presentation that day feeling like I knew that was exactly what I was going to do my sophomore year.”
Less than a year later, that’s exactly what he did. He worked at the same orphanage as part of the Academic Service Learning program. The experience was so transformative that once he came back, Schwarz became involved in the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice where he nurtured his new-found passion for service.
“I found a sense of community and like-minded people,” he says. “That was as much a part of my college experience as the classroom.”
Schwarz also worked at a community housing nonprofit in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and with Catholic Social Services as a Xavier Summer Service intern. He helped refugees from Sudan navigate the bus system, find furniture and register for English language classes. On World Refugee Day, he organized a soccer match between refugees and Xavier students.
Working with refugees was the gateway to Schwarz’s current role as a legal advocate for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Tacoma. The 2005 psychology graduate spends time in the Northwest Detention Center, where up to 1,500 immigrants are held during deportation proceedings. He educates detainees on their legal rights and provides direct services to help them obtain their benefits or proper release.
“Immigration is a civil proceeding,” Schwarz explains. “Most immigrants have to navigate a complicated and challenging system without a lawyer. We try to help them.”
The people Schwarz meets are often highly stressed and frightened. “For a lot of our clients, we’re the only people who come to see them. It’s important to be present for them,” he says.
Compassion drives much of Schwarz’s work. It’s a value that was fostered by his Jesuit education and has been reinforced by Pope Francis. “Helping people seek their rights and not be abused by a system is absolutely a Jesuit ideal,” he says. “Francis is challenging us to question the righteousness of our systems.” JACOB BAYNHAM
The threat of climate change leaves some people feeling hopeless. Not Dan Misleh—which is especially remarkable because the 1982 Xavier graduate spends his work life thinking about it.
Misleh is executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a non-profit organization that brings a Catholic perspective to the campaign for environmental stewardship. The Covenant works with bishops and dioceses to raise awareness about climate change, hosting events, coordinating public relations and even making churches more energy efficient.
While the threat is real and serious, Misleh says, his Catholic faith requires he face the issue with hope and determination. “I’m a Catholic, so by nature that means we have to be optimistic. Jesus has already saved the world; now it’s up to us to live out his teachings and be authentically Catholic. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Living out those teachings in relation to the environment can range from organizing parish study groups on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, to eating less meat, carpooling and taking shorter showers. The Covenant has been trying to build on interest in the encyclical by holding events with bishops around the country and injecting a Catholic voice into media coverage.
Though Misleh’s been working on the issue full time since 2006, he’s seen a spike in interest recently because of the new pope. Even so, he says Catholic interest in the environment predates Francis, with the previous two popes also taking a keen interest in creation care.
“I don’t think (the current emphasis) differs in significant ways except in tone. Francis is fairly blunt speaking—he calls it like it is. He has an authenticity to him that elevates his moral authority to a level that is unmatched.”
After graduating from Xavier, Misleh worked in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, lived in Alaska and earned a master’s in theology from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Cal. He began working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a policy adviser and began studying climate change, eventually channeling that interest into his current role.
While climate change has long been a contentious political issue, Misleh sees a recent shift that coincides with the Church taking a more active role. “There’s less resistance to the science of climate change, and I think the facts are speaking louder than the science,” he says. “There’s still push-back on the economics of it. But young people and victims of climate-related problems get the issues intuitively.”
JULIE IRWIN ZIMMERMAN