Monday, November 05, 2001

Priest, ex-soldier guides activists

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After leaving Xavier University's officer training program to volunteer for the Army at age 17, Pfc. Ben Urmston trudged across World War II Europe as a combat infantryman. That “darkly graced” period continues to shape his life, he said in a recent interview.

        After the war, the North College Hill veteran joined the Jesuits in 1946 before becoming a priest in 1959.

        “If I followed my own inclinations, I'd spend my time in study and prayer,” the 76-year-old said.

        Instead, poverty, hunger and violence tightened their grip on his passions. In late 1981, Father Urmston created Peace and Justice Programs at XU, where he was a campus minister.

        Twenty years later, those passions continue to burn in an array of programs, including:

        • The Dorothy Day House, established on campus in 1983 as a base for groups seeking social change.

        • The academic Peace Studies minor.

        • The Way of the Cross/Way of Justice prayer pilgrimage on Good Friday.

        • The annual Shantytown demonstration for the homeless.

        As XU Class of '98 graduate Susan Knight recalled, the programs “opened up a lot of opportunities for me and for people who are concerned with social justice.”

Providing support
               Miss Knight said Peace and Justice Programs provided vital support on the “very conservative” campus while activists worked for change. Even now, she seeks Father Urmston's counsel when a major public issue erupts.

        Grads maintain Dorothy Day House ties, said Miss Knight, adding that she knows a dozen who live and work in Over-the-Rhine.

        Today, activists continue to find a home in Peace and Justice Programs/Dorothy Day House:

        • Habitat for Humanity builds affordable housing with volunteer labor.

        • EarthBread sponsors Rural Plunge, Food Week and community dinners.

        • EarthCare puts on Earth Week and promotes environmental justice.

        • Amnesty International pursues human rights work.

        • Students for Life acts as an advocate for the unborn, the poor, handicapped, elderly and condemned.

        • Voices of Solidarity works in Latin America.

        • Pax Christi teaches conflict management.

        • St. Vincent de Paul sponsors tutoring, food collections and volunteers at soup kitchens.

"Darkly graced'
               Father Urmston said the 20 years haven't always been smooth, again using the term “darkly graced” by God.

        “I wanted to control everything. I have a passion for my agenda. It's hard for me to understand why everyone didn't see things the way I saw them.”

        Miss Knight, 24, an administrative coordinator for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, said that Father Urmston “stepping back was an important part of the Dorothy Day House developing and growing. He let the students shape Dorothy Day House.”

        Students listen, Father Urmston said with a weary smile, knowing “we don't tell them what to do, although I'd like to.”

        Relatively few students participate in Peace and Justice Programs, Father Urmston said, “but I would be rash enough to say everybody is touched on campus. What student can avoid Shantytown on the mall?”

        Terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and anthrax bioterrorism drew many students to Dorothy Day House. Among the most troubled were undergraduates who felt marginalized when classmates said it was unpatriotic to question or criticize U.S. actions.

        Humbug, Father Urmston told them.

        “If you're not critical of things that we're doing wrong, you're not patriotic.”


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