In our blog series, “We Stand on the Shoulders of those Who Come Before Us,” IJPC honors area activists for their perseverance in the struggle to end injustice. Thank you, Father Ben Urmston, S.J., PhD, for graciously accepting our invitation for an interview and allowing us to share your story. Let us turn to him for inspiration and advice on how to respond to violence and inequality with peace.
Fr. Ben grew up on his father’s farm in Cincinnati’s North College Hill neighborhood and was a caddy, later the Caddy Master, for a local golf course. During World War II in 1943, he began his undergraduate education at Xavier University. He enrolled in the Army Specialized Training Program and at the end of the semester went to Ft. Benning Georgia, eventually joining Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe. After the war in Europe, Urmston went to the Philippine Islands, where he engaged in deep reflection and prayer about his experience in combat. Having decided to become a person of peace, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1946 and officially became a Jesuit. His early days as a Jesuit were mostly spiritual and studious, but Fr.Ben soon shifted his work toward peace and justice. He worked with Christian Life Community while educating at the University of Detroit High School and St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati until his return to Xavier University in 1971. In Xavier’s campus ministry, Fr. Ben challenged students, alumni, and faculty to work for a better world. He started the University’s shift toward sustainability by bringing recycling to campus and hosting community meals called “veg outs” (Fr. Ben eats vegan).
On October 24th, Xavier announced that it will honor Fr. Ben’s dedication to environmentalism by awarding him as a Sustainability Hero. He’s also known around campus for organizing urban and rural plunges, during which students and alumni immersed themselves in the lives of those experiencing and working for justice around the Cincinnati area. Perhaps most importantly, Fr. Ben founded Xavier’s Dorothy Day House (now the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice), which oversaw the university’s peace and justice programs. Fr. Ben started the first Peace and Justice Studies Committee which initiated the Peace Studies Minor.
Not only did WWII inspire Fr. Ben to work for peace, but people he has met throughout his life have kept him hopeful. Fr. John English, S.J,. from Canada enriched his spiritual perspective with the light and dark story method. Fr. Peter Henriot, S.J., from the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C. helped him create a more peace and justice focused student body. Dr. Gar Alperovitz serves as Urmston’s source of inspiration for trying to create an inclusive economy; he promotes swapping a war culture for a peace culture. ( He will speak in October at “Peace 2016,” a conference in Washington D.C.). Fr. Ben’s experiences in Cuba; El Salvador; Nicaragua; Japan; China; Mondragon, Spain; Palestine; and the former USSR opened his eyes to the United States’ important role in world affairs. “We are fighting a war in Afghanistan. We have military bases in about 130 countries, not all of which are welcomed. People say that we run the world. If so, I think we can improve our performance,” Fr. Ben says. For 28 years, he hosted “Faith and Justice Forum” a weekly radio show on WVXU. IJPC’s Sr. Louise Akers and Sr. Alice Gerdeman shared hosting of guest groups. He has always worked with IJPC, where he could discuss his vision for peace with like-minded people. Today, at nearly 91 years old, Fr. Ben comes to our Peace Committee meetings, participates in monthly peace lobby days, and organizes peace events around the city.
What does Fr. Ben’s vision for peace include? His definition more closely aligns with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, which explains the idea of “one human family.” Fr. Ben interprets this as acknowledging diversity with good will and respect. Peace comes from creating justice throughout the global community whether it be agricultural justice or racial justice. For a more thorough explanation of Fr. Ben’s vision, please visit his website http://www.xavier.edu/frben/. There you will find the five pillars of “Vision of Hope”: a global ethic, nonviolence, human rights, economic democracy, and a democratic world federation. Fr. Ben has received the most criticism and push back on his plan for a democratic world order. He details the difficulty in allowing people to look through an alternative lens. The Catholic Church’s teachings parallel the principles of a global federation, yet many Catholics and peace activists hesitate to grapple with the idea. The mass media thrives on violence. Fr. Ben dreams of a day when it will center on peace and justice. The United States breeds its citizens to believe that America is the greatest country in the world. Fr. Ben finds that very few people are willing to question that opinion. “Shouldn’t we join the world community as an equal?” He encourages anyone working for peace to create your own vision of hope and keep following it despite the apathy and indifference toward a change for peace.
After being a Jesuit for the past 70 years, Fr. Ben admits that he feels a little burned-out. Yet, his sense of humor helps him carry on with justice work. “My greatest weapon is my laugh,” he shares. In Fr. Ben’s opinion, anyone who wants to bring peace should celebrate the little victories and never walk alone. This concept stems from his favorite Jesuit value: the communal discernment of spirits (which includes spiritual freedom and spiritual consolation) Fr. Ben relies on Ignation spirituality, working in communities with peace as their goal, to sustain his own spirit. He closed our time together with this insight, “Courage over fear; love over hate; emphasizing the positive; and friendship are the keys to reach peace.”