Healing the Earth

How Regis is answering the Vatican’s call to care for our common home

Avila Ruiz knelt into a fresh patch of dirt with a shovel in one hand and a small plant in another. Surrounded by dozens of fellow Regis freshmen, she began transferring plants native to Colorado into the ground. The patch of Regis University land where she was working was tucked behind modular campus buildings and beyond the backyards of homes in the surrounding neighborhood. Most Regis students could go their entire college careers without knowing the patch of land existed on their campus.

Avila Ruiz plants in the Regis garden
Student Avila Ruiz plants in the Regis garden. Some students won items created with RAWTools, a non-profit organization that turns guns into gardening tools.

But on the Office of First Year Experience’s Climate Action Day, this September, Ruiz was among a group of first-year students changing that, bringing growth and renewal to a new community garden previously vacant for years.

“It’s a very simple action, but it has a big impact. If enough actions are taken, it becomes a big thing,” Ruiz, a freshman, said as she worked. “It's kind of healing to work with the ground and to put life in and to watch it grow.”

Regis is counting on small actions to make a big impact. The small community garden is just one part of Regis efforts to implement the Laudato Si’ Action Plan, based on a document written by Pope Francis that calls upon people to care for the Earth — especially as it faces the ever-present threat of the climate crisis.

The University’s Office of First-Year Experience, which provides support and connection for new students, is bringing students into the conversation early. This year, in the lead-up to the day of planting, the office welcomed RAW Tools, a nonprofit that melts rifles down into plowshares, to campus to discuss the connection between the climate and justice.

In the fall, RAW founder and Executive Director Mike Martin visited campus with his blacksmithing tools to demonstrate the power of transforming weapons intended for destruction into tools for cultivating life.

And the work for climate justice goes far beyond First-Year Experience, to encompass the entire University. In 2021, Regis formed a committee focused on Laudato Si’ to bring together University departments that can contribute to campus sustainability, from faculty members who are experts in ecology to student representatives to University Ministry leaders.

plants in nursery pots sit on the soil waiting to be planted during Climate Action Day
Plants await their turn on Climate Action Day. The entire Regis freshman class gathered for a talk from staff from Broomfield, Colo.’s Butterfly Pavilion before they placed native plants.

The Pope’s call for climate justice

When a colleague approached Kari Kloos to co-teach a class with her about eco-theology in 2011, she knew that science would play a large role in students’ coursework. What she didn’t expect was an equal emphasis on subjects like political science and economics.

Kloos, assistant vice president for Mission and a religious studies professor, said her commitment to teaching sustainability grew from there as she discovered the ways the environment impacts different facets of life.

“How do we look at the science of climate change and the needs of sustainability and consider it from multiple angles?” Kloos said the course asked.

Eventually, Kloos began teaching the course on her own and often would invite professors from across multiple disciplines to speak to her class about their roles in caring for the environment.

It’s safe to say that her experience with sustainability helped prepare her to lead the University’s commitment to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.

“I really loved what I learned from that experience,” Kloos said. “So, when I had the opportunity to support this work of our University’s Laudato Si’ committee, I wanted to make sure that it got in motion and that we’re able to make a difference for the University.”

In 2015, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, an encyclical that encourages “swift and unified global action” to address environmental degradation and global warming. An encyclical is a type of letter from the Pope that contains teachings he finds important for Catholics to hear. Although previous popes have instructed people to care for the environment, Laudato Si’ is the first encyclical dedicated to the environment.

Kloos said the document draws on Catholic teachings, but also calls on people to engage in dialogue with scientists and policymakers. Laudato Si’ contains seven principles: Response to the Cry of the Earth; Response to the Cry of the Poor; Ecological Economics; Adoption of Sustainable Lifestyles; Ecological Education; Ecological Spirituality; and Community Resilience and Empowerment.

“It looks deeply at how the problem with environment is, fundamentally, in the Pope’s view, a spiritual problem, which is our failure to see how things like environmental degradation and poverty are related to each other, and what our role is in caring for those two things,” Kloos said.

In October, Pope Francis released a short second part of the encyclical, titled Laudate Deum, Latin for “Praise God.” “‘Praise God’ is the title of this letter,” Pope Francis wrote, “for when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies.”

The letter reiterates the Pope’s call to care for the environment and adds a new sense of urgency as the Pope said Earth is approaching a “point of no return.”

“Even if we do not reach this point of no return, it is certain that the consequences would be disastrous and precipitous measures would have to be taken, at enormous cost and with grave and intolerable economic and social effects,” Pope Francis wrote.

