On and Off the Fire Lines: Ben Chu is an Eco-Spirituality Specialist 

Ben Chu on a hike with a baby on his back.
Ben Chu ('21 M.A. ORGL)

February 05, 2024
Kate Vanskike (’22 M.A.) 

“Caring for our Common Home” is one of the four Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Jesuits, based on Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si.” And while all Jesuit universities share a calling to address the realities of climate change and justice, Gonzaga may well be the first to create a full-time position dedicated to this work.

Ben Chu (’21 M.A. ORGL) is a specialist for ecological spirituality in University Ministry, a role designed in 2022 to animate Laudato Si and to meet students’ needs and desires to feed their souls in experiences with nature.

As such, Ben leads immersive and relational programs – some new, some refreshed versions of older offerings – that take place outdoors.

The former Francis Youth Institute directed by Joe Mudd of religious studies is now Gonzaga Explore, a summer immersion for high school students to learn about ecology, theology and leadership. The Wilderness Retreat is an experience of contemplative Christianity where students go camping for three days and two nights and engage in contemplative practices rooted in the Christian tradition, learning from saints and mystics. Creation walks and hikes utilizing the Jesuit model of the Examen with a focus on ecology are, as Ben says, “opportunities to listen to the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor, which are often interconnected.”

“The past year and a half has been the most joyful time of my life,” says Chu. “It’s such meaningful work.” 

That sentiment comes from someone who previously worked in wildland fire response, and who, once he became a parent, started wondering: What kind of world are we leaving for our kids? Chu felt moved to be part of work with a more proactive approach to care of our common home.

“I’m inspired by students and their passion for climate justice,” he says. “It’s very hope-giving for me.”

Chu is a practicing Catholic. He was inspired by Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton and Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, know as the grandfather of gratitude. After having discerned with his spiritual director, a Dominican priest, Ben once lived with a Zen Buddhist roshi (teacher) and spent a month practicing Zazen (sitting meditation), which he continues to do amid a busy lifestyle of work and raising three kids. As a philosophy major and psychology minor at the University of Oregon, he worked in a neuroscience lab where the Dalai Lama was a subject of scientific study of the impacts of meditation.

Those experiences have played an integral role in facilitating retreats for students and navigating challenges.

Last fall, during the Gonzaga Out of Bounds (GOOB) program, wildfire smoke prevented students from having a typical outdoor excursion. “We were in Schoenberg with 100 students, unsure of what to do, and cortisol was high,” Chu recalls. “We found other things to do – like indoor rock climbing – but also took that opportunity to do yoga and meditation. It really helped to heal the anxiety and disappointment of these first-year students.”

This year, he hopes to pilot a new retreat for students in Gonzaga Environmental Organization (GEO) and Fossil-Free Gonzaga, who are experiencing varying degrees of eco-anxiety and eco-grief. He says the goals are to help them regenerate, reconnect and renew their energies for the work of sustainable change. “We’ll help one another move into positions of hope, possibility and courage,” he says.

“Back in the day, my dream job was to take people into the woods and grow closer to God. Ten years later, here I am,” Chu says, gratefully. 

“So many times, I’m praying and thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is my job.’” - Ben Chu

It’s his job 11 months a year anyway. Chu will be back on the ground in fire season, this time as a fire-line EMT.

He finds parallels of meaning in that work alongside eco-spirituality – supporting those working in the trenches, responding to climate disasters.

It definitely gives new meaning to Care for our Common Home.

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