Cura Urbi: Caring For the City

By Mike Benigno

On April 27, 2015, just hours after rioters looted businesses and violently confronted police in parts of Baltimore, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley implored local citizens: “We must come together as one city to transform this moment of loss and pain into a safer and more just future for all of Baltimore's people.”

The riots were sparked in reaction to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who had died while in police custody and who had been eulogized earlier that day.

Nightly curfews and steady media attention affected the entire city, especially young people, as news of the unrest spread nationwide. The students, staff, and Jesuits at Baltimore’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and Loyola Blakefield remained safe, but in the following months, school administrators joined city leaders struggling to frame April’s events into a relevant learning experience for Baltimore’s youth.

Vinny Marchionni, SJ, a Jesuit scholastic teaching history at Cristo Rey, and Justin White, a theology teacher and director of community service, were pondering some type of school-wide academic response when inspiration struck them one afternoon in a school stairwell. The vision they had was clear and fully detailed: a two-week immersion experience set right within Baltimore that would point young people toward concrete ways to envision and create the safer, more just city that Governor O’Malley had spoken about.

It’s a Baltimore that still looks starkly different than today’s, but, this summer, that program will become a reality.

Between July 11-22, 20 rising seniors from Cristo Rey and Loyola Blakefield will partner with students from the nearby Notre Dame Prep to deepen their understanding of Baltimore in 2016 by taking part in Cura Urbi, named for a Latin phrase that describes care for the city. Teachers from all three institutions will offer morning coursework and multifaceted programs during week one that delve into issues such as political redlining, food deserts (neighborhoods without access to healthy food options) and intentional injustices that exist throughout the city. The social justice lessons will be paired with field trips, service opportunities and daily Ignatian Examen reflections, while week two will entail small-group, independent research led by teachers, followed by an advocacy day with the city council and a Friday retreat.

Vinny Marchionni, SJ, and teacher Justin White
“When we were first thinking about this program, we recognized right off the bat that our city is segregated and our educational system is also segregated in some sense,” White said. “We set up the goal to break down those barriers in the spirit of collaborating together, to really take a focused look at Baltimore city and to figure out why those differences are there.”

In his messages to Jesuits worldwide, Father Adolfo Nicolás, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, frequently calls Jesuits to depth––the depth of thought, imagination, moral passion and spiritual conviction that characterize Catholic and Jesuit education at its best. Teaming with educators and student leaders in Baltimore, Marchionni and White said that Cura Urbi will be a bold response to that calling. “As educators in a Catholic school and in a Jesuit school, we have to take that on even more because our Ignatian charism calls us not only to create men and women for others, but also to have them critically look at the world and work for a more just, more equitable society.”

Throughout the following school year, the students that took place in the first Cura Urbi will continue with prayer and reflections rooted in Ignatian spirituality that focus on caring for the margins, citing documents and letters from Pope Francis. Program leaders hope that this summer’s group will lead in efforts to educate their peers to become the next group of Cura Urbi participants. They also aim to work with elected officials and suggest that the program has the serious potential to bring out constructive, positive energy in young people––not just in the three schools involved, but also throughout Baltimore.

Cura Urbi promises to be academically, spiritually and emotionally rigorous,” Marchionni said. “It’s also very practical. It’s of the world, in the world, and we want our students to understand the injustices they are seeing and to form opinions in a way that will really help the people of Baltimore. Students will gain a comprehensive, interactive understanding of the issues that shape the city they see before them, and will develop a deeper knowledge of Baltimore and sense of care, love and concern for this city.”

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