For institutions like Regis, the mandate is clear. In 2021, former Regis President Rev. John Fitzgibbons, S.J., signed a commitment on behalf of the University to take part in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, putting Kloos at the helm. She’s had plenty of help in the years since.

Nidawin Preston holds aloft burning herbs as participants look on in the Regis garden during Climate Action Day
Nidawin Preston, administrative coordinator in the Regis College Honors Program, performs a ceremony to prepare the land for planting.

Urgent need for action

Lindiwei Farrow-Harris, who was named interim director of sustainability at Regis in September, has had an insider’s perspective on the impact of sustainability efforts throughout her career. As a former public health inspector in New York City and now assistant director of Regis’ Physical Plant and Environmental Health and Safety Officer, she knows how systems run.

“Something that always stood out to me was inefficiency … A lot of places don't have a well-connected communication within the departments of the organization. And that leads to a lot of waste, even if it's just somebody's energy being wasted,” Farrow-Harris said. “[The Laudato Si’ Committee] made it a lot easier to just pinpoint the different parts of what make an organization sustainable ... and then how that affects other organizations, and then eventually, the rest of the world.”

The Laudato Si’ Committee, she said, brings together different parts of the University that can make an impact.

How can the University become more sustainable? That’s what the committee is working on.

First, the committee is emphasizing spreading awareness about sustainability — starting with the definition. “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

For Farrow-Harris, Laudato Si’ perfectly captures this goal because the plan’s seven points acknowledge the ways sustainability and the environment impact all aspects of society.

So far, concrete actions toward sustainability at Regis have included creating the First Year Experience garden, which is intended to become a pollinator garden that will attract insects such as bees and butterflies. The garden represents something larger, too.

“The pollinator garden was a form of … openly saying, this is the culture that we're trying for form,” Farrow-Harris said. “Because a garden by itself, although great and wonderful, does not solve an issue. It's a small drop in the bucket, but it does make students think about it. It makes them realize, ‘OK, at Regis, this is something that we think about. This is something that's important to us as a community.’”

And even when sustainability goals are achieved, the work will continue.

“There isn't an ultimate goal, because at the end of the day, you don't get to a point where you're like, ‘Okay, we've achieved it. We’re done.’ That doesn’t happen,” Farrow-Harris said. “But the ultimate and ongoing goal [is] what you would call continuous improvement. Because there's never not going to be another idea. There's never not going to be something you can do better or organize better.”

As Regis commits to sustainability, it’s the small acts that, together, will make an impact.

Students and faculty members dig into a patch of land and prepare to place plants native to Colorado
Students and faculty members dig into a patch of land and prepare to place plants native to Colorado. Native plants are more resilient in their natural climate and require less water.

Students feel the impact of ecological action

On Climate Action Day, freshman Jolie LeJeune felt connected to her family.

“I like planting things because it makes me feel kind of connected to my home,” she said. “We used to plant, and we had a big garden and it was really nice. So, I just have that childlike wonder.”

LeJeune said she chose Regis because she was inspired by her late grandfather’s commitment to the faith and to serving others.

“I like that the service right here is more inclusive, and I didn't know that that would be something I liked, because I really just came here because I liked the idea of educating the whole person,” she said.

Martin Doppelt, academic program coordinator for First Year Experience, said the garden is a result of many discussions with Farrow-Harris and Jason Taylor, the director of First Year Experience. Their work on the garden ties into their work with introducing first-year students to the Regis mission.

When RAW Tools, the nonprofit that turns rifles into garden tools, visited campus, students learned the connection between sustainability and violence. Sustainability, as Regis leaders emphasize, involves the collision of multiple worlds to serve our only world — Earth. For students, the lessons will last a lifetime.

“It's strange to think off-hand, is gun violence related to climate change and sustainability? And if we look at it superficially, perhaps not,” Doppelt said. “Though, if we begin to delve more deeply, we can quickly begin to make connections … part of the reason why globally, weapons production is so widespread is because of violent competition for resources, exploitation of populations, for their labor or for their resources. Even within this country, if we look at the fundamental drivers of gun violence, they are across the board, socio-economic… it's people who find themselves in social situations where they typically don't have secure housing. They don't have secure access to food or high-quality food. They don't live in environments where they feel safe and supported.”

For students, the connections make an impact.

“I think it's really cool, all these different things that we get to learn about, and I know it's not what I expected,” LeJeune said. “This isn't the reason I came here. It is the reason I will stay here."