“At Canisius, we're ideally situated ideally situated to help student understand how issues of justice are truly present in an urban setting like Buffalo, and how faith can form from these issues.” — Dr. Stephen Chanderbhan
Being the Light in Buffalo

By Mike Benigno

Buffalo is rising.

Like other cities experiencing economic development following decades of decline, Buffalo’s transformation has helped some areas in need begin to flourish: the city’s Canalside section hosts summer concerts and greenmarkets and its historical sites are attracting visitors. Still, as people in their 20s and 30s are beginning to arrive, attracted by housing options that can’t be matched in other cities, not everyone in Buffalo is thriving.

This summer, the Be the Light Youth Theology Institute at Canisius College welcomed a group of rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors from ten high schools for a six-day immersion experience. From July 5-10, participants, including students from Gonzaga High School and Canisius High School, explored moral and religious dimensions relevant to the kinds of challenges experienced during their time spent in Buffalo.

“At Canisius, we’re ideally situated to help students understand how issues of justice are truly present in an urban setting like Buffalo, and how faith and reason can form their responses to these issues,” notes Dr. Stephen Chanderbhan, director.

Funded through a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, the students spent mornings encountering people and places that are fighting or facing inequality amidst the city’s progress, touring the area near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus site, learning from entrepreneurs who are operating responsible businesses that provide mutual benefits for city residents, and speaking with representatives from Buffalo’s refugee resettlement community, including refugees themselves.


On the first day of this year’s Be the Light immersion experience, students, staff, and program leaders focused on “old and new,” taking a Buffalo history river cruise, discussing the Erie Canal, the old and new Church, and the changes impacting the Buffalo community.

Afternoon sessions provided academic instruction on topics in Catholic theology and philosophy and Jesuit spirituality by clergy and college professors, with opportunities for individual, communal, and sacramental reflection and prayer on these issues alongside Canisius undergraduate student leaders.

“When talking about summer plans, taking a week off to go to a religious retreat normally doesn’t come up often, but Be the Light Institute was a great way to visit a local college, learn about the challenges Buffalo is facing, and enjoy making lots of great friendships—all in a religious setting,” said Joe Wood, one of this year’s Be the Light participants.

“Young people today want to make a difference,” says Christopher L. Coble, PhD., vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment. “Programs like the one at Canisius connect them to faculty and religious leaders who will help them explore that longing by drawing more deeply on scripture and theology as they make decisions about their futures.”

Assistant director Sarah Signorino, said that the program will continue to evolve year-to-year to meet new needs and to further explore issues of inequality as Buffalo continues to change. “The combination of intensive instruction, immersive service, and inspiration makes for a transformative week, and we hope it sets the stage for a lifetime of leadership.”

For more information on Be the Light Youth Theology Institute, visit www.canisius.edu/btli.

Mike Benigno is the director of communications for the USA Northeast Province.

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