The green-carpeted stairway leads up to the second floor of Xavier’s Dorothy Day House, its narrowness hinting at the cramped quarters above. Benjamin J. Urmston, S.J., leads the way, weaving across the broad landing and into the far-left office where he gestures toward a well-worn easy chair swathed in a green blanket.
“You can sit there,” he says. “Cesar Chavez took a nap in that chair.”
The offhand tenor of the comment fits well with the nature of the room. It’s filled with a cacophony of remembrances dating back several decades—the 2002 Maurice McCracken Peace and Justice Award, a sign reading “Peace is Patriotic,” a diploma for his doctorate in peace studies, a United Nations flag, a wooden cross with a hollow center “so we can crawl into it.”
Books and papers are piled high, deep and tenuously on an array of steel office furniture, none of which matches. There’s no pretense to the room, making it the perfect backdrop for a man who’s spent his career earnestly and single-mindedly engaged in the pursuit of peace and justice. It’s also a logical epicenter of the University’s peace and justice programs, the little known, often overshadowed and sometimes controversial group that Urmston created in his room in the Jesuit residence in 1981.
This year holds landmarks for both: It’s been 60 years since Urmston joined the Society of Jesus, 35 years since his arrival at Xavier and 25 years since the birth of the peace and justice programs.
It also marks a changing of the guard—Urmston gives up the directorship of the programs this summer, although he’ll remain as director emeritus. You don’t retire from your life’s mission. Replacing a founder or an organizational figurehead is never easy, though, and when both are so tightly intertwined in the same person, the challenge is particularly daunting. In February, the University launched a national search for someone who might be able to succeed Urmston—if not carry the torch for peace and justice as passionately.
Almost 90 people applied, all lay persons, raising the possibility that the programs’ future might move in a different direction and will certainly lack the Jesuit credentials that helped deflect some of the angst its speakers and events have stirred over the years. Sitting among the memories in his office, Urmston freely admits that he hasn’t ducked the controversial or the provocative.
It was he who oversaw the birth of Shantytown, the annual campus event in which students build and live in cardboard shanties on the academic mall in an effort to bring attention to the plight of the homeless.
It was he who brought in speakers such as Chavez, the Mexican-American labor leader and founder of the United Farm Workers, and former U.S. presidential candidate John B. Anderson.
It was even he who collaborated to bring to campus “Eyes Wide Open,” the anti-war display that featured thousands of pairs of combat boots and hundreds of pairs of civilian shoes to commemorate U.S. soldiers and civilians killed in the Iraq war. But it’s also he who oversees student organizations such as Students for Life, Habitat for Humanity, St. Vincent de Paul and the Alternative Break Club in which students spend their spring and summer recesses serving the poor instead of partying.
The notion of peace and justice, Urmston says, is deeply engrained in Ignatian spirituality and applies to all people whether you like them or not. Some people just can’t see past their political views to the love of the programs’ intentions. And that’s why people get so mad at him.
Thin, dressed in a light blue sweater adorned with a “veterans for peace” button, a green shirt, black pants, socks and brown sandals, Urmston seems younger than his 80 years. He still maintains his web site and is clearly engaged; he speaks enthusiastically of his visions and hopes for the future; and then there’s his ready laughter.
“I think Fr. Ben’s greatest weapon for peace is his laughter,” says Claire Mugavin, assistant director for peace and justice programs. “I think it could disarm nuclear missiles if properly used.”
Not everyone is amused by his works, though, and occasionally verbal bombs drop on the University because of him or his efforts. Critics have labeled Urmston a “communist” and questioned his programs. Last year, the online publication Frontpagemag.com, attacked the University as a hotbed of “radical leftist politics,” called Urmston “a devout radical” and said his personal web site “is a veritable windmill of leftist propaganda.” Leaving no stone unturned, the article noted peace and justice programs’ “left-wing activist agenda.”
Predictably, others see him in a decidedly different light. “Martin Luther King and Ben—I put them in the same category,” says Xavier graduate and human rights activist Mary Schoen. “Those are the people who change things. I think Ben totally embodies what a Jesuit is. He’s spent his whole life living the Gospel.”
