Tyler Wagner has always had a strong appreciation for the environment and the great outdoors. He grew up in Eugene, Ore., where hiking through mountains and along rivers was easily accessible. He once planted 200 trees on a friend's property for an eighth-grade science project as a way to reduce carbon.
"I really believe we need to care for God's creation in a much more loving, much better way as stewards of God's creation and it helped that I had this connection to it at such a young age," Wagner said.
Now he continues to use his gift of care and passion for the environment at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Portland.
Wagner, 23, was selected for the parish's inaugural St. Ignatius Fellowship in August. The fellow receives a salary based on archdiocesan standards with full health care coverage and five retreat days per year, according to a job description provided by the parish.
The fellowship is a full-time position comprising two parts.
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One part focuses on the fellow's area of interest, which could be sustainability, advocacy, catechesis or another professional interest, as long as it coincides with the Jesuit mission. He or she will then develop initiatives and projects to enhance it. Wagner's professional focus is ecological justice.
The other part is youth engagement and young adult leadership.
Jess Ingman, a pastoral associate at the parish, said one of the reasons the parish created this fellowship was to draw young professionals.
"Having it as a fellowship was this idea of prioritizing hiring young adults and investing in them and seeing what they are interested in doing," Ingman said.
The past couple of years, members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps have lived near the parish, many of them in their 20s, with all sorts of skills and talents. Wagner was one of them.
"A lot of times we'd be thinking, 'Gosh we'd love to have them connect with the church and share those gifts with the greater church,' " Ingman said.
Wagner, who said he enjoys building relationships and friendships at a workplace where having faith is a major driving point, has been educating parishioners on environmental issues and encouraging conversations and discussions on ecological justice.
One of the events that he helped initiate was an eco-challenge, inviting parishioners to participate in personal achievable actions, such as biking to work or going vegetarian for two weeks.
He has also worked with the elementary school attached to the parish, introducing composting in the cafeteria and ways to save electricity.
Ingman said the church is always looking for ways enhance its relationship with the school and Wagner has been making positive connections with it.
"I think young people seeing a young adult working for the church and doing something fun and creative around ecological justice is something new for a young person to see," Ingman said.
Wagner has also had the opportunity to read to kindergarten classes and share with students his love for nature, the same way he discovered it — through reading books about animals while he was growing up.
"Knowing that [reading] had a big influence on me and the school projects that I did, I want to interact with students and expose them to some of the love of nature too," he said.
Ingman and Wagner also work together to prepare high school students for the sacrament of confirmation. They have about 25 students signed up, the first confirmation the parish has seen in three years, Wagner said.
Though Wagner considers himself a bit of an introvert, he loves getting to know people and listening to their ideas.
"I have a lot of passion around eco-justice and I think the passion and enthusiasm is contagious and people are starting to pick up on that," Wagner said.
"One of the key things that stood out when he was interviewing for the fellowship was that he had come to realize the value of community engagement," Ingman said. "If we are going to address climate change and make these big advancements that are needed, it's only going to happen through engaging people."
One of the hard parts is having patience, Wagner said, adding that he sometimes wishes things could move faster and that all 900 registered families at the parish were immediately on board.
"While we did a lot of great progress, I need to be patient and build relationships and meet people where they are at," he said. "I also need to be patient and recognize that everyone is coming from a different starting point, but, ultimately, working as a greater community, we will be able to accomplish a lot more."
[Raymond Garcia is a multimedia journalist from Chicago. He obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism and telecommunications at Ball State University.]
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