“He’s got this message as far as finding lasting peace,” adds Drew Peters, an assistant director for peace and justice programs. “That’s not an easy message for people. He’s really stuck to it. And I think you either love him or hate him. That’s the thing with peace and justice work—you’re talking about everything that affects everyone.”
Whatever the perspective, Urmston is no mere armchair advocate: His convictions have the strength of experience. An undergrad at Xavier during World War II, Urmston eventually found himself serving under Gen. George S. Patton in the U.S. Army’s 86th Infantry Division. He saw combat on the Rhine River, ended his European tour in Austria and was on his way to the Pacific front when the atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima. Along the way, he saw civilizations reduced to rubble and witnessed no shortage of human suffering.
War affects people in many ways; Urmston turned to meditation and prayer. In the Philippines, he decided to become a Jesuit. “I was not in the worst part of the war,” he says, “but what I had was not a picnic. And I came out of that thinking, ‘There has to be a better way for us to solve disputes. There has to be a way to peace.’ I wanted a better world. I felt being a priest would be one way to pursue that—at least a good way for me. And that has proven to be true.”
His efforts have left their mark. He began the University’s peace studies minor, which this year has more than 30 students, and his disciples are now spread throughout the world with such organizations as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C.
But last year, Urmston got a wake-up call. In June, his pulse dropped to 15 beats per minute and doctors installed a pacemaker. He’s doing well, but the quest for peace and justice is, in his words, “a special grace,” and that grace needs a rest. eaning back in his chair and pausing to think, Urmston reflects on his reality. “I’m an idealist,” he says, “and I’m proud of that.”
Urmston describes his approach to life as an attempt to arrive at a positive vision, based on considering “What kind of world would I really want?” and then examining what organizational structures are needed in order to do that.
“I think it’s good to have ideas. I think it’s good to have ideals. I think it’s good to have a vision of the future. The purpose is never to judge individuals but to analyze structures. There are times when we need to change our structures, and that’s not easy. That’s part of the reason why there’s opposition: We don’t like to change basic things.”
Determined to change things, Urmston returned from the war to Cincinnati and entered the Milford novitiate. By 1971, he was back at Xavier working in mission and ministry. He soon became active with community work in Avondale and Evanston, and in 1978 launched his radio show, “Faith and Justice Forum,” which ran for 28 years.
But Urmston saw a need for a greater focus on peace and justice—programs for student involvement. Then-University President Robert W. Mulligan, S.J., approved the idea and named Urmston director.
With no resources and no office, Urmston began working out of his room in Schott Hall. This legacy of student involvement began humbly, with a single club, Earthbread, an organization that studies food and hunger issues in the larger community.
Through the years, a small, dedicated core group of students has provided the lifeblood of the growing roster of programs. Mugavin estimates between 60-80 students currently form the programs’ core.
But between Alternative Break Club, which involves about 200 students, and various presentations and other activities, she says the programs touch about 800 students annually.
What’s next remains unknown. Where will the programs grow or shrink in Urmston’s absence? In 2005, he built a platform upon which he is leaving his legacy and his successor can build: the Vision of Hope speaker series. The series is not only based on the five pillars Urmston sees as key to a peaceful world—human rights, a global ethic, a culture of non-violence, establishing a democratic world order and economic democracy—but also underscores what is perhaps his greatest legacy: the importance of having a personal and institutional vision.
“The five pillars are not just mine,” he says. “I mean, after all, everybody agrees on human rights. I’d like to see Xavier develop those and get a common vision. And if someone wants to add a sixth pillar, fine. In other words, it doesn’t have to be my vision. But there should be a vision.”
As he sits in his office surrounded by his 25 years worth of efforts, he knows time is running short, and in a few months the reins of peace and justice he’s held for so long will be passed on. Even so, he can’t help but dream of what’s next.
“I don’t have in mind heaven,” he says. “But I have in mind the beginnings of a civilized earth.”